Equine Testing With USDA Wreaks Heartache For Some When Importing Horses

Monday, August 24, 2020
Posted by Lynndee Kemmet



Just two months before the pandemic shut down international travel, Cheryl Benefiel made a trip to the United Kingdom searching for that “dream horse.” She found her. A beautiful, five-year-old gray mare named Libris Charlotte. As Benefiel began the process of getting her new horse to America, she was unaware that she was about to join a tragic group of horse owners – those bringing a horse into the U.S. that, upon landing, doesn’t test negative for an infectious disease.

©Victoria DeMore Photography

Airport for horses
Containers with horses ready to load into cargo plane

“Everything became a complete nightmare,” said Benefiel of the battle to save her new mare after a non-negative test.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its role of protecting the U.S. domestic horse herd from infectious diseases brought in from abroad, requires that arriving horses be immediately quarantined and tested for the diseases glanders, dourine, equine piroplasmosis and equine infectious anemia, of which the first three are the most serious and the main focus of testing. Most horses being imported into the U.S. are coming from countries that have also successfully eradicated these diseases and therefore, there is little risk that these imported horses carry any of them.

Generally, the importation process goes somewhat smoothly. But every year, a dozen or more horses, even after testing negative before boarding a plane to the U.S., test positive for one of these diseases upon arriving in America. Most horse owners refer to this as a false positive test result. The USDA prefers the term non-negative and because it affects so few horses, it has not been of much concern to the USDA.

“Since 2016, the U.S. has imported close to 39,000 horses though airports. Of this total, fewer than one percent of horses have received non-negative results during import quarantine,” said Mike Stepien with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Non Negative Results Don't Mean Horses Have the Disease

But for those one percent of horses that don’t test negative, the importation effort can turn into not only a huge headache for their owners but in some cases also a heartache.

When asked how many of those dozen horses a year might actually have the disease for which the USDA tested them positive, Cliff Williamson, with the American Horse Council, said “none of them.” And for those horses that do come up with a false positive test, owners face two choices – send the horse back from whence it came or euthanize it. Williamson said the difference between life and death for that horse often comes down to the owner’s financial resources.

“The majority of these animals are ones that were purchased abroad and then brought into the U.S. But there have been at least two valuable, high-profile horses that recently got caught up in this testing situation. They were given more time to resolve this, probably because of their value. Those given a line in the sand don’t have the resources to stand up to the USDA,” Williamson said.

One of those more well-known cases was the Grand Prix dressage horse Sagacious HF, owned by Hyperion Farm, which tested positive for glanders after a return trip to the U.S. three years ago. The case raised awareness of the nightmare that horse owners can face when importing horses to the U.S. but the problem still exists as Benefiel sadly discovered. And she has not been the only case this year.

Discussion Group Meeting With the USDA To Revise the Testing Protocols
Scartlett Gotwalls
Scarlette Gotwals, a veterinarian who is the director of flight operations for Horse America, Inc.

The heartache that those owners go through has been witnessed too many times by Scarlette Gotwals, a veterinarian who is the director of flight operations for Horse America, Inc. She is part of the discussion group meeting with the USDA to revise the testing protocols and has often battled alongside owners to save horses caught in the testing trap. It is a fight she has waged for years but one that seems to have become more difficult to win in recent years.

“The USDA doesn’t allow for interpretation anymore because the old guard is gone and been replaced with just bureaucrats who don’t understand the testing and won’t, and can’t, interpret,” she said. “The USDA used to have veterinarians in charge of field operations who would review an individual situation and make an interpretation. Now, no one will do anything outside of a rule book.”

The issue of false positives is also becoming more sensitive in the equestrian community because the people who are importing horses has also changed, Williamson said. Years ago, most of the people importing horses to the U.S. were doing it for business reasons and the horses were more of a commodity. They accepted the percentage risk that they might have to euthanize the horse or send it back if its test resulted in a false positive.

