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Kathy Wiles

A South African equestrian medical activist who has campaigned to educate the global equestrian community on the dangers of African Horse Sickness


1 -    What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?

Actually I left this question until last, as I’ve not been able to think of a specific great change in the past.  However, the greatest change I would like to witness, is better treatment of horses!


2 -    Do you ride?

Yes I started riding at the age of 8 and still do at 52.  I’ve always ridden for pure pleasure and not competition, but may try a dressage test or two over the next year – if my current instructor keeps helping me to improve and my horses decide they like it.


3 -    Do you own a horse?

Yes I own three, a bay Thoroughbred gelding of 19 called George Carey, who has been with me for 6 years, a stunning chestnut Arab/Saddler cross gelding of 9 called Chess, who came to me 7 years ago and an Arab/Boerperd cross gelding of 7 called Sultan, who I’ve had since the moment he was born.


4 -    Who is your favuorite horse in history?

Black Beauty and my three horses.


5 -    Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?

Living in South Africa I would say the scientist, Dr Baltus Erasmus, who over 40 years ago, invented the current vaccine to protect horses against African horse sickness. Although it is impossible to give exact numbers, this vaccine must have saved hundreds of thousands of horses up to now.  As time goes on, it becomes more significant, as this dreaded disease now threatens other countries in the world.


6 -    What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?

I think it must have been Black Beauty, as I remember this having the biggest impact on my emotions and setting me off on a life mission to make the world a better place for horses. To this day I am seriously affected by cruelty and neglect and remain determined to act as a ‘voice’ for horses.


7 -    What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?

It is very difficult to think of a specific book, but I will always recommend to any horse owner, especially a new horse owner, that they should read every bit of quality information on horse care, before reading books on different riding styles and before deciding to own horses. One of the many books I like on general treatment and care of horses, including handling and riding them, is ‘Considering the Horse’ by Mark Rashid.


8 -    How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian speciality?

MY specific equestrian ‘specialty’ currently is African horse sickness (AHS).

For 4 years I have done on-going study, work and help with research. I became interested four years ago when we were hit with a very unexpected outbreak of AHS where I live - in the Southern Cape of South Africa – an area which had been free of this virus for more than 100 years.  


9 -    What prompted you to enter that field?

More than what ‘prompted’ me is, is what sent me into a spinning state of panic when the outbreak pounced on us out of nowhere and my most beautiful horse had not been vaccinated at the time (due to fear of vaccine reaction which he’d had the year before). My knowledge of African horse sickness (AHS) also left a lot to be desired. Horses were dying all around me  - 130 cases and over 86 dead – in a radius area of about 100km. The fear I felt was immense, the sorrow of horse owners and the ugliness of horses dying in such agony, was almost the end of me!


Vaccinating at the start of an outbreak is not recommended, as it knocks the horse’s immune system initially and could make them more susceptible to picking up a virus which is already circulating. It can take up to three months to develop immunity from the vaccine and the best protection will only be achieved between 3 and 8 months afterwards. The third and most frustrating problem, is that a horse actually requires three sets of the AHS vaccine (6 months apart) in order to be considered ‘adequately covered’.  Immunity becomes stronger over time.


I had to make the decision whether to vaccinate or not and thank goodness I did, because I still have my horses. Although outbreaks normally only last for around 6 months, this one ‘over-wintered’ in the area, which is very unusual and ended up lasting 19 months.  During that time I used every other protection measure available and took my horse’s temperatures every 5 hours. There were also so many unusual circumstances about this outbreak and because it was the first in 100 years, it was the perfect opportunity to help with accurate research, by tracking every case and the movement over the 19 month period.


10 -    Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?

Yes clearly and most definitely. This very special and energetic man is Douglas Welsh who lives in Natal, South Africa and is the founder of the African Horse Sickness Trust.  He had lost his (vaccinated) horse 8 months prior to that in another outbreak and was so devastated that it launched him into a massive campaign of helping to educate horse owners and highlight the need for research and a new vaccine.  Apart from many changes he has brought about amongst ‘role players’,  he’s made a big difference in the way horse owners are warned, by developing an ‘early warning system’, in the form of a map on the AHS Trust website, which shows where outbreaks are currently happening.


