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Sabrina Ibáñez: “Our main priority has been, and will always be, the safety of our horses”

Wednesday, 10 March 2021
EHV-1 (neurological form)

Photo © FEI/Liz Gregg FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez. Photo © FEI/Liz Gregg.


Text © World of Showjumping



On Tuesday afternoon, the FEI hosted an online press conference to address the EHV-1 (neurological form) outbreak in Europe. FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez and FEI Veterinary Director Dr. Göran Åkerström attended to inform, as well as to answer questions from the media. 

“Having this disease has been extremely distressing for everybody. Nobody wants to see sick and dying horses. One is one too many and regrettably we are now at ten,” Ibáñez said at the beginning of the press conference [Editor’s note: The number has since increased to eleven]. “Cancelling international events in mainland Europe is only one factor in this very challenging situation,” Ibáñez continued. “Our main priority has been, and will always be, the safety of our horses.

“The clinical situation in Valencia has improved dramatically”

“We do have some good news, and that is that the clinical situation in Valencia has improved dramatically,” Ibáñez informed. “There is improved communication there as well. There has been a lot of misinformation about what happened in Valencia but let me tell you that there is enough hay and food for the horses as well as food for the grooms and the riders as well.”

“The focus is now on getting these horses healthy, getting them home and making sure there is no further spread of the disease,” Ibáñez said. 

Åkerström explained how the FEI on the afternoon of the 20th of February was informed that 11 horses at the venue in Valencia had fever, and at the same time learned that among horses that had returned back home from Valencia on the 14th of February, at least one had been sick with the neurological form of EHV-1. “With that combined information, we immediately understood that there was a very high probability of a serious EHV-1 neurological outbreak,” Åkerström said. “We requested that the event was stopped immediately.” 

“Eventually, the event was stopped on the 21st of February and on the 22nd of February - in accordance with Spanish law - the Spanish authorities took over and declared the venue an expropriation site because of the outbreak,” Åkerström explained. “This means they had the decisions in their hands, and the work has to be done according to Spanish law. Later that week, we were alerted by riders that were desperate for help because the clinical situation for the horses had become very serious. We immediately got in touch with the Spanish federation that set up a meeting.”

From there on, the FEI gathered a team of top vets and the first ones arrived on site on the morning of the 26th to take control of the treatment situation together with the organising committee. “We learned that outbreaks also were coming up in Europe, like in Belgium and Germany for example. We looked into the situation and evaluated the risk, and it was obvious that the disease had been spread from the venue by horses that had moved out from there, from the 14th and onwards and possibly even before that,” Åkerström explained. “Eventually, the situation got under control at the venue – much in large thank to the veterinary manager and the riders’ representative Carl-Walter Fox and also the FEI Jumping Director Marco Fuste who all worked very hard to establish a good communication. Since then, things have worked much, much better.” 

Tracing the outbreak 

The tracing of the outbreak was started as soon as the FEI got information about the cases in Valencia. For now, the FEI is following the virus backwards to the 1st of February. “We started the tracing immediately,” Åkerström said. “We tried to establish in-contact on the venue in Valencia. Due to the situation and what we could see on the horses that returned home, and what we now call the index case, we could establish the starting date of the outbreak as the 1st of February. We will continue to track backwards and are also gathering samples from the various labs. We have asked the head veterinarians to ensure that the samples are sent to the reference lab in Ireland. That will enable us to genetically identify this strain and also ensure that we are not mixing it up with any other strains that are moving around so that we can clearly get a picture of this particular outbreak. This is important for this particular strain, as it has been very aggressive.” 

Horse confirmed positive for EHV-1 after return from the Sunshine Tour

Last week, the FEI was informed about one horse at the Sunshine Tour in Vejer de la Frontera that had developed neurological symptoms. The tours in Europe were initially given a green light to continue, however with stringent biosecurity protocols in place and additional FEI veterinary delegates onsite.“This urged us to immediately react on that part as well,” Åkerström said. “We had already closed down competitions in mainland Europe on the 1st of March as a safety measure. At the same time, we urged all national federations to stop national competitions as a key measure to stop this disease. Eventually, we had another horse showing neurological signs in Vejer de la Frontera and last Friday we decided to stop the event also there.” 

The FEI is now also aware of one positive horse in Belgium, which returned back from the Sunshine Tour in Vejer de la Frontera. “This horse was in close contact with the first neurologically sick horse in Vejer de la Frontera. The horse [Editor’s note: That has now tested positive] has been in isolation since its arrival in Belgium. They took extraordinary precautions during their travel back home, because they knew that they had had a sick horse among their regular horse group. We do hope that they have been able to contain this completely and we stay in close contact with the rider and the vet,” Åkerström said. 

The two horses that first showed neurological signs at the Sunshine Tour have now been moved off the venue. “The first horse has returned to Belgium and travelled in a horse truck where they managed to build one, single, big box. A highly qualified vet came along all the way and the horse is now safely under veterinary care in Belgium. The other horse is in a university clinic in Madrid, in an isolation unit with highly qualified veterinary care,” Åkerström explained. 

“There has been no police intervention in Vejer de la Frontera that we have been aware of,” Åkerström commented on the many versions about what happened at the venue after the cancellation of the event. “However, our additional veterinary delegates – the three that were sent there – were requested to leave the venue and they were not allowed in again. If they were to do that there was information that the police would have to intervene against them.”

Competitions will resume safely

Following the outbreak in Valencia, the FEI stopped all international shows on mainland Europe until the 28th of March. However, the FEI is positive that competitions will be able to resume safely. “We are working together with leading epidemiologists in Europe and also really good bio security veterinarians. They look into the best ways of returning to competition, to ensure a safe, bio secure return. However, it all depends on how everyone is really taking care of their horses – ensuring to manage their horses in a bio secure way and report any positives to their national federation, and that we are also alerted, so that we can keep track on the situation,” Åkerström said.

The Longines World Cup Final is still planned to take place in Gothenburg, Sweden with start on the 31st of March. “We would not go ahead if it was not safe,” Åkerström said. “We had an EHV outbreak in Stockholm in 2019, so we then put in place important bio security measures for the final in Gothenburg. We have agreed that we will take many of those measurements back into use again and even go up a level further than in 2019. We will only go ahead if we can ensure a safe bio secure competition.”

A thorough investigation coming up

“The whole community has been extremely helpful,” Ibáñez said. “From the riders to the national federations to the EEF and of course the IJRC. We have been receiving additional help from the larger community and there has been help for stabling, there has been offers for hay, there has been even those that wish to help financially and to provide drivers for truck as necessary. So, all in all, the community has responded very, very well and helping us all work together to make the situation a lot better.”

“We will be going through a thorough investigation as to how it is that we got to where we are today,” Ibáñez added. “This will be completely transparent, and the findings will be made available for everybody.”



All horses that have participated at the CES Valencia Spring Tour and at the Sunshine Tour have been blocked in the FEI Database and athletes have been advised of the necessary biosecurity measures that must be implemented prior to return to competition.

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