Hugh G.G. Townsend
Western College of Veterinary Medicine
Equine Health Research Fund
University of Saskatchewan

The idea of establishing Equine Health Research Fund at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) was conceived by Dean Ole Nielsen 31 years ago when he recognized the need for advanced training of equine health professionals to serve western Canada and the importance of conducting research on conditions specifically affecting horses in this part of the world.

Hugh Townsend

Dr. Hugh Townsend holds a DVM from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, an MS in Veterinary Internal Medicine from the University of Saskatchewan and an MS in Veterinary Epidemiology from the University of Guelph. He is currently a faculty member in the WCVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and Program Manager for their Vaccine Development Program.

Through his vision and the help of four generous Alberta horsemen, George Golden, Fred Mannix, Ron Southern and Rob Peters, the fund began its work in the summer of 1977. With an initial budget of $20,000 a year, a graduate fellowship was awarded and the first research projects were initiated. Within a short time other important support was garnered from Alberta when both the Alberta Racing Commission and the Alberta Horse Industry Branch committed to long term support of this initiative. Since those early days, many other individuals and organizations have provided ongoing support to the fund. The list includes other racing authorities across western Canada, many breed societies including Thoroughbred and Standardbred and Morgan Horse associations, the pharmaceutical industry, as well as many equine related organizations, including the Western Canadian Association of Equine Practitioners. The contribution of the North American Equine Ranchers Information Council (NAERIC) has been constant and substantial over all of these years and of course there are the individual donors, who year after year, continue to provide needed funds.

After it was established, one of the first actions of the fund was to appoint an external advisory board comprised of representatives of the horse industry in western Canada. Over the years the fund has received much wise council from the members of this board. Importantly, there has always been representation from the Alberta Horse Industry Branch, first through Doug Milligan and subsequently Les Burwash, who has for many years, held the distinction of being the longest serving member of the board. Five years after the establishment of the EHRF, the first meeting of the Alberta Horse Owners and Breeders Conference was held – another extremely important initiative in which both Doug and Les were involved and one to which Les has contributed huge energy.

Early on in the history of the Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference, a connection was established with the EHRF. The Conference has provided the Western College of Veterinary Medicine with a constant and welcoming venue through which we can keep western Canadians informed about the research, education and training that is being conducted at the WCVM. As well, the conference has consistently devoted a portion of its budget to the financial support of the EHRF. When the Fund celebrated its 25 anniversary at Spruce Meadows in February of 2003, the Horse Industry Branch and many of the organizers of this conference were there to support it. It is therefore a great privilege for the Fund to be represented at the 25th Anniversary of the Alberta Horse Owners and Breeders Conference and to be given an opportunity to thank all of you for 25 years of tremendous support that this conference has given to equine research. This anniversary is an extremely important moment in the history of the horse industry and a fitting occasion to briefly review some of the progress that has been made in equine health research in western Canada as well as having a look to the future. It is also important to recognize that if not for the support of this organization, its members and many others in western Canada, horse health care and welfare in this region and beyond, would not be close to what it is today.

The education and training of equine healthcare specialists and the provision of funds for equine healthcare research were the initial goals of the Equine Health Research Fund and these goals remain central to the mission statement of the fund today. Scientific research is not a process that produces instant, applicable results. It is a step by step, painstaking approach to the acquisition of knowledge that may take even longer to reach the stage where it can be applied for useful purpose. When the equine research program at the WCVM was initiated there was no long history of this type of research in western Canada and it took vision, faith and a tremendous amount of good will from people who knew they may not directly benefit from the program to get the EHRF established. Today, however, through the foresight exercised by a handful of individuals, the ongoing support of many people at this conference and elsewhere, and the hard work of many teachers, researchers, clinicians, students and support staff, much has been accomplished in the last 30 years.

It is sometimes surprising to stop and realize that the knowledge and ability of every member of the veterinary profession involved in equine healthcare delivery and research in western Canada has been influenced by the activities of the fund. Indeed, most, if not all of the veterinarians that you know, have received at least a portion of their education from faculty and graduate students whose study and research have been made possible by the existence of the EHRF. It is also true that all of the board certified equine specialists in this province have been supported by graduate programs supported by the fund.

