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Breakthrough Research

Breakthrough Research into Horse Health at the University of Minnesota Equine Center.

The University of Minnesota's internationally recognized equine research program includes equine genetic diseases, equine muscle diseases, equine gastrointestinal diseases,equine infectious disease, pain management in horses, lameness, ultrasonographic diagnosis for horses, neonatology for horses, and infertility in horses. These research projects use the vast resources only available from the University of Minnesota through its numerous Colleges and research centers. Faculty at the College of Veterinary Medicine in areas such as endocrinology, internal medicine, orthopedics, colic, exercise physiology and genetics are collaborators on many groundbreaking studies. Diabetes, Obesity, Muscle Disorders, Musculoskeletal Research, and Nutrition faculty members within the Academic Health Center participate in this interdisciplinary approach groundbreaking equine research.

There can be no doubt that advances in the area of equine molecular genetics, equine nutrition, pain management in horses, when done at an interdisciplinary level, will have significant implications for all aspects of the horse industry. For example, an accurate and simple DNA diagnostic test would facilitate a specific diagnosis of tying-up in many breeds of horses and help horse owners make informed choices with regard to the purchasing, managing, and breeding of these horses.

It is very likely that other major genetic disorders of the horse can be better understood with gene-mapping approaches. Identification of the specific genes causing any of these disorders could also lead to development and selection of specific medications to treat the conditions. Advances in equine nutrition, based on research done in many disciplines, has resulted in applicable therapies for a debilitating equine disease. Specifically, a high fat, low starch diet in RER horses results in significantly lower insulin and blood glucose responses to a meal and significantly less muscle damage during treadmill exercise compared to a low fat high starch diet. These and other advancements are critical to equine medicine and place the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine at the very forefront of equine research worldwide.

 Development of the Equine Genome Map  : Researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine Equine Center have played a leading role in the development of the equine genome map. An international working group signed on to participate in the Equine Genome Project in 1995. Ten years later a map of the genes and genetic markers on all the horse's chromosomes was published with new information being added constantly to provide a detailed description of DNA sequences in the horse. Leading researchers in this area are Dr. Jim Mickelson and Dr. Stephanie Valberg, both faculty members at the University of Minnesota Equine Center.


This area of research is very important in helping researchers understand the genetic contribution to all biological processes in the horse, including the development and predisposition to disease. Published studies by various research centers use gene map information to investigate skin diseases in Belgian and Saddlebred horses, muscle diseases, developmental bone disease, allergies, immunity to viral and bacterial diseases, as well as coat color and physiological processes related to performance in horses. Deriving meaningful knowledge from the equine DNA sequence will define research through the coming decades and expand our understanding of biological systems. This enormous task requires the expertise and creativity of tens of thousands of scientists from varied disciplines in both the public and private sectors worldwide.

Mapping the horse genome  
 Overo Lethal White Syndrome (OLWS) Overo Lethal White Syndrome (OLWS) is a condition that occurs in newborn Paint Horse foals. OLWS foals have blue eyes and are completely or almost completely white at birth. For the first day of life the foals appear to be normal, however, soon thereafter they develop signs of colic because of the complete inability to pass feces. There is no treatment for OLWS, as the entire intestine in these foals is underdeveloped. For many years, breeders believed this condition was inherited, but no genetic tests were available to determine if a horse carried this trait. Research conducted in Dr. Mickelson's laboratory at the University of Minnesota identified the genetic cause for OLWS and formed the foundation for a genetic test. (The test has been licenced to the University of Califoria, Davis, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Further research showed that a particularly common coat color pattern in Paint Horses called Frame Overo is highly associated with carrier status. The defective gene is found in American Miniature Horses, Half-Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Quarter Horses with too much white to qualify for registration. An informative PowerPoint presentation on the genetics of coat color can be downloaded here. (You must have a recent version of MicroSoft PowerPoint installed on your computer to view the presentetion.)
 Glycogen Branching Enzyme Deficiency (GBED) is a disorder found in horses that was first recognized by clinicians at the University of Minnesota Equine Center. This disorder causes muscle weakness in Quarter Horse and related breeds. The clinical presentation of this disease is variable. Late term abortion or stillbirth occurs with GBED. Some foals are born alive, but are often weak and require warming and assistance to nurse after birth. These foals may appear healthy for a time, but eventually the may develop seizures, become too weak to stand, or in some cases, die suddenly. Owners may note that GBED foals are less active than other foals. In spite of aggressive treatment, all known cases of GBED were fatal by 18 weeks of age. Dr. Stephanie Valberg's laboratory recognized that foals with these symptoms have a unique muscle disease and that all these foals are related to one another. The discovery of an abnormal sugar within the skeletal muscle of these foals led the researchers to identify a genetic defect (glycogen branching enzyme gene) responsible for forming the sugar (glycogen) that provides energy for numerous tissues in the body. Now owners are able to test their horses to see if they carry this defect and this can prevent this disease from occurring. Click here for more information.
More information is available at the Neuromuscular Diagnostic Laboratory

 Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) and Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis (RER): Researchers identified two distinct forms of "tying-up" that have a familial (genetic) basis. Approximately 5% of Thoroughbred horses suffer from RER, particularly at a young age. Many of these horses are descended from a common stallion, and computer modeling of these pedigrees provides strong evidence for RER being an autosomal dominant disorder in these families and this breed. Also identified was a form of ER in an extensive Quarter Horse pedigree, characterized by exercise intolerance and the accumulation of an unusual polysaccharide in muscle fibers. This disease is called polysaccharide storage myopathy.
  Tying-up can affect the performance of the equine athlete


Diets for horses with Muscle Disorders 

"Tying-up" is a muscular problem that affects all types of horses. In its mild form, symptoms may only be muscle cramping, but in severe cases horses are unable to rise, and may die. Historically the cause of tying-up was a mystery. Research by Dr. Stephanie Valberg at the University of Minnesota has now identified several specific causes for tying-up. Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is a common cause of tying-up in Quarter Horse and related breeds, Warmbloods and draft breeds, among others. Recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER) is the most common form of tying-up in Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Standardbred horses. More information on these diseases is available at the Neuromuscular Diagnostic Laboratory.

A breakthrough in the management of tying-up has occurred with the discovery that lowering dietary starch and increasing dietary fat can significantly improve the signs of muscle pain in both PSSM and RER horses. Most equine diets contain grains that are naturally very high in starch. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, together with nutritionists at Kentucky Equine Research developed a low starch diet that can supply adequate energy for highly competitive athletes by substituting starch with natural plant oils. This equine feed (called Re-Leve™), when combined with regular daily exercise, can practically eliminate the signs of tying-up in most horses. 

The University of Minnesota has licensed Hallway feeds to sell this product Re-Leve™.

Re-Leve was formulated to treating horses with tying-up  


Equine Epidurals

An epidural is the placement of a catheter or spinal needle directly into the fluid that bathes the spinal cord. It is a common procedure used to control the pain of childbirth. Anesthesiologists Drs. Natalini and Rude at the University of Minnesota Equine Center evaluated several different drugs that are safe to administer over several days as an epidural to control hind limb pain in horses. Horses with severe hind limb trauma, fractures, joint infections and laminitis often need a higher level of pain control than can be provided by commonly used medications such as phenylbutazone. Controlling pain promotes healing in these horses by decreasing stress. Horses can also bear weight on both limbs, which prevents the healthy leg from developing laminitis and ligament/tendon breakdown due to overuse.
Equine sports medicine and performance in equine athletes  

IV Lidocaine infusion for reflux and pain management in horses

Investigators at the University of Minnesota Equine Center studied the effects of intravenous lidocaine infusion on horses with reflux. Reflux is the accumulation of intestinal secretions in the horse's stomach due to diseases that disrupt normal intestinal motility. Disrupted motility can occur because of infections and colic, and is a complication of intestinal surgeries. Since horses are unable to vomit, the build up of fluid can lead to stomach rupture. Until gut motility returns to normal, horses cannot eat, drink, or take oral medications. Previously, veterinarians needed to place a stomach tube every few hours to relieve the fluid accumulation and prevent the stomach from rupturing.

To find a better way to help horses with poor intestinal motility, Dr. Erin Malone performed a worldwide multicenter trial to evaluate a constant rate of intravenous lidocaine infusion as a treatment for motility issues. Horses on an intravenous infusion of lidocaine became much more comfortable and the intestinal motility improved significantly. This now widely used treatment is inexpensive and safe in the hospital environment.

