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Horse Herpes Forces Cowgirls to Ride Stick Ponies

Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock(OGDEN, Utah) -- Even cowgirls get the blues. The contestants in a Utah rodeo queen contest had to abandon their mares and ride toy stick ponies -- all because of an equine herpes outbreak.

The girls took it in stride at the Davis County Sheriff's Mounted Posse Junior Queen Contest this week, doing their routines around the arena as if they were on horseback. They were judged on knowledge of the drill, rather than their riding skills.

"It's kind of weird, but you can't really help that the disease is going around," said Savanna Steed, 15, of Far West, Utah, who has been riding and competing since she was 4.

"It's an outbreak that we don't have a vaccine for," she told ABC News. "It's airborne and if you have a horse and it touches something and the other horse touches it, they get it. It's easy to catch."

Utah has 13 suspected and seven confirmed cases of equine herpes virus after horses at a regional cutting horse competition at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden first showed symptoms of the illness.

Most commonly, the virus spreads by horse-to-horse contact but contaminated equipment and clothing and hands can also infect a horse with the virus. The arena took precautions by just eliminating the horses from the contest.

Veterinarians have been concerned because this EHV-1 virus is a mutant strain and is not covered by existing vaccines, according to Bruce L. King, Utah state veterinarian. And it's highly contagious.

Equine herpes is not transmitted to humans, according to Dr. Kenneth Fife, who specializes in infectious diseases and is professor of medicine at Indiana University Medical School.

The virus takes two forms in humans: herpes simplex [HSVI] 1 and 2. The first is associated with cold sores and fever blisters on the mouth and is usually acquired as a child. The second is sexually transmitted and affects the genitals.

HSVI 2 can be transmitted from a mother to her fetus and be life-threatening to the newborn. It can also make those who are exposed more vulnerable to HIV infections. HSVI 1 can be associated with fatal brain infections, though it is rare.

The only herpes virus that crosses species lines is a monkey virus that causes cold sores in the animal, but can potentially become a brain infection in humans, he said. Handlers can be infected.

Savanna wasn't worried for a moment about getting herpes. And she and her fellow cowgirls, though disappointed, didn't let their audience down.

"With the tornado and everything, it was nice to see something fun," said her grandmother, Janet Steed, who watched the contest on television.

New Jersey has had similar equine herpes outbreaks this spring, according to Christine Connelly, who has bred thoroughbreds at Bright View Farm in Chesterfield for the last 40 years.

"I admire the girls," she said. "They must have a lovely quality about them to be willing to be so wondrously foolish and engaged and still doing their best. The must love the sport enough.

"What it says is they love competition and they love what they are doing," she said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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