Sand Wash Basin horses won’t be used at Mustang Makeover amid outbreak of unknown illness

85 horses have died at holding facility in just five days

An unknown illness has killed 85 horses at the Bureau of Land Management’s holding facility in Cañon City. Horses from the Sand Wash Basin are housed at the facility, which is under quarantine.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Wild horses from the Sand Wash Basin will not be delivered to trainers participating in the Meeker Mustang Makeover after an unknown illness has killed 85 horses in the last five days at a government holding facility in Cañon City.

Instead, Deirdre Macnab, board president for the annual horse training challenge, said the Bureau of Land Management worked in a short time frame to get horses from other locations in the West to Meeker this weekend.

“We’re all systems go,” Macnab said. “We’ve found horses, very good ones, from other areas of the country, and they will be delivered (Thursday, April 28) to the Rio Blanco County Fairgrounds.”

The BLM also has postponed an adoption event planned for the Routt County Fairgrounds in Hayden on May 20 and 21 in response to the outbreak, according to BLM Colorado Spokesperson Steven Hall.

On Wednesday, April 27, the illness killing horses at the holding facility was still unknown, Hall said.

There is no date for when the Hayden adoption event could happen at this time, but Hall said the agency intends to reschedule.

The horses used for the Meeker Mustang Makeover were supposed to include some of the ones rounded up in the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area last fall, but the holding facility in Cañon City is currently under a quarantine because of an outbreak of illness among another group of horses.

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According to the Sand Wash Advocacy Team, an advocacy group that works with the BLM, the Sand Wash Basin horses are in different corrals than the West Douglas horses, which are most impacted by the outbreak. The corrals are about 300 yards apart from each other.

The BLM is working with Colorado State University and the University of California Davis to identify the illness. Ginger Fedak, director of the Wild Horse and Burro Program for the group In Defense of Animals noted those are two of the best veterinary schools in the country

“This is spreading so rapidly and it’s so lethal,” Fedak said. “That’s what the mystery is — what could this be?”

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The illness doesn’t seem like it could be strangles — a malady similar to strep throat in humans — because, while it can be lethal, strangles wouldn’t be killing this many horses, Fedak said.

Despite the change in horses used for the makeover, Macnab said she hasn’t had any of the trainers back out.

Macnab doesn’t know where all the horses are coming from at this point, but she said she is excited for the event.

“It’s a bit like going on a blind date,” Macnab said. “It’s going to be just as exciting as getting a Sand Wash horse because we have no idea, until they drop those horses off, what they’re going to look like.”

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