When the outbreak started here he flew down and called a meeting of horse owners in the area. Apart from educating us, he begged for help with research, specifically because it was a ‘clean slate’ making it far easier to track every case.  As well as this, he investigated and found that a group of 13 zebra, which had just been re-located to a new game farm here, were the likely cause of the outbreak. I was absolutely fascinated and determined to prove it !


Initially I thought many of the 120 horse owners who attended the meeting, would be willing volunteers for helping with research. But a few days later when I phoned Douglas Welsh, he said nobody had contacted him.  Immediately I said – well here I am !


I have to mention two other people, Dr Gert Venter, the top AHS Entomologist in SA and Karien Labuschagne, his assistant and ‘Identification Expert’. These two special people work at Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute – Agricultural Research Council. Dr Venter has been working on the midge vector of this virus (Cullicoides imicola and Cullicoides bolitinos) for more than 20 years and his knowledge is exceptional.  Their willingness to communicate, help and work with me, has been an incredible inspiration and so has their wonderful sense of humour ! They also show great appreciate for my input.


Of course firstly, it is horses that inspired me and in particular my Chess (not being vaccinated at the time) that set me on a mission to learn everything possible from the most accurate sources available, because I never, ever want to lose a horse to AHS.


11 -  When did you begin your research, investigation, work?

In November 2005, when the outbreak started.


12 -    What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?

Again difficult to say as there are just so many and it’s non-ending. I think my most important discovery has been that zebra play a significant role in the maintenance and distribution of AHS in Africa and yet they are disregarded and not included in the AHS laws which apply to all equines - horse, donkey and mule owners in the Republic of South Africa.  In my opinion, this unacceptable lack of control is due only to the fact that the right people have not been keeping count of new game farms, numbers of zebra  and movement. There is a huge export market for zebra meat and skins as well. We have to prove to the Department of Agriculture that the laws need updating – by investigating the actual start of outbreaks and absolutely nobody is doing that. At the time they were put in place, zebra herds were confined to very few big game parks only and there was little or no movement to other areas. Although a lot of scientific research was done in the 1990’s to prove that large-enough zebra herds can maintain a permanent reservoir for AHS and clear warnings were given then, nobody is taking notice and many have not even read the research that was done!


Things have now completely changed and continue to change - with Game Farms sprouting up in new areas all over the country at an alarming rate. The right people are not focusing on and considering the serious consequences - which researchers warned about 10 years ago – ‘of new "reservoirs" of the virus being created in new areas across South Africa’ (B.J.H. Barnard).  Many SA farmers are selling up and their farms are fast being turned into game farms – which are very, very lucrative and require little labour, no feeding, etc.


My most important achievement is learning as much as I have about the disease, making very valuable contacts with important Role Players and scientists and most importantly, the difference I have made in helping horse owners and saving their horses' lives.


My biggest insight has been that there is a huge gap in communication between the Scientists at the top and the horse owners on the ground and that if that gap is not somehow corrected, accurate research will never be possible.  Therefore the current launch of my new project, which I’m calling AHS equi-link – African horse sickness research assistance and surveillance project.       


13 -    What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?

In learning and communication, by investigating who all the top AHS specialists are, introducing myself and asking them very nicely to communicate with me – for their sake and ours – and by trying to always get the most accurate and up-to-date research papers from them (when they are willing). In getting my word out, I approach horse or horse-related publications and send my own news letters out regularly to horse owners.

Since my discovery of the Long Rider’s Guild, I’m finding them very helpful, so I hope to build and maintain a good relationship with them


14 -    What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?

Every single part of it !


15 -    What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?

Mostly I manage to get response from the scientists I approach and have developed some good relationships, but there are times when I’m regarded as an unnecessary ‘layman’ and not treated with much respect - especially when approaching new scientists who don’t know me.  That makes me sad. I have done an enormous amount of study and work on this disease in the last 4 years with absolutely no financial help (which I can’t afford) but I still don’t have the ‘Dr’ in front of my name or  ‘qualifications’ needed, in order to be taken seriously enough by certain scientists who are important in the whole AHS picture !

