Human beings are strange creatures. Even if we didn’t pay much attention to biology at school, the Covid experience has surely reminded us all of the importance of basic hygiene, how viruses spread, and that you are far more likely to catch one when you are around hundreds of people rather than one or two.
Yet all this new knowledge hasn’t stopped hundreds of riders cheerfully driving thousands of horses the length and breadth of Europe for the ultimate in equine “super-spreader” events – the hugely popular jumping tours in Spain and Portugal. (For readers unfamiliar with the Iberian peninsula, the principal Sunshine Tour venue at Vejer de la Frontera is so far south its nearer Rabat, the capital of Morocco in North Africa, than Spain’s own capital city of Madrid.)
The equine herpes virus crisis originating in Valencia has, as of today (March 9) claimed the lives of 11 jumping horses, with 250 and their now highly-stressed carers still “trapped” on site, though conditions have markedly improved.
But while we’ve had no equine health crisis on this scale at an international show before, are we surprised a disaster like Valencia finally happened? FEI jumping judge and commentator Adam Cromarty hosted a Facebook Live on the crisis and neither of his veterinarian guests were remotely surprised. The USA’s Dr. Emily Sandler-Burtness described the “tour” scenario as one giant petri dish.
Equine herpes viruses can be latent and aggravated by the stress of a long journey – check; the aggressive neurological strain causing havoc and heartache in Valencia is more likely to affect Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds than indigenous breeds – check; EHV1 seems to spread more readily in warmer weather – check = the perfect storm.
Quite why the 2021 tour has been blighted by EHV1, as opposed to previous tours, is unclear. Once this emergency is over, the FEI will investigate the source and handling of the whole affair in depth and will publish its findings.
I suspect it’s connected to an increasingly relaxed attitude where riders, some of whom are relatively inexperienced, gather for weeks at a time in a party-ish atmosphere, like a winter holiday, and where a more casual regard towards biosecurity has likely set in. As the nightmare in Valencia unfolded there were ample stories about riders fleeing the venue without horse health papers; you have to ask how closely those papers were scrutinised in the first place.
The standard FEI biosecurity requirements for treatment and isolation boxes at shows proved woefully inadequate. Shows must provide a minimum two isolation boxes plus one more for every 100 horses. That might be fine, say, at Badminton or Burghley where a maximum 80 horses assemble for just a few days. But not for the melting pot of a six- or seven-week jumping tour, when upwards of 2,000 horses come and go as they please from many countries where EHV-1 is not (unlike in Canada) a notifiable disease. And especially when there was no contingency plan to deal with an aggressive virus ripping through a large and captive equine population.
For at least a week, desperate riders and grooms had no way of removing horses from exposure, short of making a run for it in their truck and thereby spreading themselves and their droplets across the four winds while being turned back at borders and/or intercepted by the police. Individuals and ‒ after pleas from desperate riders ‒ the FEI and national equestrian federations had to step in at Valencia, because the Spanish health authorities empowered by law to take over on February 22 just weren’t up to it.
Biosecurity is another example of the FEI’s “one size fits all” regulations not keeping up with niche developments within a discipline. For nearly two decades, FEI endurance rules failed to curtail the evolution of a savage form of long-distance racing in the desert. In the same way, FEI veterinary/biosecurity regulations were not drawn up around the concept of multi-week jumping tours and their itinerant populations.
I was relieved to learn today from FEI head vet Goran Akerstrom that new tour-specific biosecurity protocols are already under discussion. Dr. Akerstrom mentioned that if those regulations and processes had not already been updated in 2016, Valencia would have been much worse.
Also on the subject of “why now?” ‒ Covid.
The fast expansion of FEI sport at lower levels really enables anyone who pays their registration fees to describe themselves as an “international” rider. However, governments whose Covid lockdown rules allow elite athletes to compete overseas (while the rest of us work from home, see our friends only on Zoom and wave at elderly relatives through care home windows) surely had professionals in mind. Producers and sellers can also reasonably argue an entitlement to compete during the pandemic because it is their livelihood.
Yet these Mediterranean jumping tours are mostly 1,2 and 3* ‒ is that really “elite?” For the amateur end of the FEI family, hauling your horse 4,000 km during a pandemic to jump 1.10m or 1.20m is hardly essential travel, is it? And also a tad disrespectful towards the Spanish citizens who are currently subject to curfews and travel restrictions within their own regions.
I deplore, though, the social media trolls who think the EHV-1 crisis has taught such riders a lesson. Whether riders made a bad judgment call or not, everyone who has paid their dues and entered a show in good faith is entitled to competent service, and everyone caught up in the living hell down in Valencia deserves our compassion.
Caring for any sick horse is traumatic, never mind one stricken with a neurological disease as aggressive as this. The community’s immediate focus is on getting horses out of harm and home, but let’s not forget the humans on the frontline who may need ‒ but not necessarily ask for ‒ support and counselling after the event. We have two proactive mental health charities in the UK for equestrians, Riders Minds, founded by 5* eventer Matthew Wright, a tireless advocate for mental health until his tragic death last month, and Stable Mind CIC, founded by Warren Stevens, a former high-level groom.
Apart from the Brits now shackled by Brexit, I can’t imagine the appetite for winter tours in the sun will abate long-term, though it may be too soon to evaluate stakeholder loss of confidence in the Spanish organisers.
It is already being asked if a dressage championship in Valencia later this year should go ahead, if the same organisers are involved. At a press conference today with the FEI, it was advised any change would be a board decision.
The Valencia tour’s alleged mismanagement of the EHV-1 crisis has been widely chronicled. Now it has emerged that the FEI ordered Valencia to cancel immediately on February 20, yet three classes went ahead on February 21. Dr Akerstrom sent Valencia organisers a “strong message” and confirmed today that this too will be investigated further.
Meanwhile, the FEI continues with daily, detailed updates online. The latest is this comprehensive Q&A.
UPDATE: The FEI has received notification of a confirmed positive for EHV-1 in a horse in Belgium after its return from the Spanish Sunshine Tour in Vejer de la Frontera (ESP). As a result, all horses that have participated in the Spanish Sunshine Tour since 9 February 2021 have been blocked in the FEI Database.