Good Genes: Genome Research has Broad Applications for Horse Health

Research into the equine genome is revealing the tiny source of many big problems affecting horses. Scientists received a whole new set of tools when the first version of the equine DNA sequence--the genetic code of horses, arranged into the correct position--was unveiled in February 2007. With these tools they can better understand the physiology of the horse, and they're better equipped to develop diagnostic tests and improved management methods for a myriad of equine health issues, from joint problems to airway disease.

diagram of horse showing areas of genetic research

Illustrated above are just some of the traits and genetic problems that researchers with the Horse Genome Project are currently investigating.

"This has made some approaches available that I didn't think would be available until after I was retired," said Ernie Bailey, PhD, geneticist and professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center. Bailey is coordinator of the Horse Genome Project, an international cooperative effort to further equine genetic research.

Bailey said that scientists with the Horse Genome Project are looking at simple genetic traits like coat color, along with directly inherited diseases, such as hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID), and overo lethal white syndrome. Research suggests that issues like dwarfism in Miniature Horses, lordosis (swayback) in Saddlebreds, and muscle diseases including recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER, aka tying-up) all have a simple genetic base.

The scientists are also using this information to learn more about complex issues, such as laminitis, allergies, developmental bone disorders, and respiratory diseases.

Once the responsible genes are pinpointed, researchers can develop diagnostic tests that veterinarians and horse owners can use to make more informed breeding and management decisions.

"For a lot of conditions there will be tests that can tell them whether or not their horses are affected, or whether they'll pass these traits on to their offspring," Bailey said. "The other aspect is this will enable scientists to develop better therapies or treatments."

Video: Dr. Brooks explains her research.

Dr. Brooks explains her research.

Video: Dr. Bailey explains the equine genome project.

Watch Dr. Bailey explain the genome project.

The first version of the equine genome was unveiled in February. Since then, researchers have been using the sequence to investigate diverse horse diseases and have also been finding and fixing small discrepancies that occurred in version one. Bailey said he expects version two will become available within the next couple months.

The Horse Genome Project recently launched a new Web site, which can be accessed at This site provides information on ongoing research, addresses frequently asked questions, and features biographies and areas of interest for researchers involved in the project.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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