Horses Needed for Equine Metabolic Syndrome Research Project

The Equine Genetics research group at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is collaborating with Ray Geor, PhD, from Michigan State, and Nicholas Frank, PhD, from the University of Tennessee, to investigate the disease occurrence and genetics of equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

EMS is a devastating disease characterized by the three main features of obesity, insulin resistance, and laminitis. Certain breeds or individual horses are predisposed to EMS, and are often referred to as "easy keepers." These horses are efficient at utilizing calories and often require a lower plane of nutrition to maintain body weight than other horses. The difference in EMS susceptibility among horses managed under similar conditions is likely the result of a genetic predisposition.

The goal of this investigation is to better understand the role of breed, gender, age, environment (diet and exercise) and genetics in EMS. The success of the study depends on the collection of data from as many horses with EMS as possible; therefore, assistance of horse owners and their veterinarians is critical. To identify the underlying genetic susceptibility to EMS, genetic marker information will be compared between horses with EMS and non-EMS control horses. The long-term goal is to use these EMS genetic markers to detect horses susceptible to EMS and laminitis before they have clinical signs. Once susceptible horses are identified, management practices can be initiated to better protect them from developing disease.

Horse owner participation in the study involves three steps:

  • The first step is to fill out a brief, 10-question online survey. Within approximately one month the owner will be notified if the horse is deemed an appropriate candidate to proceed to Step 2. While not all horses will be chosen to proceed to Step 2, the information provided will still be used in the initial descriptive study of EMS.
  • If a horse is selected as a potential candidate, its owner will be sent a link to a second online survey requesting additional information about the horse and its management along with information about another horse on the property not suspected of having EMS to serve as a "control." An ideal control horse will be of similar age and breed, have no history of laminitis, not be considered overweight, and not showing signs of Cushing's (delayed shedding, increased drinking/urination). The owner will also be asked to submit several simple body measurements for both horses and digital photos of the horse suspected of having EMS.
  • Approximately six to eight months following the second survey owners of horses selected for inclusion in the genetic study will be asked to work with their veterinarians to provide a blood sample which the research group will analyze free of charge for glucose, triglyceride, non-esterified fatty acid, and insulin concentration (both the owner and veterinarian will receive notification of the results). A portion of the blood sample will be used for DNA isolation and stored for genetic research.

Horse owners assisting in the project will be providing information essential to further understanding EMS and ultimately determining ways to better manage and treat horses suffering from EMS. Learn more about the equine metabolic research project and how to get involved.

Prepared by Nichol Schultz, DVM, and Molly McCue, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, and submitted by Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the Bluegrass Equine Digest e-Newsletter.  

More information on Gluck Equine Research Center, and UK's Equine Initiative.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More