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Spotlight on equine welfare and breeding

A summary of the third day of World Trotting Conference 2019

Equine research and equine welfare were the theme for the third day of the world conference, which featured presentations by two researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

Marie Rhodin (left) gave a talk about an area of major significance in all areas of equestrian sport: lameness, and how to diagnose it. Studies where veterinarians have been tasked with pronouncing horses lame or healthy have shown how complicated it is to make the right diagnosis. For some types of lameness, most veterinarians were unable to determine where the problem actually lay, often sourcing the cause to the wrong leg.

Another aspect of the problem is that most horses are born with asymmetrical movement patterns to a greater or lesser extent, and can therefore be diagnosed as lame without this actually being the case.

Researchers are now developing a variety of new methods involving the use of high-speed cameras, sensors and the like to take objective measurements of horses’ movement patterns and to determine how to measure lameness. Maria Rhodin is currently heading up a research project centred on studying horses’ movement patterns from different perspectives, and on how to classify different gaits on the basis of large volumes of data.

The overarching objective of the research is to develop lameness diagnostics and to prevent lameness at an earlier stage than is possible today – thus boosting equine welfare.

Horse breeding and genetics

In her talk, Sofia Mikko (right) made the point that genetic research into sports horses is ultimately all about equine welfare, too. The objective is to breed strong, healthy horses specifically suited to their task: competing.

Research unequivocally demonstrates how important it is to cultivate genetic mutations so as to make faster progress in breeding. This means more than simply refining the positive properties you are looking for in the breeding selection: speed or endurance, for example. It could also involve diminishing those properties you do not want to play a prominent role in the horse’s genetic structure. Mutations can be spread extremely quickly, but it is important to be aware that there is a risk of pushing inbreeding too far, thus enhancing more negative features.

Not as much progress has been made on genetic research into horses as into many other species of animal, even though the horse’s 64 chromosomes have been charted. For example, experts now know what determines the colour of a horse and its geographical origins. Another example from research is the discovery that height in hands of a horse from withers to hoof owes much more to heritage (83%) than to environmental factors (17%).

The pace of genetic research into horses is now picking up, so what position should trotting adopt to this field, and to such new products that start to appear on the market?

“Use research findings wisely and with caution. Trotting should prepare a breeding strategy based on the size of the race and on how large the genetic variation and inbreeding coefficient are for the race in question. Moreover, it’s important to focus on the make-up of the breeding selection, on the proportion of the race used in breeding, and whether the stud book is closed or open,” concludes Sofia Mikko.