Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

We Showed On Sunday, He Died On Tuesday: An Outbreak Story

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Nero died on a Tuesday. In the dirt, fallen heavily on his side, in a row between two barrack-like stalls where he had been quarantined.

The vet punctured his thick skin and injected the orange liquid from a large syringe. Nero fell to the ground as his heart stopped. My horse was out of pain, I told myself, but death is not a gentle fight.

Hours earlier I fed him apples, nuzzled his sweet face, kissed his cheeks. Two days earlier, on Feb. 20, 2022, we rode in our first show together. He carried me through the courses with generosity and knowledge. Low fences for him, monumental fences for me.

Author Marlo Baird and her leased horse Nero at the 2022 LA February Show (Calif.). It would be their first and last show together. Nero was euthanized days later after developing equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy. Photos Courtesy Of Marlo Baird

I’d grown up riding and showing in Kansas. As a precocious, perfectionist child, riding provided me a necessary outlet, one where I could be brave and strong while at the same time vulnerable and connected. I rode through elementary school until, in a freak accident on a Sunday afternoon in May, I broke my back. I was 9, and I spent the next nine months in a brace. 

I started riding again as soon as my back healed. Riding gave me a sense of freedom and independence, before and after my accident, from which I fully, remarkably recovered. I kept riding until I moved to California for college. Then I got a job, then another, then another. Riding became a mere memory, a reflection of my childhood, pictures and ribbons hanging on the walls of my childhood home. 

Years passed, and at 39, I hadn’t jumped a jump for over two decades.

I rode for the first time after my long hiatus in the second year of the pandemic. My 95-year-old grandmother insisted I find a way to bring Kansas to my life in Los Angeles. She suggested I start riding again and plant an herb garden. I did both. Mimi knew I needed an outlet, one that allowed me to connect to nature, to life, to help something grow.

I started riding once a week, then twice, then three times at Hansen Dam Horse Park in Lake View Terrace, California. I set a goal to be jumping again by the time I turned 40. I had four months. I worked hard. I got better. I fell. I got back on. I celebrated small victories and worked on trusting that it would all come together. I recognized when old fear, the fear encased in my spine all these years, came seeping out. I rode through it, and on my 40th birthday, I spent the morning victoriously jumping over little fences.

Then I met Nero.

I first saw him standing in crossties, tall and handsome, black with a white blaze, but body-clipped so his color looked gray. Sadly now, I realize I’ll never get to see his true black coat. I gently reached out my hand to pet him, subconsciously expecting him to recoil. He didn’t. He tilted his head to the side and looked me in the eyes. I poured a little of my lukewarm coffee in my hand and let him lick it. My friend Julia, who had come with me to meet Nero, was appalled.

“He’s not your horse yet!” she said. But he was; I’d already fallen in love. I signed the lease later that day. Nero was patient with me as we got to know each other. As I fumbled my cues, he didn’t fuss.

He let me figure him out, moving with me as I moved with him. I used everything I’d learned in childhood and relearned as an adult to grow as a rider. He wasn’t the easiest horse, but he was the nicest. Nero loved to be groomed and snuggled. After each ride, I’d hold up a bucket for him to drink from, he’d take a sip and then lean into me as if to give me a thank you kiss. Watching him eat a treat was like watching a sock puppet eat a cookie. Slow. Gentle. Kind.

In February 2022, we traveled to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center for our first show.

I’ve seen athletes pump their fists after winning a game, heard them growl and roar with victory, but until that day, that feeling eluded my understanding. The big yes—with the fist and elbow coming in toward the body, the rip my shirt off and run, the drop to your knees and scream feeling—had evaded me. I hadn’t found the wire to connect me to Whitman’s barbaric yawp.

Until I finished my first class with Nero. I put my hand in the air, I threw my torso on his neck and wrapped my arms around his hearty neck, my cheek on his mane. We’d done it, and it felt like Olympic gold.

I wish we’d called it there.

The show was running behind both days, so Nero and I did a lot of standing in the crowd of horses, waiting our turn to go into the ring, huddled in the shade, watching riders ride the course we were memorizing. Friends came to watch Nero and me ride, and everyone who visited petted him and snuggled with his face. His spirit was gentle, like a bunny or a puppy, a creature so sweet and innocent with knowing, generous eyes, like Ferdinand the Bull: Yes, you can pet me. Yes, we can jump that jump. Don’t worry about the distance, I’ll take care of it. And he did.

What I know now is that several horses at the LA February Show had traveled directly from the Desert International Horse Park, where an outbreak of equine herpesvirus-1 that ultimately would sicken and kill horses across the state had started a week earlier. The show in the desert had been canceled that weekend because of the outbreak.  

