Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 13:33 UK

Polo pony deaths baffle US vets

A sign stands outside the Palm Beach Equine Clinic
All efforts to save the horses failed

Tests are being carried out to try to discover why 21 polo ponies collapsed and died ahead of a major tournament in Florida at the weekend.

The horses, from a Venezuelan-owned team and valued at $100,000 (£69,000) each, became dizzy and disoriented.

Several died on the spot at the ground in Palm Beach County, while others died hours later as they were being treated.

Veterinarians say they suspect some kind of toxin but say it may be several days before the source is identified.

Polo enthusiasts had gathered on Sunday for the US Open Polo Championship at the polo club in Wellington in Palm Beach County.

As ponies from the Lechuza Caracas team were being unloaded from their horseboxes, several stumbled and fell to the ground.

Fourteen horses had died by Sunday evening, with seven more dying overnight.

"The players, the owners of the horses were in tears. Bystanders and volunteers were in tears," Tony Coppola, a polo club announcer, told the Associated Press.

'Delicate animals'

The Florida agriculture department and the local sheriff's department in Palm Beach County have launched investigations.

File  photo of polo match
Team sport with four players
Aim: to drive ball into opponents' goal using long-handled mallet
Match divided into four to six periods each of up to seven-and-a-half minutes known as "chukkas"
Horses, known as "polo ponies", can be any breed, often thoroughbred or thoroughbread cross
Not allowed to play left-handed

Post-mortems are being carried out on the horses. Officials say because the animals became sick and expired so quickly, they suspect an adverse drug reaction or toxicity.

"We have absolutely no idea exactly what we're looking for, so we have to perform a series of tests," agriculture department spokesman Mark Fagan told the Palm Beach Post newspaper.

"Was it hay, feed, bedding, water? There are a lot of unanswered questions. Horses may be big but they are delicate animals."

However, officials have ruled out an infectious or contagious disease as only animals from the Lechuza team were affected.

The team, owned by Venezuelan businessman Victor Vargas, competes in polo tournaments around the world.

"We are deeply concerned about the death of our ponies," a statement from the team said. "We have never encountered such a dire situation like this as our horses receive the most professional and dedicated care possible."

Teams competing at a high level of polo typically field some 24 ponies, allowing the four riders to change mounts during the course of the fast-moving game.

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