At least 11 horses are now dead of the mysterious aliment that struck at the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center last week and on Monday surfaced in three other Southern California counties, officials said.
With veterinarians no closer to identifying the puzzling malady, which seems to attack the nervous system, at least two horses at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park and two at a stable in San Bernardino County have died since the sickness came to light at the Costa Mesa center on Oct. 28.
So far, seven Orange County horses have died, including two Sunday night and one on Monday.
Six other horses--two in Orange, one in San Bernardino and three in Ventura County--are alive but have similar symptoms: quivering muscles, rapid breathing and an inability to chew or swallow.
At the Orange County equestrian center, stunned trainers and owners huddled in small knots on Monday, consoling each other about the deaths and swapping theories about the cause. Many had hardly slept in several days, having kept all-night vigils to monitor the sick horses.
"It's like losing a member of the family," said Carol Lundelius, who boards her horse at the center.
As she talked, a friend's horse in a nearby stall tried to stand but was too weak and collapsed with a thud.
"I've been with that horse for 24 hours. We've been trying to give it water, but it's not helping. I'm afraid it's too late."
A few hours later, the horse died.
State officials and a growing team of veterinarians investigating the illnesses said the disease does not appear to be contagious. None of the horses has been feverish, and blood samples taken from each animal have shown no abnormalities with white blood cell counts, a sign of an infectious virus or disease.
"The only thing we can say with some confidence is that the ailment does not appear to be contagious," said veterinarian L.C. Vanderwagen, chief of the animal health branch for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. "But until we get the cause pinned down, we are concerned. I can't remember anything like this before."
Speculation Monday focused on "toxic poisoning such as botulism," which is most commonly contracted by eating or drinking something that is contaminated with a bacteria. "It could have come from their feed." Vanderwagen speculated.
"The common denominator in all the cases are the hay cubes," said Jim Giacopuzzi, a Ventura County veterinarian whose office had treated at least three of the ailing horses, all of which had eaten the Twinkie-sized cakes of compressed alfalfa. "We are still shooting from the hip as to the cause . . . but if it is the cubes, we could have a serious situation. Thousands and thousands of horses in Southern California consume those every day."
A Southeast Los Angeles County company, Paramount Cubing, produces the vast majority of alfalfa cubes sold to Southern California stables, including the Orange County equestrian center.
Company owner Ken Rhomberg said Monday that his firm has "changed nothing in 15 years" in the way it manufactures or distributes the popular horse feed. "We buy our hay from Utah and compress it. We don't add anything to it," he said. "I can't believe there's a problem."
A trio of specialists with the California Veterinary Diagnostic Center combed the Costa Mesa equestrian center Sunday, collecting blood and urine samples from both sick and healthy horses as well as samples of feed, water, dirt, leaves and grass at the riding facility, one of the county's largest and most respected. Testing on those samples began Monday at special laboratories at UC Davis and state veterinary offices in San Bernardino. But Vanderwagen said it will be Wednesday before the first results are known.
"We are trying to leave no stone unturned," said Bill Johnson, a UC Davis animal pathologist and one of the experts who toured the Costa Mesa riding center on Sunday.
The center boards 260 privately owned horses. A quarantine has been in effect since Friday, and owners have voluntarily kept their horses in their stalls to minimize exposure to the sick animals. Pamela Gimple, manager of the center, said the horses are no longer being feed alfalfa cubes but are receiving fresh hay, though some owners have taken over the task of personally feeding and watering their animals, some of which are valued in the tens of thousands of dollars.
"There's a lot of fear, a lot of concern here, and many of the owners are very upset," said Gimple as she watched John Byrd, the center's chief veterinarian, examine a horse. "I'm sacred, and I've been around horses most of my life. I can't recall anything like this," she added.
On Sunday night, Byrd, in an attempt to reverse the symptoms, tried giving two of the ailing horses equine plasma in hopes that the new blood might contain antibodies that would help cure the illnesses. Both horses were still alive Monday night, but Byrd said he was no closer to isolating the disease.
"Botulism is at the top of the list, but the symptoms come on too fast," Byrd said. "First their legs start trembling, then their chest and before you know it, they're on the ground. They get up, but each time it's for a shorter period of time. It's a real tough one."
The strain was evident on Tally Thorsen's face. As manager of Maple Leaf Farms, one of several private contractors that lease barns at the center, she cares for about 40 horses. The first horse that died of the disease at the center was in Thorsen's stables.
"These animals are really helpless," she said. "They look to us for food, love and attention. And when something like this comes along, we can't do a darn thing for them. I feel awful."
Many of the horses at the center are ridden in horse shows. But on Monday, the center's riding rings, including the jumping arena, were empty. Thorsen said the horses seem to understand that something is amiss.
"Usually, a lot of these horses are out there (with their riders), running, jumping and exercising," she explained.
About 20 to 30 of the horses that are normally kept at the center are in San Francisco at a horse show, and Gimple said their owners have been asked to make arrangements to board their animals elsewhere when they return.
It's not the only change adopted at the center. On most days, the center's stable hands keep busy cleaning out stalls or repairing and cleaning riding equipment such as reins or saddle pads. But Gimple said that any activity that puts workers in contact with the horses has been eliminated or sharply curtailed until the source of the illness has been identified.
Tom Kerr, whose 16-year-old daughter is a champion show rider, spent his lunch hour Monday at the center. His daughter, worried about her 8-year-old Thoroughbred named Perry, spent Saturday night and all day Sunday at the stables, and now it was Kerr's turn to check on the horse, which so far has remained healthy.
"It's been a tense several days at home," Kerr said. "That horse means everything to my daughter. I'm just afraid of what it might do to her if we lost him. I just hope they figure out what's causing this. Then maybe we can all rest easier."