The Great Epizootic: Sick Horses Bring the Economy to a Square Halt

Leslie Threlkeld

Before the days of the Ford Model T, the horse was the primary mode of transportation and essential to sustaining the needs of the public, but during the Panic of 1873, which became known as the Great Epizootic, an equine influenza epidemic brought the economy to a standstill.


The Panic of 1873
A highly contagious strain of equine influenza originated in Toronto, Canada and swept south into the US in late 1872, affecting the entire country within 90 days.  It is estimated that 80%-99% of horses were eventually infected.  Horses were unable to stand in their stables and were seen coughing violently in the streets.
The unfortunate circumstances brought about endless consequences to commerce, public health and safety, and economic efficiency.  Food and other goods couldn’t reach the market.  Physicians struggled to reach patients in a timely manner.  Firemen hitched themselves to wagons.  Even the US military was forced to fight the Apache Indians on foot.
While the mortality rate was relatively low, estimated at only 1%-2% overall, large cities lost many more horses than in rural areas.  Since there were no horses to haul coal out of mines, many railroads went bankrupt as well as thousands of other businesses.  Most of the infected horses had recovered by the next spring, but the economy took years to bounce back.  
The Great Boston Fire
On November 9, 1872, the industrial section of Boston burned.  No one is certain how the fire started.  The water supply in the area was inadequate, and many of the buildings had wooden roofs and were filled with flammable materials.  Citizens of Boston were forced to haul water to the location on foot, without the assistance of heavy, faster-moving horses.  According to the city website, the fire destroyed 776 buildings, killed 13 people, and caused $7.5 million in damages.  
A Modern Epidemic
In August 2007, a similar outbreak in equine influenza occurred in Australia.  According to a NYT article, the government ordered a 72-hour lockdown, canceling races and banning the transport of horses from their stables in an attempt to control the spread of the virus.  The Sydney International horse trials, an Olympic qualifying event, was also cancelled.
Around the same time as the Australian outbreak, races in Japan were cancelled when several horses tested positive for influenza.
Continued Education
Equine influenza has a similar effect on horses as it does humans: high fever, loss of appetite, violent coughing.  It is rarely fatal and is most dangerous to foals.  It it not infectious to humans, but the virus can be transported to other horses via our skin and clothing.

Much of what is known about the epidemic stems from research provided by the Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation.  The official American government report of the epidemic by Dr. James Law can be found here.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners lists highly recommended vaccinations for your adult horse, and the editors of Practical Horseman have created a good list based on your horse’s lifestyle.  
The best thing for you to do is consult your veterinarian.  Choose a vaccination and deworming schedule best suited for your horse and his level of activity.  Don’t wait for your vet to remind you the horse is due for shots.  Get a calendar and keep up. 
New York TimesPress accounts from 1872

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