From small beginnings, the EHRF has supported basic, applied and ground breaking research projects that have received international recognition. The body of work has now become too large to cover in a brief review but a few examples will be helpful in making it clear that investment in equine health research has paid great dividends and lead to many benefits to horse owners and their animals.

• Dr. Nadia Cymbaluk’s research was supported for several years by the EHRF and during this time she developed an international reputation for her work in equine nutrition. She brought particular emphasis to water and metabolic requirement of horses, with a focus upon the feeding of horses under cold conditions. Her work has stood the test of time and is frequently referenced. Nadia continues to make a substantial contribution to the horse industry, especially to the North American Equine Ranchers, through her work as director of research and field compliance, Linwood Ranch of Wyeth Canada in Brandon, Manitoba.
• Dr. Frank Bristol, again working with the PMU industry, provided us with our basic understanding of estrus synchronization in mares and the behaviour of pasture breeding stallions. Franks’ work and interest in equine reproduction has been carried on by Dr. Claire Card, who remains an active researcher at the college.
• In 1978 Dr. Peter Fretz published his first paper on angular deformity in foals, providing the basic information on measurement of these deformities and prognosis for correction following surgery at different ages. His interest in this field continued for many years, culminating in his supervision of Dr. Andy Allen’s PhD research describing the relationship between abnormal facial and limb ossification its relationship to hypothyroidism in foals. Dr. Allen continues to have an active research interest in this important area, with the promise that one day we will be able to prevent this devastating and largely unique disease of western Canadian foals.
• Dr. Doug Leach, a PhD student in the late 1970’s, and later a member of faculty, published the first of a series of articles on hoof structure, equine locomotion and biomechanics that establish the WCVM as a centre for work in this area. His work was continued by Dr. Hillary Clayton who is still an active researcher in this field.
• Several contributions have come from the EHRF upon diseases and function of the guttural pouch, including insight into blood supply and surgical approaches to this structure. However, one of the most imaginative studies funded by the EHRF was the work of Keith Baptiste, a PhD student, supervised by Dr. Jon Naylor. Against all odds, Babtiste set out to define the function of this unique structure and eventually determined that it is essential for brain cooling in the horse. Baptiste’s results were published in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.
• Centred in a region where horses have long been pastured in wire enclosures, clinicians at the WCVM have, for years, been faced with the management of challenging wounds. In their efforts to deal with these problems they have undertaken many studies to try to better understand wound healing and to devise techniques to manage them. From these efforts come novel techniques for skin grafting (Drs. Jerry Bailey, Peter Fretz, and Dan French), the management of granulation tissue and methods of promoting skin healing (Dr. Spencer Barber).
• In the early 1990’s, Dr. Bill Crawford, who was in practice in BC at the time brought a series of cases of periodic weakness in Quarterhorses to the attention of Dr. Jon Naylor. Naylor went on to define the cause of this condition and became the co-discoverer of the physiologic and genetic basis of hyperkalemic periodic paresis (HYPP), going so far as to publish clear evidence that linked this disease to a single, well known stallion.
• Also in the 1990’s, Paul Morley, a PhD student in veterinary epidemiology, undertook to discover the risk factors for upper respiratory tract diseases in the racing industry. Through this work we learned that the influenza vaccines of the day were not providing adequate protection against disease, a finding that stimulated the multinational equine vaccine industry to produce much better vaccines as well as initiating an active research program in equine vaccinology that persists at the University of Saskatchewan today.
• More recently, in the face of the West Nile Virus outbreak in North America, Dr. Cheryl Waldner and her graduate students, Drs. Rebecca Corrigan and Tasha Epp set out the study the epidemiology of this disease and have provided the most comprehensive data on the epidemiology this disease in horses along with an assessment of the use of horse related data to help understand the epidemiology of this disease in humans. One outcome of this research was the development of an accurate and highly encouraging estimate of the field efficacy of vaccination of horses against this disease.
• With the arrival of Dr. Bruce Grahn, who practiced for many years in central Alberta and then went on to specialize in ophthalmology, the college gained new clinical expertise and a new research thrust. Through his interests, Bruce has guided research in equine ophthalmology at the WCVM that has brought international recognition to the EHRF.
• Many of the graduate students whose work has been funded by the EHRF have moved our program in unexpected directions. Dr. Keith Baptiste and his interest in the guttural pouch was one example, James Carmalt and his passionate desire to develop a better understanding of equine dentistry has stimulated much discussion in the area and shown us once again, that some accepted procedures, routinely performed on horses, are not necessarily providing the expected results. In particular, James’ work has questioned the benefits of routine teeth floating in the absence of identifiable, clinical abnormalities of the dental arcade. Working with Dr. David Wilson, Dr. Emma Reid has demonstrated lack of efficacy of periosteal stripping as a treatment for angular limb deformity. These three studies are just part of a series of investigations, funded by the EHRF, that have lead the veterinary profession to re-examine and redefine the utility of some standards of care in equine practice.

