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Concerns about virus affect horse show attendance

Issue Date: June 15, 2011
By Ching Lee
Horse show riders and visitors mingle outside the arena at the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, which ran June 10-12.
Photo/Ching Lee

Although spread of a contagious and potentially deadly equine virus appears to be contained, organizers of horse events in California say they continue to battle a different type of outbreak in the equestrian community—misinformation.

News of the equine herpes myeloencephalopathy outbreak has already led to a slew of horsing events being canceled or postponed throughout the state. But shows that are scheduled to go on are also experiencing their own headaches and economic fallout.

Miki Cohen, president of the Western States Horse Expo, said "damage control" to squash rumors and panic about the virus, also known as EHV-1, "has been staggering." She noted that after initially spending $200,000 to market the show, she still had to get the word out in the days following news of the outbreak that the largest horse expo in North America was not being canceled.

"The phones are ringing off the wall and our email is slammed because people want to make sure the event is still going on," she said last week during preparation for the show, which ran June 10-12 in Sacramento. "It's had a huge economic effect on our event."

Cohen said not only did she have to hire a full-time public relations person for 30 days "to stamp out fires," but she also had to staff three additional employees to disinfect the barns and stalls at the show.

In addition, the event implemented health and safety recommendations by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine that required extra staffing attention. On top of that, it implemented a few more rules "just to assure those that you can't convince with education," she said.

Still, that did not stop criticism from some horse owners who felt the show should have been canceled because they feared it could spread the virus.

In the end, only two groups dropped out—the miniature horses and the highland ponies, because the owners' veterinarians told them "to just keep their horses home," she said.

When the outbreak was first reported, authorities advised horse owners to avoid "nonessential transport" of their animals to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. They have since revised that recommendation with biosecurity guidelines for horse show managers.

Cohen noted that show managers who have been following the information from state and UC Davis veterinarians understand that all of the confirmed cases of EHV-1 in California have been directly linked to horses who were at the National Cutting Horse Association Western National Championship in Ogden, Utah, held from April 30 to May 8, and a cutting horse event in Bakersfield on May 13.

The rate of new cases also has slowed, with the last one confirmed on June 9. The state's total confirmed cases stand at 22 in 12 counties, as of Monday.

"We looked at it as horsemen, and as horsemen, it's not really an outbreak. It's minor," Cohen said.

She acknowledged the show did have to turn some horses away that came from "questionable areas," but that the staff assessed animals on a case-by-case basis.

"We take it seriously," she said.

But she lamented the number of shows in the state that have had to cancel because "they didn't want to take the chance that people wouldn't participate, thereby in my opinion, feeding the misinformation."

Robert Kellerhouse, show manager for the Southern California Equestrian Center in Temecula, said he canceled a small hunter-jumper show scheduled for May 21-22 because not enough people wanted to participate that weekend, which was still in the early days of the outbreak, and there was not enough information for people to make educated decisions on how to react.

He said when it became clear that cases were slowing and veterinary officials had control of the outbreak, he decided to go ahead with a show scheduled for the Memorial Day weekend.

"Even though there was a lot of fear, we still had 240 horses there," he said. "But we also had 180 who decided not to come even in light of the facts."

He noted a dressage show that his facility was to host June 3-5 had been postponed until July because too many riders were voluntarily keeping their horses at home.

Kellerhouse said the economic impact of the outbreak goes beyond canceled shows and entries being down. He pointed out that people who transport horses and those who sell hay and feed at horse shows also are hurting, as well as owners of horsing facilities that host the events, which bring the facilities thousands of dollars a day.

"It's almost distasteful to mention the dollar sign because too often people accuse us of worrying about money when it comes to the health of the horses, and it's just not the case," he said, noting that he brings his own horses to the events he organizes.

Other horsing events, such as the 92nd annual Livermore Rodeo, which ran June 11-12, proceeded as usual. Arena director Junior Castello said entries for local events were down about 5 percent, but those sponsored by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association had normal participation.

By continuing with the rodeo, Castello said event organizers were trying to demonstrate that they were not overreacting to all the rumors but were taking all the necessary precautions recommended by CDFA to protect the horses.

"I don't underplay the situation. This outbreak is a terrible thing," he said.

Janet Lemmons, spokeswoman for the Rowell Ranch Rodeo in Hayward, which was held May 21-22, said a few contestants chose not to come, but the overall event went fine. She noted a couple of local contestants who dropped out when news of the outbreak was first developing actually re-entered when they learned more about the situation from official sources.

"It's a time for thoughtful action, not for panic," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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