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Horse racing is in complete shutdown. Many yards across the country are have closed their doors to protect themselves from the risk of infection. And polo? We’ve got a brief and indescript email from the HPA telling us to be careful. Meanwhile one of the biggest tournaments of the year continues to take place, the SUPA university nationals, seeing hire horses from all over the country make their way to Rugby Polo Club, and multiple tournaments continue to take place down south. Should polo be doing more to protect itself from the equine influenza outbreak? And if so, how? What about other equine disciplines? Hunting?, Endurance? Hacking even?. What action for riding schools and livery yards?
Equine influenza is incredibly contagious, spreading through the air. An infected horse is able to pass on the virus at a distance of 2 kilometres if it were to cough, and a horse can be infectious for up to a week before it shows symptoms such as a high temperature, runny nose or constant coughing. Although the virus rarely causes major damage and isn’t actually treated, just left to run its cause, it does damage the respiratory system, which can lead to serious heart problems if the horse isn’t left on rest for a number of weeks following the infection.
Just in the last couple of days a number of cases, some from unrelated yards, from all over the country have been reported, and as a result, all horse racing in the U.K. has been suspended until at least Wednesday, likely longer as further cases spring up. Currently, 9 cases have been confirmed, and in an effort to avoid the virus spreading, many yards have closed their gates. Biosecurity measures have been put in place and sales of stable and yard disinfectant have shot through the roof.
One of the biggest collection of horse hirers in the country, however, continues regardless, the polo uni nationals. Now, of course, there is nothing saying any of these horses might be infected, however, there is always a possibility, especially when the horses are coming from all over the UK.
It is estimated that nationally only 30% of all horses are vaccinated against the virus, far below the required 70% to eradicate the disease. Even if you yourself have your ponies vaccinated, they can still contract the disease as the virus adapts and changes into different strands over time. This means that everyone is at risk, regardless of their vaccination situation. This could mean that if a single horse is infected, perhaps not even showing symptoms yet, it could cause massive damage, rendering many people out of work for weeks on end.
So should we place a ban on competitions/meets/group rides etc, much like horse racing?
In my opinion, it would be mad to halt the polo SUPA uni nationals halfway through proceedings. The damage, if it was there, would have already been done. But in the future, the close future, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to temporarily halt tournaments. Chukkas could still take place, as long as all the ponies were from the same club, and already in contact with each other and all with their vaccinations in place and showing no signs of illness.
The same goes for riding clubs and livery yards etc. They could carry on as usual as long as horse movement were restricted and events used horses and ponies from their own establishments, as long as strict biosecurity measures were adhered to regarding people coming onto the site.
Hunts, national and international competitions and group rides are in a different group though as the potential mixing of horses from many places would seriously increase the level of risk. The wider equine population of the nation should be considered before these events are given the go-ahead until advice is given to all stating that the level of risk has fallen.
Actual advice for polo, from the HPA (which is following the British Equestrian Federation guidelines), has been to ensure you’re horse is vaccinated, and to get the latest booster if your horse was vaccinated less than 6 months ago. However Equine Influenza can be passed on indirectly by vets, grooms and handlers, as the virus can travel on their bodies for up to 30 hours even though the vets and handlers cannot catch the disease. Vets can of course change clothes and be disinfected to avoid this issue, but the large number of horses that could need treating could make this impractical and people may become complacent. Ironically then, it seems that the vaccine could end up amplifying the spread of the epidemic. Perhaps wiser advice, would be to avoid contact with other horses and horse handlers where possible to minimise the risk for a short period. Equine influenza, much like flu in humans, generally only lasts around a week before the immune system fights off the virus, so if isolation was achieved, the crisis would pass relatively quickly.
But would the HPA, BSJ, BD et al, really be able to stop horses mixing?
The HPA are, after all, only one governing body, others do exist, even within one discipline, for example, SUPA. Really the HPA would have no authority to stop non HPA clubs from playing chukkas or SUPA playing their tournaments. Really it shouldn’t be up to the HPA or any other disciplines governing body, for that matter.
People just need to use their common sense, vaccinate where needed and avoid contact with other high-risk horses.
Follow the situation and ensure your biosecurity is in place and is efficient. More information can be found at the British Equine Federation website at https://bef.co.uk/News-Detail.aspx?news=further-equine-flu-update