Controlling horses in a great deal of pain safely can be very difficult, and horses can hurt themselves if they have violent reactions to pain. Traditional drugs such as banamine or phenylbutazone may not be sufficient to control pain in horses that are very ill. Lidocaine is traditionally used as a local injection to deaden sensation in the skin before suturing cuts or around nerves or in joints to determine sites of pain in lame horses. One of the discoveries made because of Dr. Malone's research into intestinal motility in colicky horses was that intravenous lidocaine infusion had a major impact on controlling the horse's pain as well. As a result, a constant rate of infusion of lidocaine is now commonly used in practice to treat horses with unrelenting pain (severe laminitis, horses with muscle injury or tying up or postoperative pain). It has proven to be reliable, nonaddictive, and inexpensive.

 Pain Management University researchers demonstrated that unrelenting pain in horses can be controlled by administration of medications via an epidural catheter. In addition, a constant infusion of lidocaine intravenously was found by University researchers to have a dramatic effect on decreasing pain and increasing intestinal motility in horses suffering from intestinal infections, colic and complications of intestinal surgeries. These treatments are now in use worldwide.


Shockwave therapy for horses

Many veterinarians speculate that shock wave therapy works by causing bone to remodel, however, the results of this study suggest that there is no evidence of changes in blood flow or bony remodeling from shockwave therapy. The study used thermography, radiography, and scintigraphy (bone scans) technology for gathering data on bone remodeling and blood flow. The investigators conclude that the beneficial effects of shockwave therapy may be the result of effects on the nerve supply to the area providing pain relief rather than a direct effect on the bone itself. Shockwave therapy is one of the treatments developed to treat horses with a variety of musculoskeletal diseases. Although many people are convinced of its value in the treatment of lameness, there is little scientific information in horses to show how or if it works. Dr. Mauro Verna and Dr. Kari Anderson at the University of Minnesota investigated the effect of shockwaves on the cannon bones and on the neurovascular bundles in the lower limbs of healthy horses. Shockwave therapy was proven safe to apply over the closely united bundle of blood vessels and nerves that supply the pastern and hoof.

Ultrasonographic Diagnosis of Ligament Injuries in the Hoof

Clinicians at the University of Minnesota recently identified a new cause of lameness in horses that had previously gone unrecognized. Dr. Abby Sage developed a means to perform ultrasonography on ligaments within the hoof of the horse. With this new mechanism to examine the ligaments stabilizing the coffin joint, researchers found a number of horses that were lame due to ligament strain in the hoof. Recognition of the syndrome and technique for diagnosis has helped numerous veterinarians identify and treat this lameness.



University researchers identified a new treatment, the administration of oxytocin, for alleviating post-breeding uterine inflammation. This therapy has improved mare fertility. In addition, seminal plasma was found to have a protective effect on post-breeding uterine inflammation. Collaborations between clinicians and scientists at the University of Minnesota Equine Center have been instrumental in identifying the cause and potential treatments for post-breeding endometritis in mares. This condition, which affects approximately 13% of broodmares, is a major cause of infertility and decreased reproductive efficiency in horses. University researchers identified a reduced level of uterine contraction in these mares. These researchers led a collaboration to explore the mechanisms of post-breeding uterine inflammation, its effects on the inseminated sperm, and ways to treat mares and increase their fertility.

Research performed by Dr. Scott Madill, in collaboration with researchers from New Zealand, identified physiologic levels of oxytocin released naturally in the mare around the time of breeding. Subsequently, they conducted a dose-response trial of injected oxytocin to determine the most appropriate therapeutic dose and schedule. In other projects, members of the group found that a widely used prostaglandin-based therapeutic option actually decreased pregnancy rates in mares, resulting in dose and schedule modifications for equine practitioners.

Dr. Abdo Alghamdi and Doug Foster have examined the interaction between sperm and the uterine inflammatory response and demonstrated that seminal plasma has a protective effect on uterine inflammation post-breeding in mares. They have published the results of their breakthrough in identifying the molecular mechanisms behind this phenomenon in horses. The next phase of this research involves a clinical trial, funded by a University of Minnesota Equine Center grant, to assess the effect of the identified seminal plasma component on uterine inflammation and fertility in mares.


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