What I know now is that, as of the weekend we were showing at LAEC, eight horses at DIHP had spiked fevers and tested positive for the virus, including three that presented neurological symptoms. What I know now is that the first horse, of many, that would be euthanized after developing equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy, the neurological version of EHV-1, was put down at DIHP on Feb. 18—the same day the show at LAEC began.

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What I know now is the trainers and riders of four horses, including a pretty gray showing in our classes, ignored the state veterinarian’s recommended protocols, as well as entry restrictions put in place by the LA show’s organizers, by arriving at LAEC within the seven-day window their horses should have been isolated and observed for signs of illness. 

Nero and I stood next to the gray horse, rode next to this horse, breathed the same air as this horse, for hours. Unknowingly, I put Nero in invisible danger.

Proving a direct epidemiological link between horses is scientifically very unlikely, I learned from the state vet sent to assess Nero’s case.

However, I know these four horses were at DIHP, where other horses were shedding the virus. I know they came straight to LAEC and were integrated into the general population of horses boarding at the show. I saw trainers wipe their horses’ muzzles before sending them into the ring. Gates were opened and closed, girths were tightened, water bottles were handed back and forth. There were no foot baths, no hand sanitizer, no “social distancing” protocols implemented for horses or riders. We were all grouped together, like a herd of cattle waiting out a storm under a tree, unaware the storm was already there.

In retrospect, I can follow the virus, a little blinking dot on a screen, from the gray horse to mine. It didn’t have to travel far. I didn’t know the danger, but others did.

The show organizer failed to effectively enforce the entry restrictions it had enacted to protect the horses showing at the LAEC. The trainers—one of them a U.S. Equestrian Federation judge and steward—knew. A steward’s job is to enforce the rules and sanction those breaking them. Their choices put all our horses in danger. One doesn’t need to jump very high to find the irony here.

A swirl of words ping-pong in my brain as I come to terms with what happened: corruption, greed, money, selfishness, ego, flagrancy. These symptoms of current Americana have been ever-present in the horse world. As I face them so acutely, I am inspired and hopeful for change.

I believe that the way of the old boys’ club, shielding those with money, status and privilege, must end. Hopefully, acting above the law will no longer be tolerated in the same way. It may be moving glacially slowly, but the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. In the California equestrian world, the arc needs some leg to spur it forward. The equestrian community must be held accountable. Safety rules and protocols must be enforced. Any staff member or trainer making decisions not to do so should be removed from decision-making positions and the sport.

Nero and I finished the show on Sunday, exhausted and joyful. Nero was already on the trailer to go home when the news broke that a horse at LAEC, who also boarded at Hansen Dam, spiked a fever. We had to quarantine back at the barn. Luckily, Hansen Dam had the space—rows of stalls used only for shows—away from the general population of horses to allow that. The horse with the fever would be isolated, and all the horses returning from LAEC would be quarantined in the show stalls and monitored for 10 days. It wasn’t very nice down there in “horse jail.”

The barn was closed Monday, and I slept in. Tuesday morning, I drove to the barn to visit Nero. I brought a cut up apple and fed it to him, bit by bit. Petting his face, kissing his cheek. He looked happy; he had a love affair going with the mare in the stall next to him. She didn’t like anyone, but she loved Nero. They were whinnying at each other as I walked away.

My trainer called me at 3:30 that afternoon. 

“Hey, so,” she took a deep breath before saying, “Nero is showing neurologic symptoms.” 

She went on to say that as she took him out of the stall to hand-walk him, she noticed a loss of function in his back legs. I cut her off and said I’d call her from the car. When I phoned from the road, she was frantically trying to get in touch with a veterinarian. No one on call would come because of possible exposure to the virus.

The last photo of Nero, taken with Baird at his quarantine stall at Hansen Dam Horse Park hours before he was euthanized.

I got to the barn and went straight to the quarantine stalls where I’d seen Nero that morning. The assistant trainer, Danielle, and my friend Julia, who had a horse in horse jail too, were there.

Nero wasn’t. The operations manager at Hansen Dam moved him away from the other horses.

He was two rows over, isolated in an empty stall. Alone. Danielle told me we needed to get shavings down in Nero’s stall. I said I would do it, not thinking much of it. I walked up to the stall, opened it holding a cubic white bag full of shavings, and realized what neurologic meant.

