Animal Health Foundation

In 1984, a grass-roots effort was created in order to fund research of different ailments of the horse. The group called themselves the Animal Health Foundation (AHF), and were led by Don Walsh, DVM, a veterinarian in the St. Louis area of Missouri.

"We started as a not-for-profit research foundation and decided that we would target a specific disease," said Walsh. The first disease the group targeted was laminitis, and they believed they would move on after research was complete. Fifteen years later, the group still is going strong, with just as much interest in finding the triggering mechanism behind the mysterious disease of laminitis, which debilitates and causes pain in thousands of horses every year.

Laminitis is the failure of the attachment between the distal phalanx and the inner hoof wall. The lamellae of the inner hoof wall suspend the coffin bone from the inside surface of the hoof capsule, and when the lamellae separate, the weight of the horse, as well as the efforts of his moving around, force the coffin bone to drive down into the hoof capsule, causing vascular damage and considerable pain for the animal.

In the early days of the organization, the AHF solicited input from farriers and veterinarians on the prevalence and experiences with laminitis so studies could be targeted. Volunteers pulled together, and Walsh selected a Board of Directors from a broad base of equine clientele and cohorts in his area. The group held such fundraisers as a jamboree and several parties for the benefit of laminitis. A local equestrian club donated their show grounds to the AHF. Schooling shows were held for the surrounding area to fund the cause, and when the show grounds were overtaken by a road project three years ago, AHF was given the capital from the sale of the land.

Over the years, AHF has funded studies at the University of Missouri, University of Illinois, Cornell, and has purchased equipment for the University of Tennessee. In the past few years, however, most of the research funding has focused on the research of Christopher Pollitt, BVSC, PhD, at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Walsh met Pollitt at an annual laminitis meeting held here in the States. "I was curious about how he funded his research—if you look at laminitis research, and bring it up on a literary search, you will see a name appear, but many times never again." Walsh explains that it takes incredible dedication and vision to form hypotheses in such long-term research topics as laminitis, and to be flexible in using what you’ve learned to pursue other routes or options within the research. He saw this dedication in Pollitt.

Pollitt focuses on the trigger factors of laminitis. His current research involves understanding the uncontrolled activation of metalloproteinase enzymes that result from changes within the equine hindgut. These enzymes, he believes, are the "missing link" connecting events in horses’ metabolic processes and the development of laminitis (see The Horse AAEP Resources, page 42, February 2000 for more concerning his research).

Pollitt’s work involves use of tissue from deceased animals. "If at all possible, we try to fund research that involves tissue culture work—I think if you want the support of the horse end (of population), you want to choose research that utilizes cultures, and not live animals," said Walsh.

The grass-roots effort has been supported by virtually the same group of individuals since 1984.

"Most are not people making their living with horses—horses are a big part of their life, but they’re not in the horse business." Members of the board range from a stock broker to the editor of a horse column in a regional newspaper.

"This group has been quietly supporting my research for some years now," says Pollitt. "They come from all walks of life with a common interest in horses. It is a great story of dedication, hard work, and vision, and I suppose, some confidence in me."

Most people who have witnessed a clinical case of laminitis can attest to Walsh’s claim that it is a sickening disease to watch. He explains that there is a certain amount of frustration involved with diseases like laminitis, in that all he can do is alleviate the pain of laminitic horses in his practice, and come home knowing that he has done all he can to help until the mysteries of laminitis onset are dissolved.

"I’m not sure if we’ll ever prevent all of laminitis, because there are just times when this occurs, and there is little we can do to control it happening. We never know where it’s going to go." However, Walsh feels that technology poses no limit on what can be done in the future to monitor for laminitis. He imagines the concept that one day we will be able to monitor the climate in horses’ feet, with an alarm that will sound to caution us of potential laminitic situations.

Walsh explains, "I feel like the Animal Health Foundation members are truly dedicated to seeing this thing through to the end. I feel like we see the light at the end of the tunnel. If we can get the funding, within the next five to ten years, we could have a pretty good handle on (the disease). We’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years—we’re hopeful and optimistic, as we’ve been at this a long time."

For more information on the Animal Health Foundation (AHF), visit, or write to PO Box 45, St. Albans, Missouri 63073.

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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