A deadly strain of a fast-spreading horse virus that's shown up in nine Western states _ where cases have doubled in the last week _ has forced contestants vying for the title of "posse junior queen" in one Utah county to ride stick horses to demonstrate their cowgirl skills.
Use of the pretend horses, made of straight sticks and fabric horse heads, comes as some other horse events scheduled for the Memorial Day weekend in Utah have been cancelled. The outbreak of the equine herpes virus, which is highly contagious among horses, started at an Ogden, Utah, horse show earlier this month.
There are now 75 confirmed cases of the virus in the nine states and horses at 61 facilities are suspected of being infected, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. A week ago, there were 34 confirmed cases and 9 horses had died, while 46 facilities were impacted.
The agency said 11 horses had been euthanized as of Wednesday, when officials from impacted states reported their data to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service, which issued a weekly report Thursday night. Another horse died Friday in New Mexico, bringing the national total to 12.
The Davis County Sheriff's Office Mounted Posse Junior Queen Contest was postponed a week as officials hoped to wait out quarantines, but the competition went ahead in an arena about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
"With a stick horse it's a lot different because you have to do all the work, and I think it's going to be a lot more tiring than with a real horse," contestant Kylie Felter told KSL-TV.
Potential posse junior queens were asked to trot around with the stick horses as a test of whether they knew the routine, which is usually performed by the show horse, former queen Savanna Steed told the Salt Lake City television station.
"It's kind of weird, but you can't really help that the disease is going around," she said.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington have cases, the USDA said. An infected horse initially reported to the USDA as being from Texas was actually from New Mexico and has been returned to that state.
Horses from Alberta and British Columbia were also infected. Canadian officials have not reported any new confirmed cases this week.
New Mexico state veterinarian Dr. Dave Fly said all of his state's cases involve horses already placed in three of the quarantined facilities. To prevent further spread, horse owners are being urged to limit travel and the New Mexico Livestock Board is recommending that major or large equine events be cancelled for the next 10 days.
"We've got to make sure we don't have it moving somewhere we don't know about," Fly said. "Because of the cases we had this last week and other states have had, we feel it's important that we give it another week to be sure we really have it under control."
Nevada officials are not recommending the cancellation of any events, said Dr. Annette Rink, the director of the state's Animal Disease Lab. Instead, owners of infected horses, or even those showing basic signs of infection such as a fever or runny nose, are being told to keep their horses quarantined.
Because the virus isn't new and the outbreak seems to be running its expected course, Rink said she expects "horses will be back to their normal lives" in about a week. But she hoped that horse owners and event organizers would learn from this outbreak and remain diligent about monitoring their horses' health to prevent future outbreaks.
"It's definitely a cause for concern, but not a reason for panic," Rink said. "Our focus is preventing those infected horses stay put and don't infect other horses."
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://twitter.com/joshloftin.