Disclaimer- Everything written here is what I remember in what I believe to be the correct order. I have slept only one full night in the last 7 nights, I am experiencing stress like I never have before and my mind cycles through hyper awareness and the feeling like I can’t think at all. Anything out of order is not intentional and I am trying my best to account for everything in the order and manner it occured.
It’s been a week since we called the vet for our quarter horse, Harley. April 12, 2021, We noticed he wasn’t himself. Lethargic, didn’t want to come out of his stall and hadn’t eaten his hay or drank any water. We also noticed later that he hadn’t urinated since going into his stall the night before. His penis was hanging out and was “leaking”. In hindsight he may not have been himself the day before that with being slow to walk out to his pasture. I believed at the time it was b/c he’s over 20, has arthritis and was stiff from being ridden the day before. Goodness, if only that were true.
A lot of what had happened next had been a blur. The vet came and did all kinds of diagnostic testing and took blood to then go and test. My initial opinion, after it was clear that it wasn’t him “just being stiff”, was that it was lyme disease, since his blood work had come back after some issues last summer as him being a “low positive”for lyme. At some point blood was drawn and a nasal swab was done that day but I’m not 100% sure exactly when. He was given a small dose of sedation to take the edge off and make him easier to treat. That backfired big time. He became even more unstable. It was like he lost all sense of self preservation. He had become too dangerous to handle basically. A second vet from the same practice came back to help treat Harley but he was so unstable we were all at risk of him falling on us and hurting the vet or us. She was also hesitant in sedating him and running the risk of “laying him down” and him not getting back up. At the time I didn’t see what the big deal would be in doing that. I found out later why. The outcome isn’t pretty! He was moved to the round pen on the property that is not closely surrounded by any other pastures. Harley’s first blood test came back with normal kidney and liver functioning. He was also negative for lyme. It was after that we noticed Phoebe wasn’t walking right and we moved her to the round pen as well.
Fast forward to a bit later in the day. Harley still hadn’t urinated and he looked uncomfortable and his penis was still hanging out and leaking. The vet decided she’d like to catheterize Harley and stitch it in the end of his penis since it was likely he’d need to be catheterized for a while. Harley was a real handful to catheterize, spinning in small circles, rearing a bit and really wobbly. He was given a tiny dose of sedation to take the edge off and he went down. We didn’t think we would be able to catheterize him. He looked really really bad. As I remember the vet left again for a while but when Harley was down he looked like death was imminent so we called the vet to come back and humanely euthanize him. Right after we got off the phone with the vet he popped back up. He still looked bad and wobbly.
Phoebe looked totally normal but more unsteady in her hind legs than she normally is (Phoebe hasn’t been sound in years, but it was lameness in her forelegs). She walked around calmly in the round pen and ate hay. Neither horse had a fever during any of this. Before Monday April 12, we hadn’t recognized a reason to check their temps so we probably missed them having an elevated temperature.
When the vet came back we decided to try the catheter again and she wanted to stitch the catheter in since he may not be able to urinate on his own for a while, but Harley thrashed even though he was down and we couldn’t risk giving him more sedation or risk getting hurt. So she catheterized him and that was it for the night. *We’ve had to do it every day since. He is improving but still hasn’t urinated on his own.
The next morning I don’t think anyone expected Harley to still be standing but he was. A couple hours later though Phoebe went down. She never got up again but she tried like hell. She would rise to a sitting position, dog-sitting and then lay back down. Phoebe still ate and drank while being down and still looked alert and like her usual self other than being recumbent. The vet came and did a catheter for both Phoebe and Harley.
We had two other horses that had blood and nasal swabs done while we waited on Harley’s results. One of those horses was Harley’s pasture mate and the other had had a yucky runny nose on and off since having a tooth pulled on March 29th. At this point the vet suspected EHV-1 or EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis). We hoped it was EPM, since it’s not contagious but it is very unlikely to have two horses come down with it at the same time. EPM is a scary disease causing neurological symptoms in horses caused by an equine consuming opossum feces. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/epm-understanding-debilitating-disease
Wednesday April 14th, after my uncle spent the entire night awake with Phoebe and Harley, Phoebe became obviously in distress and would not recover and had to be euthanized. I have heard over the years about how it’s better to euthanize a bit too soon rather than too late. It is 100% correct. I feel extreme guilt in waiting. Call it niaviety or stupidity or wishful thinking, I don’t know, but I hoped she would get up just like Harley did. She couldn’t and it was awful seeing her suffer.
Shortly after euthanizing Phoebe the vet got a message from his office, Harley’s test results came back positive for EHV-1 (Equine HerpesVirus), the neurological strain EHM (Equine Herpesvirus Myelencephalopathy). It was then official, our worst fears come to life. Actually it wasn’t even something I knew I should fear. EHV was something that happened in FL or at some other huge horse gatherings. Not something that happened to a small horse farm in Northwestern Vermont. Our horses hadn’t left the farm since September 2020. No outside horses came to the farm since before then. The only horse movement had been from our farm to another even smaller farm 1.5 miles away and back almost a month before all of this. That other farm hadn’t had any horses in or out either in at least 6 months, or longer. The worry about all the other horses at our farm began at that moment and hasn’t stopped. When we went to horse shows we always brought our own hay and water, we didn’t let our horses drink from water sources that were used by outside horses, we didn’t let our horses eat grass or hay off the ground where other horses had been. We had thought we were keeping our horses safe. We were wrong.
We started working with the state vet Wednesday evening, April 14th. The state vet will try to track where the virus came from and to ensure we have the info we need to make sure it doesn’t spread further. Our farm was placed under quarantine. No horse traffic in or out, limiting people on premises to essential personnel only and enacting biosecurity protocols. This means no barn brats, riding lessons, and I could no longer visit my horse at the neighbors farm where she’s been since December. We can’t risk infecting my other horse or the other horses at that farm.
On April 13th we started taking temperatures of a handful of horses around the farm out of curiosity, we hadn’t been told what we were dealing with at this point. All the horses were normal. We did two days of temp checks for the sample group and progressed to doing the entire herd twice a day. (Except for 3 mares that would probably leave me in the hospital if I tried to stick a thermometer in their butts. We do keep a close eye on them though, watching how they move, input and output in their stalls and checking for nasal discharge.)
All temps had remained in the normal range and all horses had been symptom free until April 17th during the pm check. My old mini horse, Lucky, had a temp of 102.1, his nose was wet but other than that he seemed totally normal. We separated him from the herd immediately. Since he’s a herd sour horse he was super ticked off. Since being seperated, his temp checks have been normal and he’s eating and drinking and very alert.
We have had horsey and non-horsey friends and acquaintances ask us a million questions, which is part of the reason I am writing this. The other reason I am writing is to share our experiences and shed some light on our (and probably many other people’s) false sense of security. This potentially deadly virus can show up at your farm in a lot more ways than with an infected horse. The state vet said she believes it came in on a visitor’s clothes or belongings. During the window of time that the state vet speculates the virus arrived we have had two farriers, the vet, lesson kids, stall cleaners, and boarders in and out. Then add all the RUMORS we’ve heard about other horses and farms with (UNCONFIRMED) cases. It’s been a nightmare but we still haven’t seen any potential links.
I will continue to update and chronicle this terrifying journey. We’ll continue our biosecurity efforts and monitoring of all 24 of our horses. We hold our breath with every temperature check and every examination of every horse. I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who is next? How bad will it be? Are we keeping the healthy horses safe in the face of all this? When will this hell be over?
Please, be careful friends.