The other big disappointment is that so little money is available for research, so few people in SA are working on AHS and the Department of Agriculture still regard horses as ‘play things for the rich’.  I want to do an ‘Economic Impact Study’ in order to prove them all wrong, but I don’t have the finance to do it.


16 -    How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?

Difficult to explain, but a very big problem. 


17 -    What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?

Currently I believe more AHS research should be listed as critically important and very urgent,  clearly because there is now a very real threat of it moving overseas and I can’t think of any country, which is anywhere near prepared for the total devastation an unexpected outbreak will cause – especially since the only vaccine available at this time is the one made in SA and which takes a long time to build adequate immunity.  There has been a great lack of new research being done over the last ten years, a shortage of people to do it and no funding.


To me it is very obvious that the necessary AHS research should be done in South Africa, where outbreaks are happening in many different areas, every year without fail. Also where the whole pattern and epidemiology of AHS is changing before our eyes, where there is nobody on the ground investigating the start of outbreaks and where new reservoirs are being formed. It is also the most likely place that AHS will come from if it reaches Europe.


My strongest feeling is that more focus should be put on keeping the disease under control here and to stop it leaving, rather than attempting to keep ‘all the other doors closed’ in other countries once it’s left. It is the perfect and most obvious place to do research right now.


18 -    Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?

In all areas where there is cruelty and neglect, due to either lack of knowledge or not caring. I don’t like certain styles of training – for example in the ‘American Saddler’ group here – where all sorts of artificial and unnecessary gadgets are used to cause the horse pain and force him into accepting his rider’s cruelty.


19 -    How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?

Mostly by writing articles in magazines and papers which will be read by horse owners.  I also have a growing data list of horse owners and keep in touch with them via e-mail.  I must start my own website as well now and I would love to make contact with top scientists overseas, who may be interested and willing to communicate with me. I have absolutely no doubt that I could be very valuable as ‘research assistant’ with excellent knowledge of AHS.  I would also like to be invited to give talks in Europe or the States on my experiences with many different African horse sickness issues in South Africa.  When I discover something ‘on the ground’ I always let the AHS scientists know.


20 -    What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?



21 -    Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?

Yes, unexpected outbreaks of African horse sickness pouncing on unsuspecting horse owners and resulting in thousands of really horrible horse deaths. They will not believe it until they see it, but by then it will be too late!


22 -    What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?

Sorry but I need to think very hard about an answer to this one!


23 -     What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?

Right now I am busy designing my new website for AHS equi-link, African horse sickness Research Assistance and Surveillance Project.  It will have so much interesting and helpful information on it, including everything about me, what I do and where I feel I can help with AHS.  I have never had anything published in a book,  Magazines I would need to give issue dates which I don’t have off hand, but I have done a few for South Africa’s leading horse magazine  ‘HQ’ (Horse Quarterly).  I also have documents I’ve written at different times, including detailed case studies of the outbreak here, which I can send to people.


24 -    Any final thoughts?

My message to horse owners world-wide, is ‘catch a wake up’ (as Douglas Welsh told us after he lost his extremely valuable horse), learn everything you can before you are hit with AHS, because once your horse has it, you won’t have time to learn - AHS can kill within a few hours of symptoms being noticed and you don’t want to watch what your horse will go through. Sometimes they recover and you never know when, so putting them down to save more pain is a difficult decision to make – especially when you are in a state of utter panic..


To all the top ‘Role Players’, experts and scientists of the world I say, please go into fast mode with taking precautions to prevent AHS spreading to your countries, please take note of what is happening in South Africa, what is being exported from SA and how bad the consequences will be if you are not ready and very well informed by the time it hits you.


I have the utmost respect for scientists and what they do for us, but I would like to just say this:- Unfortunately I was unable to go to university, as both my parents died      when I was 17, but that does not mean I don’t have the intelligence to learn just as much as you have about African horse sickness! It also doesn’t mean that I can’t be of great value to you on the ground, Where most scientists don’t have the time to be. If you give me half a chance and the funding needed, I may even help to find some of the ‘missing links’ you’ve been looking for since AHS first started in SA and killed so many horses.

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