Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Picture: GALLO IMAGES

For decades SA’s horse industry has been handicapped by African horse sickness (AHS), a deadly virus that severely limited its ability to sell horses overseas. This is set to change, bringing with it prospects of surging exports and a huge increase in employment opportunities.

This change in fortunes is thanks to the Equine Research Centre (ERC) at the University of Pretoria, which has developed a new AHS test. Representing a giant step forward, the test provides a result in four hours, compared to three weeks at the moment.

As it stands, SA exports 300-350 horses annually, valued at about R250m. But the long delays, as horses leaving SA are subject to a draconian quarantine of 21 days at the Kenilworth station in Cape Town followed by another 90 days in Mauritius, has curtailed growth in the industry.

The new test, which will radically speed up the process, checks for the virus at the DNA level. It is also 98.7% accurate, compared to the existing test’s 44%.

"There is only a one in 186,000 chance of an error," says Ian Sanne, director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Wits Health Consortium Equine Health Fund.

For stud farm owners, this could unlock immense sums of money. "If it goes ahead, it will be a huge positive," says John Koster, MD of Klawervlei Stud, one of SA’s largest thoroughbred horse breeders.

Quarantine could now be reduced to between 14-21 days, says Sanne.

"About 100-120 racehorses go to race in Mauritius and about another 30 go to other countries," says Peter Gibson, CEO of the SA Equine Trade Council. "Sports horses, mainly endurance horses, make up the balance of exports."

SA’s horse industry is only scratching the surface of its potential. Australia exports about 1,300 racehorses annually, according to Thoroughbred Breeders Australia.

"SA horse exports can easily increase to R1bn," says Sanne — roughly a fourfold increase. Employment in the industry, he believes, could double to 200,000 people.

There are a number of hurdles which have to be cleared before the new vaccine is cleared for use. Already, the new test has been reviewed and accepted by the World Organisation for Animal Health. The European Union is expected to also give it the green light in May.

A new export protocol is already in place. "We must now discuss it with our export partners in the EU, Hong Kong, the Emirates and Singapore," says Sanne.

"Hong Kong will be where it all begins," predicts Koster.

Gibson agrees. "Hong Kong needs more horses and a cheaper platform to buy them off," he says. "The prices of Australian and European horses have become outrageous."

Compared to the prices paid for horses in other countries, SA horses are bargain basement prices. "They average about 10%-15% of world prices," says Gibson.

It is not that SA horses are not right up there with the best its competitors can breed. Not least of SA’s wonder horses is Jay Peg, a product of Klawervlei Stud.

Sold for US$16,150, Jay Peg went on to amass prize money of $4.275m. When he retired to stud in 2009 he had four grade 1 race wins in SA, Singapore and Dubai, three of them in record times.

Still, ultra-low prices for SA horses will be a thing of the past if the export door is opened wide, believes Riaan du Plessis, CEO of horse racing and gaming group Phumelela. "Prices will skyrocket," he says. "Breeders will be the big winners."

Koster sees owners also being big beneficiaries. "They will be able to race their horses overseas, where prize money is far higher than in SA.

" It will stimulate trade. They will be able to sell their horses and will be encouraged to import better stock."

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