“Now, while the majority brought in are either competition animals that have been away for a long period of time or are being brought in to become competition animals, there are also those that ‘are my daughter’s first horse.’ We used to see just trainers and breeders bringing in horses but there are now individuals who are uncomfortable with euthanizing horses because it’s the cheapest option on the table. To them it is murdering a horse for no reason,” Williamson said.

This was the situation Benefiel faced with Libris Charlotte when the mare landed in the U.S. through Miami and failed a test for dourine. “She tested negative before leaving. Dourine is a sexually transmitted disease and she is five, never bred and was never even near a stallion. She came to the U.S. and tested non-negative – a plus 3. She was retested again and was a plus 2. Obviously, she wasn’t bred on the plane, so everyone knew she didn’t have dourine.”

So many things can impact a blood test – the stress of travel, the type of test used, contamination of the blood test. Dr. Gotwalls advises being diligent about vaccines and medications prior to shipping. Stepien referred to USDA testing protocols as simply a risk assessment process. “USDA equine import testing protocol is not intended to diagnose individual clinical or subclinical cases. Rather, it is a risk assessment and avoidance measure to protect the U.S. equine population from disease introduction.” His commented that “reactions to the test completed while horses are in import quarantine could be due to multiple components including elevated serum components, shipping stress or cross reactions due to infection with other agents.”

For horse owners, that comment implies USDA awareness that non-negative tests do not actually mean a horse has the disease for which it was tested. When asked why horse owners are not allowed to keep horses in quarantine for an additional time and do later tests, Stepien replied that “all horses imported requiring quarantine follow the established testing protocol. As stated above, test results are used as a risk assessment toward potential exposure to the domestic equine population.”

Benefiel did attempt to get the USDA to allow Libris Charlotte to remain in quarantine for longer and undergo a third test after the horse had time to settle and destress from her trip. But that was not the normal USDA protocol and the USDA refused despite the fact that she was covering all the costs of quarantine and testing.

“The government charges the owner all the costs. So, the federal government actually makes money off these animals stuck in quarantine,” Williamson said. “But the problem is that the USDA has understaffed these import facilities and the regions where they are located to a point where the staff physically can’t keep up, at least that’s what they say.”

Williamson said the American Horse Council got involved in the testing issues several years ago as horse owners began turning to their members of Congress for help. One of the first members of Congress to be approached by a constituent was Rep. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and that is what got the American Horse Council involved. “We have a good relationship with that office and they reached out to us for help,” Williamson said.

Benefiel reached out to another member of Congress for help as well as to a Kentucky attorney who has taken the lead on helping many horse owners battle the USDA.

“We got Chapman Hopkins involved (the Kentucky attorney). He got in touch with Congressman Andy Barr (R-Kentucky) and his staff went to work on the case. Our goal was to get the protocol changed. All we were asking for was a retest of the horse,” Benefiel said. Letters were written, meetings held, but she kept hitting a brick wall. “We were getting nowhere with USDA. They refused a third test because, basically, they said they didn’t have too.”

Only this year, after several years of saying ‘no’, has the USDA been willing to have discussions with the equine industry about its testing protocols, Williamson said. At the moment, the industry is just seeking small changes from the USDA – allowing for a longer quarantine period, perhaps as long as 28 days, and additional disease testing. “We are in the midst of a conversation now with USDA and I’m encouraged that changes will be made. But it has taken four years to get to this point,” Williamson said.

Stepien confirmed that the USDA is reviewing the situation. “Yes, the USDA is reviewing the current protocol in conjunction with state animal health officials to ensure information is provided clearly with consistent expectations for testing.”

But quarantine times and retesting aren’t the only issues. With some diseases, the U.S. doesn’t use the same methods, or follow the same process as other countries. While Stepien said that the USDA is “confident in our precautionary measures to keep the United States free of disease,” Williamson said that position is questionable. “The USDA believes that American standards are the highest in the world and that is infinitely debatable.”

