Study: Condition the Genes and the Horse for Competition

Study: Condition the Genes and the Horse for Competition

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Do you have any races or competitions coming up? Then it's time to get your horse's genes in training. That's right, the genes. According to Italian researchers, the horse’s genes themselves need proper training in order to prepare for the stress of high performance.

"It's through targeted and planned training that genes are 'trained' and can reach more adequate—meaning more appropriate to race conditions—gene expression levels," said Katia Cappelli, PhD, of the center for sport horse study in the department of pathology, diagnostics, and veterinary clinic at the University of Perugia. 
Genes aren't just chromosomes transmitting biological traits from parent to foal, Cappelli said. They also serve a working purpose, functioning in the bones, blood, muscles, organs, and brain to make the horse move, breathe, think, feel, fight infections and inflammation, and recover. In order to do that, the genes have to 'express,' or produce, biological messages that stimulate certain activities in the body. 
Genes have to be conditioned through training programs in order to express at an optimum level, Cappelli said. Just because a horse has good bloodlines doesn't mean it's going to perform as well as its sire or dam, and part of that has to do with whether those inherited "good genes" get the performance training they need.
"A son of a champion, selected for being a champion as well, might not obtain good performances if his genes are not well prepared," she said.
So how does one go about "training" genes? No need to hire a gene coach, Cappelli said. Physical conditioning programs that prepare horses for races train the genes at the same time. The trick, though, is in determining just what kind of conditioning is optimal at the genetic level.
In their study on the topic, Cappelli and colleagues first aimed to determine the specific effects that training can have on the genes. The team studied the genes of 10 top-level Thoroughbreds involved in national flat races in Italy and compared them to the genes of nine untrained Thoroughbred mares at pasture. The genes were studied at rest and, for the trained horses, 15 minutes and 12 hours after races. 
The researchers found that nearly all the genes tested at rest expressed at significantly higher levels in the trained horses than in the untrained horses, Cappelli said. In other words, the "trained" genes were ready for action so when performance time came, they were able to quickly adapt to the increased stress. 
The expression levels after a race weren't much different from the resting expression levels, Capelli said, adding that the biologic messages these genes expressed would help prevent inflammation, infections, and fatigue, and would quicken recovery.
Performance horses that don’t have a higher gene expression at rest than untrained horses are probably not getting the right kind of training, she said. 
The ultimate goal is not to overtrain horses, but to have properly adapted training in the right balance, she added. 
"Our advice is to stay within the thin red line between nutrition, recovery, and proper training, avoiding other stress sources," she said. "Our final goal is to find that threshold that, if passed, transforms a good training scheme into overtraining."
Cappelli said she hopes to be able to provide tests for monitoring training programs "at the molecular level" to determine how fit a horse's genes really are.
The study, "Effect of training status on immune defence related gene expression in Thoroughbred: Are genes ready for the sprint?" will appear in an upcoming issue of the Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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