We Should All Be Funding Equine Medical Research

This is a tremendously significant program, one that everyone who competes—in every single discipline—should embrace wholeheartedly.

Could my $1 contribution to equine medical research make this scene—a newborn foal in a vet clinic—less common?

Last week, on the Horse Journal front page, we posted my article on the U.S. Eventing Association’s new program to fund equine medical research by collecting a $1 starter fee for every horse at every event. I think that this is a tremendously significant and important program, one that everyone who competes with a horse—in every single discipline—should embrace wholeheartedly.

As Kevin Baumgardner, the former USEA http://bit.ly/NwrRWypresident, said to me, “It’s potentially a game changer, something that down the road all the disciplines could be doing, and something we could point to with a lot of pride in the future.”

I’m proud that my fellow USEA members created of this plan, and I’m more than happy to add $1 for every horse I compete.

Dr. Mike Van Noy, who originated the idea, told me, “We should be the ones who are funding equine research. It’s our own horses who benefit. It’s not only an ethical imperative, but it’s also a financial imperative.”

He added, “The people who are the primary beneficiaries are horse owners, so if you own a horse, you are the immediate beneficiary from any investigation into equine health issues.”

Here’s the basis of Mike’s and Kevin’s challenge to the other disciplines to follow their lead: How can anyone balk about being charged a fee that’s directly related to your investment in competing your horse? If you compete two or three times a year, you’re not even adding the price of a Starbucks drink. If you compete 200 times a year, you’re not even adding one entry fee.

I’ll contribute $30 to $35 this year, and I consider it a tremendous bargain, especially if my eager participation induces competitors in other disciplines to join in.

Here are a few of the equine injuries and maladies that I’ve experienced over the years, problems that I hope my $1 per entry might investigate in the near future, to develop new and improved therapies:

When I was riding steeplechase races, every one of my horses, and most of the others that I rode, too, suffered bowed tendons, injuries that either shortened or ended their careers. A friend of mine gave me a former steeplechaser who had bowed one tendon twice, and a year later he bowed it again so badly while turned out that we had no choice but to put him down. So I’d be in favor of any research and improved treatment for bowed tendons, and suspensory ligament, injuries.

Twenty years ago this September, one of my steeplechasers, Adopted Hero, collapsed and died of a ruptured aorta while leading a race, and I’ll always remember the course veterinarian telling me that I couldn’t have prevented it. “Even if you’d been paranoid and done an EKG on him this morning, it wouldn’t have told you this was about to happen,” he told me, a statement that gave me considerable solace. So too did the fact that the end came so quickly and painlessly for Hero—it couldn’t have been two minutes between when he began to falter and when he collapsed to expire in front of us.

Still, I can list 10 or 12 other chasers and eventers I’ve seen die due to cardio-pulmonary failure. The prevalence of the problem is why the USEA has been funding it’s own study, but these collapses remain a mystery.

Colic is, of course, everyone’s big fear, and the causes are as long as your leg. We’ve lost four of our own horses, including our two broodmares, to colic brought on by four different causes.

I don’t think many horse owners or trainers know about sarcoid tumors, but in my experience and observation they’re eventually a death sentence. My great partner Merlin developed a sarcoid tumor on a hind foot that was surgically removed in late 2002, and we would have to put him down because of it in September 2009, at age 15. I’ve seen other horses go much quicker.

Kissing spines is another equine medical mystery. We’ve only had one horse (a client’s) for whom kissing spines was positively identified, but she was only 3. No one at the University of California-Davis could guess why such a young horse had developed this malady, but the only option was to put her down.

Despite all the advances in equine-reproduction technology during the last 30 years, it’s still frustratingly hard to get mares in foal, to bring them to term, and to keep the foals and mares alive and healthy after birth. I believe the basic reason is that, over hundreds of years, we’ve selected mares (and stallions) based on everything but their reproductive capacity, unlike other livestock. We’ve selected them for pedigree, type, speed, gaits, scope, color and a number of useless reasons. But most breeders have never considered their ability to actually reproduce. Plus, equine maternity care lags 100 to 150 years behind the human version.

In the last 16 years, we’ve bred mares 10 times, and on six of those occasions either the mare or the foal has had a serious or a major problem—a foal born with a kidney infection that nearly killed him; two mares who died of colic post-foaling; a foal who was malpresented and had to be pulled out; a foal who was never fully healthy and we put down just before his second birthday because he’d become completely neurologic; and a foal who was born about a month premature and died within hours.

The four who had no problems were all out of the same mare, a draft-cross who’d conceive if you just waved the semen straw behind her when she was in season and then would lie down and deliver effortlessly, almost exactly on her due date. Someone should study her.

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