Maddie Regis, a marketing senior and the communications and alumni relations student intern with the University of Kentucky (UK) Ag Equine Programs, spent a morning with the parasite research horse herds and the scientists that study them. Here, she shares her experience.

Early Wednesday morning, every week, Martin Nielsen, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVM, Dipl. EVPC, professor in the parasitology laboratory at the UK Gluck Center, and his group of graduate students venture to the university’s Maine Chance Farm to collect samples from their research horse herd. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go with them.

The group met at the Gluck Center promptly at 7 a.m. and then headed out to Maine Chance Farm. Their job was not the most glamourous in the world—they go to the farm to collect fecal samples from a herd of full-size horses and a herd of Miniature Horses. However, the fecal samples and the research they’re involved in are very important for horses around the world.

Nielsen said these herds are very unique: The full-size horse herd has not been dewormed since 1979, and the Miniature Horse herd has existed since 1974. Both herds were established by Gene Lyons, PhD, professor in the Gluck Center, along with his research companion and former chair of the Veterinary Science department, Hal Drudge, PhD.

“These herds represent a remarkable resource for our research program, and they were a main reason why I chose to move from Denmark to Kentucky and start working at UK,” Nielsen said. “What an incredible foresight demonstrated by these esteemed gentlemen four decades ago. Dr. Lyons remains a very active part of this research today.”

Indeed, Lyons was the first person to arrive at the farm on the day of my visit, and he works tirelessly in and out of the lab to care for the horses and produce research results.

Dr. Gene Lyons helped start the two parasitology herds in the 1970s and remains an active part of the research today.

Both herds are influential in parasitology research for a variety of reasons.

“The horses have substantial parasite burdens, but they are remarkably healthy, so that is interesting,” Nielsen said. “Perhaps we don’t need to deworm as much as we tend to do. In recent years, we have used this herd to develop and validate new diagnostic methods for important parasites. We collect samples from these horses and use these to tweak, optimize, and validate our diagnostic tests. We also collect the parasites, and study their DNA and genes to learn more about how drug resistance may develop.”

While the horse herd provides plenty of information for the future of parasitology, the Miniature herd helps to address a common problem, Nielsen said.

“The Miniature herd has been treated with regular paste dewormers following typical treatment programs over the decades,” he explained. “As a result, these Minis have multidrug-resistant parasites, just like we find on many horse farms across the world. With this herd, we are testing various treatment protocols to identify the best and most sustainable deworming strategy in face of all the drug resistance. Right now, we are evaluating different combinations of existing products to see if some of these may be useful in the short- and long-term.”

Being able to visit the herds and watch the research in action is a unique experience.

Nielsen and his group begin with sampling the full-size horse herd, which involves moving the horses from their large field into smaller paddocks, and then bringing them into the barn to be sampled. Many of the herd members are foals, and it was quite a sight to see the group trying to get all of the mothers and babies organized when they decided they want to play. On the day of my visit, a foal had been born earlier that morning, which was an extra special treat. When I got to interact with these horses, it was easy to see why Nielsen and his team consider going to the farm the highlight of their week.

“I am a horse enthusiast, so for me it is just such a special treat to get out of the office and labs and get to hang out with ‘my’ horses,” Nielsen said. “We enjoy hanging out with them and getting to know their personalities. When I started working here, a lot of the older mares had not been handled much and they were quite nervous about everything. Now, they have all turned into sweethearts and have become very comfortable with our procedures.”

Foals, of course, are very popular, especially with Nielsen’s students. “We spend a lot of time with the foals to get them used to wearing a halter and to be brought in and out of the barn,” he said. “This exercise is very popular with my students and I see lots of selfies being taken while doing this.”

Nielsen describes this herd accurately when he says they have a lot of personality. For such tiny horses, they have a lot of opinions!

When all the samples had been collected, the researchers turned the horses back out (some of the horses showed their enthusiasm during this part!) and then it was on to the Miniature herd. Nielsen describes this herd accurately when he says they have a lot of personality. For such tiny horses, they have a lot of opinions!

I helped herd them over to the sampling shed and, at first, they just stood there, deciding they did not want to move. Finally, however, they took off as fast as their little legs could carry them. Getting to watch a large herd of Miniature Horses gallop across a field is pretty unique and very entertaining. The Minis were very good for their sampling, although they were very happy when they got to gallop back to their field again.

After the Miniature herd returned to their field, it was time to pack up and head back into town until the next time the group has to come out to visit the herd and collect samples.

Spending a morning at Maine Chance Farm watching Nielsen and his team was a wonderful experience. It is clear that they all care about the horses very much and are passionate about the research done with these horses.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.