I recently returned from what was likely a once-in-a-lifetime, part-work/part-play trip to South Africa's Western Cape. The work aspect included covering the Cape's Thoroughbred breeders' seminar as well as attending the region's premier yearling sale.

The sale is in its infancy--having only been held since 2011--so I was curious to see the types of racehorses offered as well as how the organizers conducted the event.

Yearlings were able to touch noses and mouths at will while housed at the sale.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Living less than 10 miles from both Lexington's Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton sales facilities, I've witnessed some pretty incredible and pricy auctions. These are the type of sales South African breeders aim to emulate, but I noticed some obvious differences in how the Cape sale horses were managed compared to our Thoroughbreds in the United States.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of biosecurity. More than 200 yearlings were housed in temporary stalls within the bays of Cape Town's international convention center. Horses were able to touch noses and gnash teeth at will between each stall's bars. This lead to a lot of biting, squealing, and kicking, and created potential for horses to spread disease. Further, I never saw anyone wash their hands between petting or handling horses, and the local public was able to enter the barns and touch the horses as well.

I asked Dr. Montague N. Saulez (BVSc MS Dipl. ACVIM, ECEIM, PhD), specialist in large animal medicine at the Cape's Drakenstein Veterinary Clinic, if this housing system raised a disease risk red flag for him as well. He said that, yes, infectious disease spread is conceivable and, in fact, a yearling from the sales is currently in his clinic's isolation ward for bacterial lymphadenopathy (suspected strangles).

Warts, which in the States would be removed prior to a sale, were visible on several yearlings' muzzles.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Also at the sales I noted a large number of yearlings sporting unsightly warts on their muzzles. Dr. Saulez explained to me that they are caused by the potentially contagious equine papillovirus, which commonly infects the skin cells of horses younger than three.

"Overseas such horses would normally have had the warts crushed, and they would not be visible," he said--another difference between our countries' sales practices.

South Africa does seem to have solid infectious disease control, however, in regards to African horse sickness (AHS), which authorities have successfully prevented from escaping the country's borders into unaffected areas. I learned that shortly after the German sire Silvano first shuttled down to the Western Cape in 2003 for breeding purposes, his return to Germany was hampered by an AHS outbreak. Silvano himself was not affected by the disease, but the quarantine restrictions were so strict (currently about five months for horses exiting the country, but can be as long as 24 months) that it didn't make economic sense to send him back to Germany post-outbreak.

Silvano offspring, such as this colt, are popular in South Africa. Silvano himself is a permanent resident of the country thanks to quarantine restrictions for African horse sickness.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

So now, 11 years later, Silvano resides and breeds at South Africa's Maine Chance Farm. At the sale, owner Andreas Jacobs said every now and then (well, twice) quarantine restrictions ease up enough to allow the stallion entrance back into Germany for a breeding season, but for the most part his residency and breeding activity is limited only to South African mares. No surprise that he's now one of the country's leading sires!

All in all, this was a cool opportunity to see how different sectors of the same industry operate. Have you ever had a similar equine culture shock moment?