Last Saturday afternoon motorists on Cradock road pulled over to watch a squadron of horses descending on Grahamstown. The horses were of every shape, size and colour but all the riders had a common theme – they were wearing red. The Red Cavalry rode on, past St Andrew's College, through Pepper Grove Mall and to the Cathedral where they mustered for a photo shoot before returning along their route.
They were riding to raise awareness of African Horse Sickness (AHS), the dreaded virus which has claimed thousands of horses’ lives over the centuries. Some of the riders had lost beloved equine partners in the past and some rode survivors – the fortunate few horses who have pulled through after being struck down by the disease.
Now is the beginning of the Horse Sickness season and time for annual vaccinations. But the vaccination issue has been complicated this year by the availability of a new vaccine produced by Disease Control Africa. Although this new vaccine has been vilified in the media and is not yet registered, initial trials have satisfied many who participated and a number of Grahamstown horse owners have chosen to use the new dead vaccine, rather than the old live attenuated vaccine, produced for decades by Onderstepoort Biological Products.
African Horse Sickness manifests in a number of ways and with varying symptoms. The most obvious and common symptoms to look out for are swelling above the horse’s eyes, difficulty breathing, a discharge from the nose and a raised temperature. However, any signs of ill-health in your horse should receive immediate veterinary or other experienced care.
It is important for horse owners to keep a close watch on their horses’ health from now until the onset of winter. Early diagnosis and a rapid response to symptoms are both crucial in saving horses’ lives.
As with most viruses, support of the immune system, symptomatic relief and rest are critical. Including a good herbal or homeopathic immune booster in the horse’s daily management also seems to help.
A Facebook group set up to monitor, educate and assist owners with AHS queries and cases, https:/www.facebook.com/groups/fight AHS/, has noticed that biliary is often a precursor to the disease. For this reason, it is very important to prevent tick-bites on horses and to respond rapidly to biliary symptoms.
Symptoms of biliary include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and, as the disease progresses, pale mucous membranes. AHS is an opportunistic virus and a horse with a depleted immune system is at high risk.
AHS is a controlled disease and all suspected cases must be reported to the Grahamstown State Vet at 046 622 7112. The state vet will arrange for samples to be collected and sent to Onderstepoort for testing. Testing is free of charge and data collected plays an important role in ongoing research.
The impressive turnout from our small riding community on Saturday has emphasised the pioneering spirit adopted by many Grahamstown horse owners in their approach to the management and control of this devastating disease. The Red Riders will be back. Next time you see them, remember the horses lost to AHS throughout our history and salute the riders’ determination to make a difference.