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The Horse Trust is the second-largest equine veterinary research funder in the UK, after the Horserace Betting Levy Board (soon to be known as the Racing Authority). The charity, founded in 1886, has given more than £25m in research funding since the mid-1960s.

“We fund non-invasive research of the highest scientific standard that advances our knowledge of veterinary treatment, the optimal care of equids and the prevention of disease and suffering,” explains Jan Rogers, director of research and policy. “Our focus is moving towards translating the outcomes of this research into tools the horse owner can use.

“Current projects that will help alleviate areas of concern for the whole of the equestrian industry include drug resistance and evidence-based worm control. Our disease focus has been strangles, atypical myopathy [an often fatal muscle disease], grass sickness and diseases spread by mosquitoes, but we have also funded work looking into conditions such as osteoarthritis, obesity, stress and insect bite hypersensitivity (sweet itch).”

The Horse Trust aims to understand better the motivation of owners towards yard hygiene (biosecurity), welfare and key lifetime decisions affecting their animals, as well as focusing on horse behaviour and horse-owner interaction.

“In addition, we plan to run a longer-term study involving in-depth information collection to help us get to grips with the health conditions horses experience day to day — problems which may currently go unreported,” adds Jan.

The treatment and management of kidney stonesTHE world of equine veterinary medicine has seen unprecedented progress in recent years. Developments include innovative treatments, greater understanding of known conditions, identification of new diseases and better diagnostic techniques.

The role of an equine vet is very different now in comparison to 25 years ago, mainly through advances in technology. These steps forward have resulted in huge improvements in equine care and the management of disease.

Much of the progress in the past few decades has been driven by advances in knowledge gained through research. Importantly, this has not always occurred as a result of research specifically targeted at horses — rather as a result of the general development of medical technology through research investment aimed at improving human health.

The fact that these discoveries in human healthcare have also benefited the horse has been fortuitous. It is imperative, however, that there is specific equine veterinary research.

Equines can suffer unique problems, which human health research cannot demystify. Many infectious diseases, such as worm infestations, are specific to the horse. Orthopaedic disorders, such as those affecting the hoof, are also unique and need equine specific research to fully identify novel diagnostic techniques, disease prevention and treatment approaches. Furthermore, many equine orthopaedic diseases occur as a result of intense athletic activity — a rare cause of injury in man and something that is often under-researched.

Money matters

The biggest challenges facing equine-specific research are often financial and logistical. Research is expensive to undertake; even relatively straightforward projects can cost millions of pounds.

In human medical research, the money needed for studies frequently comes from a combination of government-funded sources and support from specific — and often extremely wealthy — charitable trusts. Industry and commercial companies invest heavily in human medical research, because the potential commercial returns can be massive. Unfortunately, financial support for equine research is much more modest.

Billions of pounds are invested every year into human healthcare research in the UK, yet a few million at best are spent on equine-specific research. While government will occasionally support equine-specific research, this backing is often limited as the horse is not seen as a large economic priority for research investment.

The racehorse industry has traditionally been a substantial funder of equine research through the Horserace Betting Levy Board. Other major contributors include a variety of charities. World Horse Welfare, Bransby Horses and The Donkey Sanctuary, among others, have been important contributors, along with The Horse Trust (see box, right), which has used research funding as a way of achieving its charitable aims of improving equine wellbeing.

Another challenge facing equine research is logistical. Human medical research is a massive industry and has a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. A limited number of personnel and laboratories are involved in equine research, which does limit the potential returns.

Welfare issues

In the past few decades, there has been a huge growth in epidemiological research. This type of research is the careful and systematic study of disease using natural populations, to understand why disease occurs and what may lead to it.

Epidemiological research can be powerful, as it allows scientists to study the problem and identify “real world” solutions.

Much equine research takes place in the laboratory. It is possible to study many aspects of a clinical problem in the laboratory environment, using tissues and cells obtained from horses and experimented on in petri dishes.

Research into both human medical and veterinary problems often leads to the question of whether it is necessary to experiment on animals. The use of the horse as an experimental animal is incredibly rare in the UK, and when it does occur it is highly regulated. The vast majority of equine research undertaken (including that performed by the author) uses approaches which do not require the use of the horse as an experimental animal.

The UK government, through the Home Office, has specific rules and regulations on the use of animals in research. The welfare and care of the animal is paramount. Any researcher has to demonstrate that the use of animals is essential and the study cannot be done in any other way.

The horse is seen by government as a specific issue as an experimental animal, along with dogs, cats and primates, so careful supervision is necessary for any experiments using live horses. It has to be stressed that permission through licensing must be sought for any experimental procedure carried out on a horse for research.

Most live horse experiments will therefore involve relatively benign procedures. A licence is even required to take a blood sample, for example, if the reason for this is research.

It is an established procedure in the UK that all research using animals, even investigating client-owned animals as part of their natural life, has to be ethical and must be approved by an ethics committee. This usually requires the owner of the animal, or the animal’s agent, to sign a consent form. It does ensure that any research is safe and appropriate, and that owners do not feel pressurised or obliged to take part.

Inevitably, there are many more problems than there are resources available to undertake necessary research.

Most funders of research spend a lot of time considering their overall spending strategy, before appointing an expert committee to decide on research proposals put forward. These committees weigh up whether the research is achievable, affordable and of enough importance within a specific organisation’s strategy to warrant funding.

An important concern is whether scientific research findings are real, honest and reliable. The role of the scientific committee of the funder is to ensure that the research is likely to produce accurate and valid data. Any conflicts of interest must be made apparent to all; it is vital that everyone is aware if the individuals involved have a financial stake in any of the findings which may result in some conflict and bias in the interpretation of the results.

Many major problems still threaten horse health. Laminitis, worm infestation, tendon injuries, osteoarthritis, strangles, bone fractures, foot lameness and colic are massive issues, all to some extent horse-specific and requiring substantial investment.

We may all have different research priorities, depending on our experiences and interest, but what is agreed is that more equine-related research is needed — and more funding to support it.

Ref Horse & Hound; 6 September 2018