Gotwals agreed. “The methods and regulations the U.S. follows were written 40 years ago. Other countries are using more modern, cleaned up tests so they don’t have as many reactions.”

The equine industry feels that there are some possible solutions to the testing issue. For example, one could be that if a test comes up positive, to allow the horse to be retested using a different type of test, such as in the case of glanders switching from using the complement fixation test (CFT) to the Western blot, or retest using a different testing lab. “But the USDA won’t even do corroborative testing. And they won’t trust that the Europeans actually tested THAT horse. So, they want to test themselves,” Gotwals said.

Changing the U.S. testing process will require changes in legislation. That is something that the equine industry is now looking to do. But that, Williamson said, is a more long-term battle to be fought with the USDA. “Those conversations with USDA, including the idea of retesting using another lab, get shut down immediately. They want only tests from them. We are in discussions to address the test themselves but that’s a years-long solution.”

For now, the industry is looking for short-term wins with USDA by focusing on longer quarantine periods and more retesting. “Leaving horse in quarantine longer and retesting is a band-aid but it’s helpful,” Gotwals said.

Benefiel and Libris Charlotte
Libris Charlotte was one of the lucky horses. Now safely at home in the U.S., Benefiel said the mare “is doing amazing.” The battle to get her into America was hard fought and won with the help of a team of people, but Benefiel said it was worth it. © Victoria DeMore Photography

In her own case, Benefiel was determined to save the life of Libris Charlotte, which she purchased as an eventing prospect. Told the mare must be euthanized or sent out of the U.S. after the second non-negative test, Benefiel went to work trying to get the mare out of quarantine and straight back to the U.K. She had already learned that a similar situation had just happened to a mare that shipped into the U.S. through New York and that mare’s owners, unable to afford to send her back, had no option left other than to euthanize their new horse.

“We were afraid the same thing would happen with our mare,” Benefiel said. She first fought to have Libris Charlotte stay longer in quarantine and be tested a third time but lost that battle.

With the help of the mare’s breeder, Rosie de Courcy, the UK government agreed to allow Libris Charlotte to return. But by then, the mare “had spent 21 days in isolation at a significant cost to us and stress on her being separated from other horses. We didn’t even know how she was doing,” Benefiel said. Gotwals and a U.K. shipper, Lucy Greayer with Bloodstock Shipping, then went to work getting Libris Charlotte out of the U.S. and back to the U.K.

Upon landing back in the U.K., Libris Charlotte was immediately tested again for dourine and it was negative. The mare’s original trainer, Mike Winter of Wayfarer Eventing, took her back and kept her in training while Benefiel decided her next move.

“We had searched all over and we really felt she was a special mare. So, we decided to try and get her back,” Benefiel said. The blood work was again done in the UK, but this time, it was also sent to the USDA lab in Iowa, where it all also tested negative. When the mare was in the air, Benefiel’s attorney, Chapman Hopkins, sent the USDA a letter informing them the mare was returning and giving them all the blood work results. This second time, all went well.

“She landed and came through Chicago and this time, everything went smooth,” Benefiel said.

Williamson said more support is needed from the U.S. equestrian community in the form of pressuring their members of Congress to address the testing issue with the USDA. Despite the fact that only a small percentage of horses coming into the U.S. get caught in the false positive testing net, he warned that any horse owner could become part of that small percentage and face a tragic situation. “The threat is real, even for high-level competitors,” he said. “The problem isn’t the scale of people impacted, it’s that it is capable of impacting anyone.”

Libris Charlotte was one of the lucky horses. Now safely at home in the U.S., Benefiel said the mare “is doing amazing.” The battle to get her into America was hard fought and won with the help of a team of people, but Benefiel said it was worth it. “She’s a very sweet mare. She is just thriving. We are so glad that we didn’t give up. But for countless others, I can’t imagine the horror they’ve had to go through when they have to put down their horse.”