When Bad Things Happen to Nice Horses: Equine Venereal Disease at Austria’s Spanish Riding School


This post will prove that no one in the horse industry is immune to the spread of disease and its effect on horses.

Only about 3000 Lipizzaners are alive on Earth today, and the largest group is maintained by the Spanish Riding School (SRS) of Vienna, with a total of just over 400 horses. The SRS operates a stable in Vienna for performing stallions (a.k.a. “The Dancing White Stallions”) and a glorious stud farm at Piber in the province of Styria in Lower Austria. This year, there may be fewer foals at Piber than in any year in a long time and the daily routine at the stables in Vienna has been upset.

The SRS has publicly announced that a stallion at Piber was found to be positive for the equine venereal disease known as contagious equine metritis (CEM). Once this horse’s infection was discovered, the entire herd was tested, and then the stallions in Vienna were tested as well. Over 100 horses owned by the SRS are believed to be CEM positive.

(To learn more about CEM, please scroll down to the post following this one, or visit the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s excellent CEM information page. Please note: CEM is not fatal, and it is curable, although temporary infertility in mares is a side effect, and that will probably affect the 2008 foal crop.)

Information provided by the Spanish Riding School includes the following:

“In the course of a routine examination this virus was detected in a horse from the Federal Stud Piber, even though this horse had never been used for breeding. Therefore there is obviously another way that this disease can be transferred other than the covering of a mare. Thereupon the horse population in Piber and Vienna was examined. In the course of this examination the virus was detected in both enterprises.

“To this date not a single horse in the Spanish Riding School or the Federal Stud Piber has shown visible signs of this contagious disease. Quite on the contrary, the fertility rate in the Federal Stud Piber is currently at 90% and thereby clearly higher than the international average.

“As the diagnostic process is very long and complicated and the verification only possible in a multilevel procedure extending over a number of weeks, the detection and the treatment of this disease is difficult. In Austria only stallions intended for breeding are routinely examined as this examination is very complex.

“In principle this disease can be treated and is curable. However, the fight against this virus is complex and long. Successful medical rehabilitation is known from various European, American and Canadian studs. Based on these experiences the therapy has been started and a catalogue of measures has been developed to rehabilitate the horse population over the summer months.

“Nothing has changed with regard to the performances of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna as the stallions are not physically affected by the virus. This means that the classic performances, the daily morning training and the Privatissimum will continue as normal.

“Guided tours through the stables in Vienna will be limited and no contact to the horses will be permitted. (At Piber) horses identified as virus carriers are stabled in the veterinary ward which is not open to the public.

“The scheduled performance of a four-in-hand from the Federal Stud Piber and a School Stallion from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in the course of ‘Pferd International’ in Munich in May this year has been cancelled.

“The total cost of the treatment for the horses concerned, the loss of business through the limitation in guided tours, various hygienic measures and increased staff costs will amount to several hundred thousand Euros.”

(end quote from SRS statement)

Today I interviewed Gary Lashinsky of White Stallion Productions; Gary is the producer of the upcoming 2008 Spanish Riding School tour of western United States cities. “This will be cleared up in a few months,” he stressed. “This outbreak will not affect the upcoming US tour.” Gary noted that he has been assured that the SRS is taking every precaution to eradicate CEM from the herd in Piber and from the performing stallions in Vienna. Horses from Piber are routinely sold to American buyers.

The Spanish Riding School has survived Napoleon, Hitler, bombing attacks, EHV, politics, privatization, world tours, and everything else that has been thrown at it in the past 400 years. They may have a gene puddle instead of a pool, but they are survivors. These are not the first Lipizzaners to contract CEM and probably they won’t be the last.

But in this Internet age, there is no below-the-radar way to go about treating a herd for a contagious disease. I hope more entities and governments will follow the SRS’s lead and make public statements about their problems. Observing the SRS example may make it easier for horse owners at all levels to be honest about their horses’ health issues and help control the spread of equine disease sooner instead of later.

The cost of this disease control program, coupled with the financial loss of performances and tours, is estimated to be several hundred thousand US dollars. Disease outbreaks usually are not a line item in a business plan, and the Spanish Riding School has only recently been launched as a private corporation.

We don’t have Barbaro to cheer on anymore, so let’s cheer on the Lipizzaners to recover and get back to the capriole, the levade, and the courbette–back in the “good news” spotlight, where they belong.

(Originally posted 11 April 2007)

16 April Update: The Spanish Riding School has issued a document explaining all details of the CEM infection and their plan to treat the horses in the weeks to come. They have announced that the original discovery of the infection was found in a stallion that was exported to the USA in November 2006. The SRS contends that the horse tested negative before export, but his subsequent test in the US was positive.

Here’s a link to the official English-language version of the document from the SRS: http://www.srs.at/index.php?id=320&action=detail&iid=116




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