ERDA, Utah – Growing concerns regarding the spread of equine herpes, a potentially deadly virus, has prompted the cancellation and postponement of several high school rodeos across the state.
Most of the students who compete in high school rodeos have dedicated their lives to their horses.
“It’s a lot of cold, early mornings that you don’t want to be up, hay everywhere and it’s itchy, not good… but then you can just come out here and just watch them,” said high school rodeo competitor, Fallon Siddoway.
For Fallon, horses aren’t just animals and taking care of them isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way of life.
“You have to care for them and they care for you,” Fallon said. “Sometimes I don’t want to ride, but I still do it because I just want my horses to be the best they can be, I know they’re trying hard for me.”
Her dedication allows her to compete in events as a member of the Utah High School Rodeo Association.
“Our members have a lot of money invested in travel expenses and their horses and feed and things like that,” said Utah High School Rodeo Association president, Shamus Haws.
However, this year, Fallon didn’t get to ride out her full potential.
“I was kind of bummed out that we didn’t have our rodeo,” she said.
“It’s hard, we canceled one the night before it was supposed to start, people that already traveled clear across the state to compete had to turn around and go home,” Haws said.
The reason? Horse herpes.
“Equine Herpes Virus 1 and another form of that virus called the Equine Herpes Myeloencephalopathy,” said Utah State Veterinarian, Dr. Barry Pittman. “That is a mutant strain of the EHV-1 virus that is a little more severe and it causes neurological signs, it’s really the one we have the most fear of.”
“It’s been a bit of a scare for people,” said Haws.
Pittman said nearly all horses are exposed to the disease by the time they are 2-years old. However, it remains dormant in most – once triggered, it spreads easily and has the potential to be deadly.
In 2012, Utah experienced an outbreak in which more than 160 horses had to be put down.
“It starts out almost in-apparent and then it will hit pretty hard when it hits,” Pittman said.
So far outbreaks have been reported in neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona. Officials said thanks to our control efforts, like cancelling and postponing events, it hasn’t spread to Utah,
“It’s typical this time of year, what’s not so typical is we haven’t had one in Utah yet which I kind of contribute to us trying to be vigilant about it,” Pittman said. “Our event managers are very conscious of this disease, we do a lot of work to keep security up this time of year, they spray down stalls, and do a lot of inspecting they also ask that the participants before they come, do a temperature on their horse a couple of times keep a close eye on them.”
Unfortunately, student-athletes are the ones paying the price.
“We’re up against a clock now where we can no longer make up any for the rest of the season,” Haws said. “It’s hard for them because they are nearing their state finals, which gives them the opportunity to move on to national finals.”
With this virus so close to Utah, Siddoway said competing and potentially exposing her animals to the virus is much worse than not being able to compete.
“I’m glad that my horses weren’t in jeopardy of getting it, I’m glad that they canceled it,” Siddoway said. “If it happened to my horses I would be really upset, if they didn’t make it through it I don’t know what I would do.”
The State Department of Agriculture and Food said continued awareness of current cases and monitoring your own animals can help control the spread, one of the earliest symptoms you can check for is a fever.
A horse in southern Utah is currently being tested for the virus, the state veterinarian will have results back Monday to confirm if the disease has spread to the state.