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Virus outbreak in Riverside, Orange counties worries horse owners

Animals had to be euthanized in Indio and San Juan Capistrano because of the equine herpes virus-1. Both sites have been placed under quarantine by state veterinarians.

January 27, 2012|By Nicole Santa Cruz and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times

An outbreak of a deadly virus has horse trainers and owners in Riverside and Orange counties fearful for the health of their animals.

On Tuesday, a horse at the Empire Polo Club in Indio was euthanized because of complications from equine herpes virus-1. At Rancho Sierra Vista in San Juan Capistrano, 16 cases of the disease have been identified since Jan. 11 and one horse had to be euthanized.

Both sites have been placed under quarantine by state veterinarians. No horses are allowed to leave or enter, and caretakers must take sanitary precautions.

EHV-1 causes cold-like symptoms and a high fever, then progresses to inflammation of blood vessels in the spinal cord and brain, resulting in muscle weakness and, in severe cases, paralysis of the hind limbs. The prognosis is usually good for horses that can remain standing but very poor for those that can't. Some horses can carry the virus without getting sick, while others can die in as little as 24 hours.

The disease, which is spread by close contact and contaminated equipment, sent equestrians into a flurry last May, when it spread from an event in Utah to nine other states, including California.

Managers at Rancho Sierra Vista declined to comment about the outbreak, but David Provence, a manager at Sycamore Trails Stables next door, said his facility canceled a show last weekend because of the outbreak.

"Nobody would want to come to a horse show with that disease that close by," he said.

Provence is worried that the horses at his stable could get the virus, which has an incubation period of about two to 10 days. "Luckily, so far no one has shown any symptoms," he said. "It's still a knocking-on-wood type of deal."

The polo club has suspended all events, and state animal health officials put the club, stables and surrounding horse properties under a 21-day quarantine.

In the nearby town of Thermal, a weeks-long international hunter-jumper show sponsored by Horse Shows in the Sun has not been affected, said office manager Amanda Lambert.

"We're totally clean here, and we've been in constant contact with" the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said. Organizers have, however, have instituted several sanitary precautions.

Patricia Aiken, owner of Dressage Getaway Inc., has been monitoring state updates since the death of the horse at the polo grounds. Aiken has a 27-acre ranch near the grounds and is holding a three-day dressage competition next month at the Thermal show grounds. If officials quarantine the area, she will be forced to cancel the prestigious event.

"All of my life I've been into horses and never had this situation happened before," Aiken said.

Cindy Hale of Norco, where the town motto is "Horsetown USA," said she is taking no chances with her two horses, Wally and Danny, even though she lives miles away from either outbreak. Now she prefers to ride alone rather than in groups. "You always have to be a little bit vigilant," she said.

Hale, who is also a contributing editor for Horse Illustrated magazine, said she is concerned because of how horses are kept in Southern California, especially at the big equestrian centers.

"Horses are in corrals and stalls side by side," she said. "It's very easy for disease to spread."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.

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