Triumph of the Neigh-Sayers

They didn't paw the ground or snort with impatience, but when they got going the team of Percherons pranced along at a clip that had photographers scrambling to keep up. Decked out in well-coiffed manes and tails, the 1,800-pound black horses stole the show as they not only broke ground for the University of Minnesota's new Equine Center but plowed the soil into deep, straight furrows.

Located on the northeast corner of the St. Paul campus and due for completion in fall 2007, the center will transform the ability of the University's College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to care for horses and discover new ways to diagnose and treat their ailments.

The crowd at the groundbreaking was packed with joyful horse owners, including University President Bob Bruininks and his wife, Susan Hagstrum, both of whom exhibited unbridled enthusiasm for the project. Also watching the August 9 ceremony were Jess Mendel and Marianne Scheel of the University Police Department's mounted patrol.

But no one was more ecstatic than Stephanie Valberg, DVM, PhD, director of the Equine Center.

"This new center will dramatically change the way we'll be able to care for horses in the state of Minnesota," said Valberg, a professor of veterinary population medicine. "It will provide new facilities to evaluate horses' performance, research facilities to make innovative advances, and an indoor arena and conference center for the equine community."

The $14 million center will have all manner of special facilities to cover every aspect of equine health. Perhaps the most spectacular will be an indoor arena in which owners can ride their horses around, allowing vets to observe all four natural gaits-walk, trot, canter, and gallop-and spot any signs of lameness. Other sections will house higher-tech operations.

"There will be areas for imaging by ultrasound, CT, and MRI," said Valberg. "A new surgery suite will be specially adapted for arthroscopic surgery. There will also be a high-speed treadmill and an underwater treadmill [for exercise and rehabilitation]."

Among the horse owners in attendance were many who sported buttons reading "I [heart] the parking lot." That was a reference to the difficulty of parking at the current facility, where people in large vehicles pulling horse trailers must navigate sharp, closely spaced turns on hilly terrain that's extra treacherous in winter. The new center's lot eliminates that headache.

In his remarks to the crowd, Bruininks could not resist drawing a parallel between guiding a saddle horse and guiding a large university.

"It's a lot easier to steer a horse in the direction it's already going," said Bruininks, quoting John Naisbitt, author of the bestseller Megatrends. "That's a good mantra for strategic positioning." Strategic positioning, the term for the realignment of University colleges and other resources for maximum efficiency and competitiveness, can only be helped by the Equine Center. Already, as Bruininks pointed out, about 80 percent of practicing veterinarians in Minnesota owe their educations to CVM. But, he lamented, the college has lost some potential recruits "because this place was a dream, not a reality."

"This center will help us retain and recruit world-class faculty to our equine program," said Jeffrey Klausner, dean of CVM. "It will help establish the University of Minnesota as a powerhouse in the equine world." He pointed to equine nutrition, genetics, and muscular disorders as areas that stand to benefit from advances in research and treatment.

Klausner also expressed hope that the center would become a home for the equine community in Minnesota, including the We Can Ride program, a Minnetonka-based organization that offers therapeutic horseback riding and cart driving to disabled children and adults in the Twin Cities.

The center has a fundraising goal of $7.3 million, said Klausner, with the University contributing the balance of the $14 million price tag. At this point, nearly $5 million of the fundraising goal has been met, leaving only a couple of million dollars for future donors to pony up.

CVM alumnus Patty Olson, president and CEO of the Morris Animal Foundation in Englewood, Colorado, announced at the groundbreaking that the foundation was contributing about $2.5 million for a new Equine Consortium for Genetic Research. Valberg and fellow CVM professor Jim Mickelson will lead the consortium of top equine researchers from around the world as it tackles the genetics and other biological underpinnings of debilitating conditions like musculoskeletal disease, laminitis (a common and painful hoof ailment), recurrent airway obstruction, and bone disease.

(Reprinted with permission of the University of Minnesota)

By the numbers

The University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center treated 1,125 cases of sickness or injury to horses in 2005.

According to the American Horse Council:

  • The horse population in Minnesota is 182,229, which puts Minnesota 19th among the 50 states.
  • Throughout the United States, 9.2 million domesticated horses are used for racing, showing, competition, breeding, recreation, and work.
  • 4.6 million Americans are involved in the horse industry as owners, service providers, employees, and volunteers.
  • The U.S. horse industry provides 460,000 jobs and has a direct economic impact of $39 billion a year.

--Sue Kirchoff, College of Veterinary Medicine

About the Author

Deane Morrison

Deane Morrison writes for UMWNews.

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