The future of equine research in western Canada looks bright. The WCVM is just completing a $57 million renovation of its clinical and research facilities, with over $10 million dollars worth of improvements that will directly impact the equine teaching and research program. Perhaps more importantly, the veterinary undergraduate curriculum is being restructured so that veterinary students will have more opportunity to focus on specific areas of interest. With the continued influence of professors, researcher scientists and graduate students focusing their efforts on the horse, it seems certain that more students will graduate with a primary interest in equine practice, to the benefit of the horse industry in western Canada.

Situated on one of the few campuses in the world that houses all the health sciences as well as colleges of agriculture, engineering, and kinesiology – plus new developments including the Canadian Light Source and its medical beamline designed to accommodate horses and a $110 million dollar level three biocontainment research center (Intervac) that will be able to accommodate horses, there is little doubt that within this highly collaborative environment, the EHRF will remain positioned to stimulate and support significant and novel equine research.

Although improved health care for horses through expanded research programs funded by the EHRF seems certain, progress in this area depends upon continued financial support from horse owners and organizations across western Canada. The University of Saskatchewan remains committed to provide the education, facilities, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, and support staff to carry on the work but additional financial resources are required to fund the research studies. Over the years this support has been forthcoming from western Canadians and as a result, the yearly budget for equine research has increased 10 times over what it was when the EHRF was established. This has been accomplished through steady, yearly donations and through some novel initiatives. Most recently, equine research planning at the WCVM has been pushed to a new level through a $750,000 grant, to be paid over five years, from the Heather Ryan and L. David Dube Foundation – directed towards stimulating the development of larger scale equine research programs. This is in addition to a one time grant of $125,000, directed towards smaller, individual studies. As an incentive to all donors, the Foundation has also pledged to contribute up to $100,000 per year in matching funds, over the next five years. In this program, the Heather Ryan and L. David Dube Foundation will match new donations or contributions in excess of previous donations, thereby providing the EHRF and its supporters with the opportunity to raise an additional $1 million for research by 2011. This initiative provides individual donors, horse sport and breed organizations and businesses with a unique incentive to potentially “double their money” and their support of equine health research at WCVM. This remarkable support for the fund follows an inspired gift of $1.45 million made by a couple from British Columbia in 2000 – both demonstrating the commitment of individuals in western Canada towards healthcare of the horse.

In summary, the prospects for improved health care of horses in western Canada have never looked brighter. First class people, facilities and equipment are in place. Generous support has been given and the promise of the EHRF to deliver advances in education, training and research, have been met. The challenge to horse owners and organizations is to continue to provide every reasonable means of support and encouragement towards this initiative. The challenge to the researchers is to provide the needed results. Success in both these areas is well within grasp.

Learn more about Equine Healthcare Research:

http://blogs.usask.ca/EHRF/support_ehrf/

http://blogs.usask.ca/EHRF/about_us/

Heather Ryan and L. David Dube Foundation support for equine research – Autumn 2006 http://blogs.usask.ca/EHRF/horse_health_lines/

$1.4 million donation from BC couple – Spring 2000 http://www.usask.ca/wcvm/news/newsletters/ehrfund.php/

http://www.usask.ca/research/about/facts_intervac.php/

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