In late September the Arabian Horse Foundation (AHF) released summaries of the research projects the organization funded in 2011. Studies included research on cerebellar abiotrophy, melanomas, the genetics involved in equine metabolic syndrome and cushing's disease, and hoof and ground interaction.

The Cerebellar Abiotrophy Project

Cerebellar abiotrophy (CA) is a debilitating neurologic disorder causes degeneration of the cerebellum and mainly affects Arabian foals.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that plays an important role in the integration of sensory perception, coordination, and motor control. Cerebellar abiotrophy results from the loss of a specific type of neuron (known as Purkinje cells) in the cerebellum, causing head tremors and a lack of balance equilibrium, among other neurologic deficits. There is no treatment for the disease, and the more severely affected foals are routinely euthanized before adulthood because of the risk they pose to themselves and others.

Cecilia Penedo, PhD, a geneticist at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, discovered in 2010 a genetic mutation in which two candidate genes overlap each other, and this mutation is believed to be linked to the development of CA.

"Because this mutation is tied to more than one gene, the VGL is conducting further study of the two candidate genes, MUTYH and TOE1," the AHF project summary explained. "Part of the ongoing work includes 'expression studies' to help evaluate the functional aspects of these two genes and determine what effect this mutation as on them."

The Susceptibility of Gray Horses to Skin Cancer

Co-funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, one of the AHF's 2011 projects was to investigate why some gray horses seem more prone to developing melanomas than others.

Melanomas are a type of skin tumor that can affect up to 80% of gray horses over the age of 15. These tumors often begin as small, nodular growths near the horse's tail before spreading to other areas of the body.

"It is well known that gray coat color predisposes horses to the formation of dermal melanomas," the project summary stated. "However, some gray horses seem to be protected from the development of melanoma. The reason for the decreased incidence of melanoma in these horses is unclear. This study will classify melanoma patients into risk categories based on genetic predispositions."

Molly McCue, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, is heading up the research project, which will continue with the goal of identifying horses at risk of developing melanoma earlier to increase available treatment time.

Genetic Mapping of Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Cushing's Disease

In a project that began as a result of another's completion, Samantha A. Brooks, PhD, assistant professor of equine genetics at Cornell University, is working to evaluate the genetics behind equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and equine cushing's disease.

"(A previous study) produced the first documentation of the frequency by breed of elevated plasma adrenocorticotrophic hormone and hyperinsulinemia (high levels of insulin in the blood)," the project summary explained. "Based on these data, the Arabian horse was chosen for further study as (this breed) has a moderate risk for EMS and historically contributed to the development of many breeds."

The researchers working on the current study are asking Arabian horse owners to consider participating in the study with the help of their primary veterinarian. To participate, owners and veterinarians must provide a DNA sample, health and diet histories, body measures, photos, and pedigree information. For more information or to participate, visit the Cornell University website.

Equine Hoof Interaction with the Ground Surface

The AHF also described a study that will be carried out at the Western University of Health Science by Babak Faramarzi, DVM, MSc, CVA, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. The research project will evaluate the Arabian horse's hoof interaction with the ground surface and the impact trimming and hoof conformation has on that interaction.

"The few available (related) studies are focused on Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horses while Arabian horses are underrepresented," the project summary noted.

With this study, the research team and the AHF hope to:

  • Study the correlation between hoof anatomy and force distribution;
  • Study the changes in force distribution in response to the changes in the hoof anatomy (via trimming); and
  • Identify and prevent pathologies that arise from changes in normal anatomy and biomechanics of the foot.

For more information about the AHF and their current research projects, visit

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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