inflammatory markers in endurance horses

Much of the research conducted by scientists at the University of Kentucky (UK) Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington, takes place in and around Central Kentucky—after all, it’s been dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World.” But sometimes the researchers get to take the show on the road.

Earlier this year, Allen Page, DVM, PhD, researcher and veterinarian at the Gluck Center, who works with David Horohov, PhD, director of the Gluck Center and chair of the Department of Veterinary Science, traveled to the 63rd annual Tevis Cup endurance ride in northern California for a research project.

Page, Horohov, and colleagues have spent the last several years looking at inflammation in racehorses and the utility of inflammatory marker testing to quantify fitness and possibly detect brewing injuries before they become serious. Inflammatory marker testing measures multiple genes responsible for the inflammatory response in horses. As the Thoroughbred industry works together to improve the safety and welfare of racehorses, Horohov and Page have seen the potential for a significant impact in this work through their research efforts, an ongoing project since 2012.

“While we have focused most of our efforts on the effect of exercise on inflammatory responses in Thoroughbreds,” Horohov said, “we recognize that similar effects are likely to occur in other equine athletes.”

At the top of their wish list of disciplines to work with was endurance horses, due to the sport’s unique demands.

The Tevis Cup, a 100-mile one-day competitive trail ride, provided the opportunity they were seeking, although it almost did not happen this year. Each year, Tevis Cup organizers offer one spot for a research group to conduct studies during the event. A different group was already selected but had to withdraw, providing an opportunity the Gluck Center research team was thrilled to seize, even on short notice.

“We really lucked out to get the chance this year, as the Tevis Cup was a great first opportunity to measure inflammatory markers in nonracehorses,” Page said. “We went into this study having no idea of what kind of participation we would have or what we would see with the results.”

Conducting research across the country involved a significant amount of planning and preparation well in advance of the event. This included predicting study participation, ordering and shipping supplies, and coordinating with three local research assistants to help collect blood samples during the event.

“Having seen the Tevis Cup firsthand as a veterinary student at the University of California, Davis, I thought I knew what I would be in for with this study, but once the horses started coming into the sampling checkpoints, it was obvious I had underestimated the scope of what we were trying to accomplish,” Page said.

The ride, which starts near Lake Tahoe and finishes outside of Sacramento, has no central location to collect samples so the team had to relocate several times as the ride progressed.

“Thankfully, I had three excellent technicians and the full support of the ride organizers to help us accomplish all of our goals,” Page said.

When Page left Kentucky for California a few days before the ride, he was nervous.

“Getting on the flight, we only had 10 riders signed up to participate and we were definitely going to need more to help with our data analysis,” he said. “Based on previous studies, the ride organizers thought we would get 50% participation, but honestly, I was going to be thrilled to get 40 to 50 riders.”

In the end, 80 of the 150 riders opted to participate in the study. Page attributes many of those participants to the ride organizers, who encouraged participation by giving away a limited edition trail map poster to those who agreed to participate this year. It was another example of an equine industry coming together to help support research ultimately geared towards improving their sport, and Page said he was glad to play a role.

“The ride is always a grueling test for each horse and rider pair, but this year was made more difficult by hot temperatures and poor air quality,” he said. “Having now witnessed firsthand this incredible test of endurance, I realize, more than ever, how lucky I am to have been able to work with these amazing athletes. The determination of the horses and the incredible care they get from the riders, crews, and veterinarians cannot be overstated and is impossible to describe.”

While their research in Thoroughbreds will continue, Horohov and Page see their Tevis Cup research as the first of many nonracehorse projects looking at inflammation in equine athletes. The group has recently begun to work with high-level eventing horses and is already seeing promising results. They hope to expand this work into other disciplines while continuing to build upon the foundation the Tevis Cup information will provide their endurance horse work.

“While I continue to work on wrapping my head around the incredible opportunity I was given by the ride organizers and study participants, I can’t wait to analyze the results of our work to see what we can do to help out these horses and riders in the future,” Page said.

Jenny Evans, MFA, PhD candidate, is the former senior veterinary science marketing and promotion specialist at the UK Gluck Equine Research Center.

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