Mass Transit; To the World Equestrian Games We Go!

The airlift of hundreds of horses for the World Equestrian Games requires careful planning and scrupulous disease prevention

Starting in late summer, the largest airlift of competition horses ever--more than 650 in all--will begin. The horses will compete in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, and they will come from Australia, Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East. Altogether, some 900 horses from 60 countries will travel to Lexington to compete in the first WEG held in the United States.

Getting the horses to the competition is a mini-industry with multiple players coordinating planes and horse-travel vans. The USDA in conjunction with the WEG Organizing Committee will set up a temporary import-quarantine facility at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where approximately 70% of the horses will arrive. The permanent facilities where horses usually enter the United States (New York, Miami, and Los Angeles) are too far away.

"The object was to get as conveniently close to Lexington as possible to keep transit times for horses to a minimum," says Martin Atock, managing director of Peden Bloodstock, the official transport agent for the Games.

In addition to the horses, their equipment, handlers, and even carriages must also arrive at the Kentucky Horse Park. The coordination began three years ago, and it is a careful orchestration.

"To ensure the smooth, swift, and uneventful transfer of all horses to and from Lexington, detailed logistical preparations and regulatory approval are naturally absolutely paramount," Atock said.

Peden Bloodstock has chartered 22 wide-bodied planes that can carry as many as 56 horses, their grooms, and equipment. Additional flights will com from Australia, the Far East, and Central and South America.

South American horses will fly through Miami, where they will undergo a seven-day quarantine. They have the longest quarantine because of the presence of screwworm in some Latin countries. Screwworm is the common name of a pest native to the tropical areas of North, South, and Central America that causes extensive damage to domestic livestock, including horses. The larvae of these pests feed on the raw flesh of the host animal. The last confirmed case of screwworm in the United States was in 2000.

Horses crossing the Pacific will fly through Los Angeles and go through quarantine there. But some 400 to 500 horses, mostly from Europe, will fly into Northern Kentucky, where a temporary facility will be set up in a secured portion of the employee parking lot.

The facility is a joint project of the USDA, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and WEG. Construction was to start in August, and the eight temporary barns will have water and power. The arrival of horses will be arranged to prevent one planeload of horses from infecting another in the event cases of illness arise--with enough time for officials to wash and sanitize stalls and horse vans between arrival and departure of planeloads.

"One planeload can't mix with another planeload," says Kent Allen, DVM, the veterinary coordinator for the Games. "Even caretakers have to be kept separate, so there's no spread, no contamination if the horses get sick."

Seven barns, totaling 220 stalls, will hold the horses in quarantine for a minimum of 42 hours, and then those horses that pass inspection will be shipped to the Kentucky Horse Park. The eighth barn has isolation stalls in case any arriving horses raise concern and require isolation.

Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation staff will transport horses the short distance from the planes to quarantine. When the horses arrive at the temporary quarantine facility, officials will confirm the animals' identification and examine them for signs of apparent illness. They will draw blood and send it to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where it will be tested for dourine, glanders, equine piroplasmosis, equine infectious anemia (EIA)--all tests routinely conducted when horses enter the United States. Veterinarians will monitor the horses' vital signs and observe the animals eating and drinking as part of a health assessment made during the quarantine period.

The rule is all in, all out, says Ford, the equine programs manager for the Kentucky State Veterinarian's office. This means that one horse in which veterinarians suspect a communicable disease can prevent an entire planeload from leaving the airport's quarantine. For that reason, the plan is to have two available barns at all times, so a group of horses can be monitored for more than 42 hours, if needed, without disrupting arrival of other horses.

The only exception is for horses diagnosed with equine piroplasmosis, a disease caused transmitted by ticks. In mild cases a horse might not seem sick. In severe cases the disease can cause labored breathing, fever, anemia, and even death. Horses that recover carry the parasite for long periods of time, potentially transmitting it to other horses through management practices (i.e., through shared needles or substances between horses).

According to the USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service, there have been outbreaks of piroplasmosis in the United States as recently as June, but the disease is not considered endemic. However, it is endemic in Southern and Eastern Europe and Central and South America.

Normally, horses that test positive for piroplasmosis are not allowed to enter the United States. But to bring the Games to Kentucky, the USDA agreed to allow piro-positive horses to compete, provided they remain in quarantine. These horses must be identified as positive prior to entering the country. Once they arrive at the Horse Park, they will have separate stabling and grazing areas and will not mix with other horses. Their grazing areas will be mowed short and treated with acari-cides (pesticides that target ticks and mites) to create an environment unfriendly to ticks.

Once the horses have cleared quarantine, Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation will bring the horses down Interstate 75 to the Kentucky Horse Park. (Horses quarantined in Los Angeles or Miami are not required to go through the Northern Kentucky facility; they can fly into the airport of their choice or trailer directly to the Horse Park.)

The transfer is a coordinated effort of Peden Bloodstock, Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation, state and federal veterinary officials, and the World Games Organizing Committee. Each van carries up to eight horses. Hubbard has 10 vans and drivers and a giant spreadsheet outlining where the vans have to be when. Hubbard has to allow time for flights to be delayed (or arrive early), for vans to be cleaned and disinfected, and for horses to load and unload on each end.

Adding to the challenge is that the number of horses and flights won't be set until the qualifying competitions end in August.

Once horses arrive at the park, veterinary officials will continue to monitor them, just as they do for other horse shows.

"These horses are under such veterinary scrutiny, you just don't anticipate there will be any significant problems," Ford says, "but we're prepared."

About the Author

Sarah Vos

Sarah Vos, a writer and former newspaper reporter, lives in Lexington, Ky.

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