Vet: Tests on Polo Ponies Could Take Weeks

It could be weeks before the results of toxicology tests on the 21 polo ponies that died in Wellington, Fla., on Sunday just prior to competing at the U.S. Open Championship are known, according to Mike Short, DVM, equine programs manager for Florida's Division of Animal Industry.

The Division of Animal Industry, headed up by the state veterinarian, is working along with the Department of Infectious Diseases and Pathology at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine to determine the cause of the deaths.

"We're working in conjunction with the University of Florida, and I'm sure we'll be consulting with them, passing samples, and probably sending a lot of samples out for toxicology," Short said.

Veterinarians sent the carcasses of six of the ponies to the state lab in Kissimmee, and pathologists at the University will necropsy the other 15.

Short said he expects to have results of gross pathology and basic cultures within days, but he noted that toxicology results might not be available for several weeks. Greatly complicating the testing process, the researchers don't yet know what they're looking for.

"These kinds of cases are tough, unless we can get some good leads or information during our investigation, to get some direction," Short said.

The 21 ponies were part of the polo team Lechuza Caracas, owned by Venezuelan Victor Vargas. According to Short, Vargas imports large groups of ponies from South America each fall for the polo season. State investigators are looking into when the affected ponies arrived in Florida.

"Based on initial, overwhelming clinical evidence this medical event was isolated to the Lechuza barn and horses and the initial evidence shows no infectious element."
--Dr. Paul Wollenman
On Sunday afternoon, 19 of the around 60 ponies at the Lechuza Caracas stables were loaded into trailers and transported to the International Polo Club Palm Beach, where they were to compete in a Championship match at the 105th U.S. Open Polo Championship.

Short said investigators have determined that two ponies originally slated to play were, instead, left behind at the stables because they seemed slightly unwell. However, when the trailers carrying the competing ponies arrived at the club, it was immediately apparent that the ponies were gravely ill.

"They didn't know anything was wrong until they pulled into the Wellington polo stable and started to unload (the ponies)," he described.

According to Short, clinical signs included depression, ataxia (incoordination), and pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs). Fifteen ponies were unloaded and treated at the side of the field, while another trailer with four ponies returned to the stables without unloading.

"They died very acutely," Short said. "They all died within a short amount of time, with the exception of one or two."

The condition of one of the ponies in the group that returned to the stable was slightly less critical, and caretakers transported it to Palm Beach Equine Clinic. Despite care provided at the hospital, the pony died later Sunday night.

No other horses, including the other ponies at the Lechuza Caracas barn, have been affected.

Paul Wollenman, DVM, of Palm Beach Equine Clinic, whom the U.S. Polo Association credits with leading the treatment effort, said in an official statement released by the group, "Based on initial, overwhelming clinical evidence this medical event was isolated to the Lechuza barn and horses and the initial evidence shows no infectious element."

Short said state investigators are also considering this to be a toxicity issue.

As of Monday evening they were looking at the records of the horses, the barns, and even the trailers.

"We're trying to make sure it's not something unusual like a carbon monoxide issue--which I just really don't think--but I want to be able to rule that out," Short said.

A statement from the Lechuza Polo Team, released Monday, indicated the group will support investigations under way by veterinary authorities and the U.S. Polo Association.

"Currently, we don't know any possible cause of the tragic death of our ponies," the statement noted. "We are awaiting the results of the necropsies currently being conducted by the authorities."

Keep an eye on TheHorse.com for further coverage as the situation develops.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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