When the horses from Europe and the Middle East begin arriving Thursday at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, they probably won't feel like they are in Kentucky for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
They might feel as if they are in limbo.
Technically, they are. They will be in quarantine, isolated from U.S. air, water, soil and other animals until the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture have determined they are free of a set of rare diseases with deceptively benign-sounding names (like glanders or dourine) that are generally incurable and often fatal.
Rusty Ford, the liaison for the Kentucky agriculture department, which is operating the facility, said that after roughly nine years of preparation, the level of concern about horses bringing infectious diseases to Kentucky is pretty low.
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"This is what we do — preserve and protect the health of the Kentucky equine industry," he said.
Beginning Thursday morning with the first of 12 flights, about 500 horses will come off the specially chartered Federal Express jets in giant metal crates. Their hooves won't touch any grass, let alone bluegrass, until they get to the Kentucky Horse Park.
The horses, still in crates, will be moved by trailer 1.3 miles directly from the runway to the new private quarantine facility, paid for by the WEG Foundation, in a secure location in the airport employee parking lot.
After they are unloaded, their attendants will settle them in one of five tents, where they will spend 42 to 48 hours.
"The next time they see daylight, they will have been deemed to be free of disease," Ford said.
The horses won't leave the tent, which is actually a biosecure barn of up to 52 stalls, with filtered air, disinfectant footing at the entry vestibule, and insect-proof walls positioned so that runoff from rain will not drain into any other barn.
That's on top of regular security, such as the double-fenced perimeter, 24-hour guards, lights and electronic surveillance.
Inside the barns, vets will take temperatures, assess the horses' overall state of health (are they eating, drinking, peeing and pooping?) and ... watch and wait.
"The whole point of quarantine is to mitigate the opportunity of diseases being introduced," Ford said. "During their time here, the horses will be given great veterinary scrutiny to see that everything's working like it's supposed to be working."
Just in case, he has four isolation stalls in separate tents.
A disease exemption
Most importantly, the World Equestrian Games vets, under the supervision of the USDA and state veterinarians, will draw blood samples. They will be sent by UPS to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for testing for four diseases — dourine, glanders, equine infectious anemia and equine piroplasmosis.
Should a horse test positive for any of the first three, and the result is confirmed, it will be denied entry to the United States.
But the USDA has granted an exemption for WEG for piroplasmosis-positive horses because it is a tick-borne disease. Games officials have gone to great lengths to show that, with the ticks dormant at this time of year, the risk can be contained.
Piroplasmosis-positive horses will be quartered in separate stalls at the Horse Park, grazed in separate areas under regulatory supervision, and checked for ticks each time they come and go.
And to further limit the possibility of transmission, tick carriers (dogs) are banned from the Horse Park for the duration. A horse cannot transmit the disease to another horse unless a tick is involved.
"All the horses coming are in exceptional shape and health status," Ford said. And WEG, the USDA and Kentucky intend to keep them that way. "I don't think there will be a safer place in the world for a horse."
A lot of disinfectant
The horses flying into Northern Kentucky have been gathering from Europe and the Middle East at Liege, Belgium, a major European cargo and transport hub. They have been checked out by vets on that end. (No team wants to send a sick horse that can't compete.)
Each flight is timed so horses will arrive nine to 10 days before their competition.
After their 91/2-hour flights from Liege, the horses may stretch their legs by walking around the inside track of the quarantine barn in scheduled rotations.
"These are fit athletes. We want to maintain their condition as best we can," Ford said.
Their grooms, who will all pass through their own Customs trailer, will be permitted in each day in Tyvek overalls and boot covers to feed, water and tend the horses. Each horse may bring its own packaged feed, but only for the duration of the quarantine. Anything not eaten on the grounds will be destroyed.
Stall bedding is being provided. Equipment that comes in with the horses will be disinfected. Everything that comes off the plane — even the travel crates — will be cleaned before going back.
At peaks, with two flights a day arriving, there might be as many as 150 horses in the quarantine facility at a time. All those horses will be making a lot of manure. It will be collected in double-sealed plastic bags until the USDA has declared the horses disease-free, when it will go, along with the bedding, to a landfill.
The round trip
Horses will begin the return trip as early as Sept. 28, two days after the endurance competition. And they will pass back through the Cincinnati quarantine facility, where they might be tested for mosquito-borne West Nile virus and other diseases before being shipped back out.
All horse owners were strongly encouraged to have their animals vaccinated before WEG for West Nile, which pops up most years in Kentucky now.
Ford, like animal health officials worldwide, is on the lookout for any problems on the global radar.
"We're maintaining the same surveillance we always do," he said. "We have sick horses every day everywhere."