Nero was about to fall. His back legs pointed in toward each other; his body was swaying. His shoulder and neck muscles twitched, and his eyes looked frightened. I couldn’t enter the stall safely. I screamed for Danielle who ran over with Julia. We got the shavings in as quickly as possible so when he did fall, it wouldn’t be on cement. We traded off holding his head, trying to keep him still and calm as we pushed the shavings in around him. 

I sent my trainer a text, “We need a vet here immediately.” But we had to wait.

The three of us stood with him for the next three hours, trying to soothe him with our words and our hands. We kept him upright, and I tried to massage the twitching muscles when I could reach them safely. 

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It was cold; I was scared. I locked eyes with him, trying to tell him help was coming, we were here, hold on, that he was such a good boy, to tell me what he needed. I searched his eyes for some understanding, for a message, and they answered me, so clearly and calmly: “I need to lie down.”

When a vet finally arrived, things happened fast. The group of us worked together like a coven of strong, educated, smart women, determined to hold this creature up with large-hearted grit. The vet stepped into the stall and tried to turn Nero around to see him walk. He couldn’t. Her face fell. “Not ideal,” she said.

She gave him an injection and drew blood. She was able to do a rapid test to see if there was active infection in his body. A normal count is around 50; Nero’s number was over 1,000.

“We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at this,” she said. She struggled to get the needle in his neck to administer the IV full of fluids and whatever medicine made up the kitchen sink. I held the stent in his neck as the vet compressed the bag of liquid, squeezing it as hard as she could, twisting it, guiding the fluid into this body. He was bleeding from the puncture in his neck, not a lot, but enough to stain my hands. I welcomed the blood; it felt appropriate.

His back legs were in a strange position; Nero leaned his whole body against the side of the stall to stay upright. He started to point his front right hoof like he was posing. This was also “not ideal.” He was losing function in his front leg; he was getting worse, fast.

I’d known what was coming since Nero told me he needed to lie down, but realizing we had to put him down felt like a death montage in a bad movie. It was happening too fast. The vet was on the phone with his owner, recommending euthanasia and preparing to report his case to the state. I thought we should try the IV again and give him more time. 

“I will stay with him,” I said. “I’ll keep him upright.”

“What if he falls, Marlo?” my friend Julia asked. “What if he breaks a leg or bleeds out in the night, and you’re here alone?”

“What if he gets worse?” Danielle asked, as I saw him getting worse. These questions were interrupted as Nero began to sway. 

“He’s about to go down,” Julia said. I began crying. 

“What happens now?” I asked. The vet said I shouldn’t watch. They fall hard she told me. I’d never considered that. A horse isn’t a dog or a cat. I wasn’t going to be able to cradle his head and stroke his cheek peacefully as he gently went to sleep.

The vet prepared, and the women left me alone with Nero. “I’m sorry,” I said through tears. “I’m so sorry.” I kept opening my mouth wide, like a guppy. I needed more air. “I think it’s one more tough course and then peace, Buddy. I think you’re almost at peace.” 

I told him I thought he’d made a lot of people happy during his life. I told him I loved him. I saw him, a silhouette on the horizon, a little girl who looked like me holding his lead rope, in a field of fragrant herbs.

I walked away, and he died. The vet held his head after he’d fallen. Danielle said it was quick.

Too quick, heartbreakingly and avoidably quick.


Marlo Baird is an alumnus of the University of Southern California, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theater and dual minors in cinematic arts and English. In 2015, she opened the Los Angeles arm of Work Editorial, a globally renowned boutique editorial company, where she serves as the managing director.She lives in LA with her husband, stepsons and two dogs, Sally and Rip. She is an avid reader, writer, and is continuing her equestrian career with Kate Considine and Willow Brook Stables at the Flintridge Riding Club.


Editor’s note: In 2022, USEF sanctioned three trainers who brought horses from Desert International Horse Park to the LA February Show without completing a seven-day isolation between, in violation of entry restrictions put in place by LA show organizer West Palms Event Management. While USEF did not have specific biosecurity rules in place that were broken by those involved, the trainers agreed to provide a donation to the USEF Equine Health Research Fund for their actions that put equine health at risk. Since the 2022 EHV-1 outbreak in California, in which three horses at Desert International Horse Park developed EHM and 32 others EHV-1 over the course of six weeks, dozens more cases developed in other counties from horses returning from Thermal, and numerous additional cases were confirmed throughout the state with no known ties to the show grounds, rule changes have been proposed that would give USEF more biosecurity enforcement power during a disease outbreak. GR 870 would require competitors to follow biosecurity requirements issued by USEF, the competition or state/federal animal health officials, and GR 871 would require competition management to follow biosecurity requirements issued by USEF or state and federal animal health officials.

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