How university and college research is helping the whole industry *H&H Plus*

  • Equestrian universities and colleges aren’t only for educating students, they also provide a platform for influential studies. H&H delves into the world of academia to find out how their research is benefitting the industry

    Every day, the news is littered with the latest studies bringing to light a fresh awareness or way of thinking. Without this information, it would be impossible to advance how we train, feed and keep our horses. For large chunks of  this information, we have our academic institutions to thank.

    “Through research, we identify risk factors for injury and disease, helping us devise strategies to keep our horses fit and healthy, and performing better for longer,” says Dr Jane Williams, who is head of the animal and agriculture department at Hartpury University.

    “At a time when the integrity and ethics of how we ride, compete and protect the welfare of horses are increasingly put under the spotlight, research is essential to develop evidence-informed practices that enable us to look after our horses responsibly and safeguard the future of our sport,” she adds.

    David Stack, senior lecturer in equine surgery at Leahurst Equine Hospital, is currently involved in a project with Liverpool University investigating lower back and pelvic injury with CT scanning. He believes the onus is on universities to carry out clinical research.

    “Research is essential to improving veterinary care and horse welfare,” David says, “but there is no tangible or monetary gain in research in equine veterinary practice, so most private hospitals and clinics don’t produce much.

    “For the university there are financial gains from producing research. All universities are scored on research output and awarded government funding based on the scoring – the Research Excellence Framework scheme.”

    Water treadmills is one area that has been developed via studies in recent years, benefitting none other than gold medal-winning dressage horse Valegro.

    Alan Davies, Valegro’s groom, says: “‘Blueberry’ and I have been part of Hartpury University’s water treadmill studies, and it’s really exciting to know we are helping to develop our sport through science.

    “Constant studies mean we are always updating our knowledge on how to maximise the water treadmill’s benefits.”

    National Hunt trainer Nicky Henderson has also seen the benefits of research.

    “We are always trying to stay up to date with all the new research that can help improve our horse’s welfare and performance,” says Nicky. “Studies on the most effective surfaces for our gallops have been of
    particular use.”

    Here’s a snapshot of the studies undertaken by universities and colleges, and how they are benefitting the industry.

    University Centre Myerscough

    Myerscough was part of a large international collaboration involving six universities that advised the International Olympic Committee on the equestrian surface at London 2012. The group worked closely with Andrews Bowen to test the surface on the raised platform required to protect biodiversity at the Greenwich Park venue. The group also produced the international white paper on equestrian surfaces for the FEI, including a “layman’s” guide.

    This project began life as an undergraduate dissertation, involving the analysis of 2012 horse/rider records from British Eventing. The finding was that riders who were placed in the top three prior to cross-county (following dressage and showjumping) were twice as likely to experience a horse fall. A follow-up project investigated physiological responses of horse and rider during cross-country phases.

    University of Bristol

    Bristol is one of the leaders in the field of headshaking research. They have found that trigeminal-mediated headshaking is a functional not structural condition of the trigeminal nerve. From this they have made breakthroughs in a treatment which can help up to half of affected horses.

    Kate Allen and her team investigate the management of diseases that affect athletic performance and in particular the diagnosis, cause and management of dynamic upper respiratory tract obstructions. Kate was instrumental in the development of overground endoscopy, a technique used to image the upper airway during exercise that is in widespread use internationally. Her current research focus is assessing the respiratory musculature of the horse.

    Writtle University

    Writtle University College’s senior lecturer in equine science/veterinary physiotherapy, Dr Roberta Ferro de Godoy, and students Jarmani Owen and Philippa Stonehouse analysed biomechanics of horses using Quintic Biomechanics high-speed cameras with video analysis software and saddle pressures using CONFORMat Saddle Mat and CONFORMat Software, from Tekscan. The equipment was used to compare the ways in which different types of saddles apply pressure during horse movement. Their findings were used by company Natural Horseman Saddles to improve their saddles, which are sold to thousands across all disciplines.

    Hartpury University

    A study in affiliation with the British Racing School analysed the opinions and concerns of racing staff and trainers to provide clarity about why the problem exists. The research was carried out by Hartpury University graduate Elizabeth Juckes, supported by Dr Jane Williams and lecturer Emma Davies. The survey found that nearly one in five had experienced difficulties in retaining staff, giving the industry an opportunity to address themes to improve the long-term future of racing and its staff.

    On the back of extensive research and collaboration with Moulton College, Brooksby College, Warwickshire College, and colleagues who are either using, or active in research into water treadmill use, Hartpury has created a document called Equine water treadmill exercise: A guide for users, outlining good practice when using a water treadmill to improve efficacy and reduce the risk of injury.

    Aberystwyth University

    Dr Debbie Nash coordinated a team of institute of biological, environmental and rural sciences equine scientists who genetically characterised a population of ponies native to Wales – the Carneddau. The data was used by graziers to support applications for special dispensation for microchipping, that enables cost effective management and maintenance.

    Dr Russ Morphew and his team have linked with Techion Ltd to joint fund the development and validation of the FECPAKG2 for faecal egg count diagnostics. Improved diagnostics allows for more control around the use of wormers, limiting cost and reducing the likelihood of resistance. This work has been coupled to next-generation sequencing technologies to monitor the changing populations of worms within the gut.

    Royal Agricultural University

    A study was conducted to look for differences in crib biting and non-crib biting horses’ stomachs following slaughter. The study found no differences in gastrin-producing cells in the stomach or the pH in the stomachs of crib biting and non-crib biting horses. Similarly, ulcers were found in the cadaver stomachs of both groups. Finally, both appear to be linked to oxidative stress and therefore this might be the link between the two conditions rather than a direct link between EGUS and crib biting.

    PhD student Sam White recently completed a study on allergic respiratory disease. His study has developed better methods for determining allergy in horses and identified previously unknown allergens, in particular Latex (a component of artificial racetracks and riding surfaces). The high levels of respirable dust associated with training on these surfaces have been associated with chronic bronchitis, inflammation and oxidative stress in riding instructors and an undesirable respiratory response in horses.

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU)

    NTU is leading an international collaboration using artificial intelligence to recognise subtle changes in equine facial expressions in response to pain. The hope is this will allow highly sensitive recognition of pain to treat painful conditions, monitor recovery following surgery and appropriately dose analgesic treatment.

    NTU is working to improve the success, efficiency and welfare of breeding. Projects include the improvement of sperm cryopreservation success for artificial insemination purposes and exploring methods of pregnancy diagnosis and monitoring. Combined technologies and genetic analysis resulted in breeding the first rare-breed horse with sexed sperm from a genetically appropriate stallion, supporting breed conservation.

    Ref: H&H 11 June 2020

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