A research group at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, has found a unique way to perform multiple research projects where humans, horses, and the university benefit.

In fall of 1999, Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, Associate Professor in the University's Animal Science Department traveled to North Dakota to select 10 Quarter Horse/draft cross weanlings to be used for research and teaching. A lot was learned about managing transport stress and glucose and insulin metabolism from this group. The horses then were used to teach a class of inexperienced students horse care, and then were sold as yearlings in a private auction benefiting the Rutgers equine research program. The program was so successful the college currently is working with its second group of weanlings. This time Ralston took some of her students with her to North Dakota to select and work with the foals and document the trip to Rutgers.

What's exceptional about these horses is that they were purchased with the help of the North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC) and are foals of mares which provide pregnant mare urine (PMU) for hormone therapy for women (see "Use or Abuse?" at www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=738; www.naeric.org). The weanlings of 1999 had never been handled, so naturally they were a little stressed on the 33-hour trip to New Jersey. Ralston and her assistants studied the efficacy of vitamin C supplementation on the prevention of "shipping fever," a respiratory condition associated with the stress of transport.

"We were supplementing these horses with five grams of vitamin C twice a day and 800 IU (International Units) of Vitamin E for only five days after transport that first year," Ralston said.

Half of the 1999 group was an unsupplemented control group. Ralston and her students found that four out of the five horses not supplemented developed clinical signs of shipping fever two to three weeks after the shipping, "just about the incubation time of the virus," she said. Of the supplemented ones, only one horse developed a mild nasal discharge.

"The one unsupplemented filly that didn't get sick was one of our calmest individuals, she added, "whereas the one colt (in the supplemented group) that got sick was very stressed."

Once the 1999 weanlings were all healthy and acclimated to being handled, said Ralston, "We studied their glucose and insulin metabolism as a part of my ongoing research on glucose and insulin in relation to growth and developmental orthopedic disease." The weanlings helped Ralston establish effective doses to test glucose tolerance in young horses under field conditions.

Ralston and her students spent a week "getting to know" the current group out on the plains before they were weaned. As a result, none of the horses was overly stressed or developed shipping fever. "This is key," said Ralston. "Yes, imprint training is fine. You can do an awful lot within a couple of hours (immediately following birth), but a lot can be done even at an older age. These (previously unhandled) horses were three to four months old. We visited the herds a total of 10 hours max," and the horses responded very favorably.

Once again, half of the weanlings were suppplemented with vitamin C and half were not. This time supplements were continued for a longer period of time."When we stopped the supplementation after transport, their vitamin C levels went down to below normal. Either we enhanced the excretion of the vitamin, or suppressed their ability to synthesize it." She explained that the vitamin C levels were down for three weeks, so unless a horse is really stressed, supplemental vitamin C shouldn't be used, and if used, should only be given during the period of stress.

The current crop are in the midst of one more study, comparing high fat and fiber feed to high starch feed. Although the study is incomplete, "you get slightly different results in their glucose metabolism," Ralston revealed.

In March, the group will be turned over to the training and handling class, and the horses will be auctioned on April 29 to help fund the development of an equine research center, student research, and a graduate research assistantship. Ralston explained that bidders must provide documentation that they are experienced with horses and have appropriate facilities in which to keep a young horse. Last years' average selling price was $2,670, and the PMU rancher who sold Rutgers the horses was able to sell seven more weanlings last fall to interested buyers independently. "These really are spectacular horses, in terms of their disposition and potential as sport horses," said Ralston. "More and more ranchers are realizing that these (PMU foals) aren't throwaway products and are really upgrading (the breeding of) these babies."

For more information on Rutgers' program, e-mail Ralston at Ralston@aesop.rutgers.edu; or phone her at 732/932-9404.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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