The Foundation of Health

Secretariat, one of the most admired horses in recent years, was humanely destroyed in 1989 because of intractable laminitis. This devastating inflammation between the bone and hoof has been the finish of many horses, ever since the horse was domesticated. Secretariat's condition evoked an outcry from horsemen and sportsmen that demanded some new approaches to the management of laminitis.

The veterinary literature on laminitis, generated in the time since Secretariat's death, reflects the activity level of investigation by many highly qualified clinicians and scientists. Literally hundreds of high-quality papers have been generated and new therapies evaluated. Yet, just recently, a horseman asked where we had come in the battle against laminitis. The answer is a discouraging "not too far." We know a lot more about the complex set of circumstances that trigger laminitis, and the changes that take place in the foot. We know more about the circulation in that part of the leg. But we still don't have a handle on the exact mechanisms of the inflammation, much less how to manage it effectively.

What will it take to get there? More of the same. Serious studies are underway looking at the basic mechanisms of this disease. Good people, big dollars, supportive institutions, and persistence are needed. Plus the funds to provide the modern technology to study the disease at the molecular level, and technicians trained in the appropriate techniques. Add to that a dose of patience, a commodity almost as scarce as the dollars. The problem comes into focus when you realize that there are dozens of equine health problems that are in the same boat. And the money to solve these problems is just not available.

These days, the overwhelming majority of health-related research dollars is directed at human problems. The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation fund this type of work, which primarily aims to solve the mysteries of man's afflictions. Billions of dollars go to cardiovascular research, to cancer research, to studies of aging and disease resistance, and so forth. Some of these projects may shed some light on techniques that could eventually help solve equine problems, but nobody expects the horse to be a direct beneficiary of any of these studies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a big research budget, too. Their primary obligations are to the livestock industries. Protecting our food animal herds against exotic foreign diseases and developing methods of preventing and treating the various disasters that affect food and fiber producers costs a lot of money. A current example of what they face is evident in the foot and mouth disease outbreak around the world. A very small portion of that USDA budget goes to benefit the horse, with much of it directed at regulatory problems.

The responsibility for funding equine research is therefore primarily the domain of the private sector, plus the contributions of the research-oriented universities. Those schools are essentially limited to ones with veterinary colleges or veterinary science departments. Most of the state-supported universities are fighting shrinking budgets and find it difficult to provide the resources and facilities for horse investigations. Fortunately, some states with pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing provide support for research.

So, a huge share of the responsibility for moving equine health care ahead rests with research foundations such as the Grayson-Jockey Club, Morris Animal Foundation, American Quarter Horse Foundation, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners Foundation. These organizations provide competitive grant funding opportunities from privately secured funds, either through direct distribution of donated dollars or the income from endowments. The generosity of donors has elevated the funding capability of these foundations to acceptable levels. Yet many worthy projects cannot be supported. Even the projects that do secure funding need to be extended over a longer duration. To improve this situation--and to continue to improve the health and performance of our horses--will take a special motivation and organization of the rank and file horse owners as well as continued contributions by larger donors.

Most of these research foundations will direct your donation toward a specific problem if you so choose. Pooling resources by horse-oriented groups is a way of making a bigger statement. Try a "ride for research" approach, or set aside a small part of entry fees from a show toward a pet project (laminitis, EPM, colic, etc.).

If we are to make headway against diseases, parasites, injuries, and performance-related problems of the horse, we have to find ways to support the researchers working on the solutions.

About the Author

A.C. Asbury, DVM

A. C. (Woody) Asbury received his DVM from Michigan State University in 1956, then spent 21 years in California in breeding farm practice and at UC Davis. He joined the faculty at the University of Florida in 1977 and was involved in teaching, research, and administration until 1996. An Emeritus Professor at Florida, he lives in Kentucky, where he and his wife are developing a small farm.

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