Racehorse trainer Victor Dartnall has spoken of the toughest test of his career after he had to temporarily close his North Devon yard due to an outbreak of EHV-1 two weeks ago.
Equine Herpes Myeloencephalopathy (EHM) is a rare neurological syndrome caused by damage to the brain and spinal cord after infection with EHV-1. Many horses carry EHV-1 but the vast majority do not present with the neurological syndrome.
"We have not had any further outbreaks for nearly a fortnight and all the horses seemed to have perked up a lot and are very fresh," Victor was pleased to report.
Of the 45 horses stabled at Higher Shutscombe Farm, Victor confirms 25 per cent were infected with EHV-1 and that they have lost "several".
"It's been an incredibly unpleasant and distressing time for all concerned," said Victor who noted that one of the horse's that they lost was the nine-year-old Fleetwood gelding, Pocket Too. "I only trained him for the last four runs – he was a lovely, honest horse and ran his career best just a week before he died when he won at Chepstow. To then see him knocked down with something like this is just dreadful."
Adhering to the strict isolation procedures has also meant very long hours for the staff. Victor said: "The team have been amazing. They have been there for all night cover when it has been needed. The symptoms, which can be sudden, have been mild to extreme. When a horse went down, due to paralysis of the muscles of the hind limbs, we had to help it sit up and in the more severe cases we even put up slings."
Talking on how distressing it has been to deal with Victor added: "This is undoubtedly the toughest thing I've ever had to cope with. I farmed before I trained and I suspect this is rather similar to having a Foot & Mouth outbreak."
Working closely with the vets from Western Counties Equine Hospital, in Cullompton, Victor says that many of the horses, which showed spiked temperatures did not go on to develop any further symptoms.
With light at the end of the tunnel, Victor confirms that his team are beginning to ride out some of the horses that were affected.
"They all appear to be well and keen to get on with the job. We have to wait now for the next round of tests which take place next week. The results will tell us an awful lot more on where we are and if we get the all clear we can then talk to the BHA about when we can start running again."
The team at Shutscombe Farm have managed to keep the other 75 per cent of horses in full work and all have been exercised separately to prevent the spread of the disease. Fortunately the farm is split into seven small yards which has made the isolation process easier.
On the possible source of the virus, Victor said: "I'm told by vets that up to 70 per cent of horses carry the herpes virus and anything can trigger it – such as stress – to mutate it into a more virulent, neurological form. It's very alarming to think they can carry it in this way and of course catch it from one another."
On a brighter note, Victor added: "We've got some lovely horses still to run once we get the all clear and we are all looking forward to getting back to normal."