The sweet smell of hay wafts by on a spring breeze, as dappled sunlight scatters through budding tree branches and horses munch contentedly in small fields of grass near a highway. The pastoral setting belies the critical importance of this Moore County farm to North Carolina’s equine industry. The NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s Equine Health Program (EHP) has established the farmthe Veterinary Equine Research Center (VERC)as the primary outreach center to introduce the 4-year-old EHP to horse owners and veterinarians statewide.
VERC sits in the heart of North Carolina horse country, and its history dates back more than 40 years. Yet, few in the horse industry are aware of its existence, let alone the research conducted there and the clinical services offered, according to Dr. Richard Mansmann, EHP director. In fact, many horse owners across the state still get lab tests done in Colorado or Michigan. “We’re fairly new, so we still have to prove we’re capable and define ourselves,” Mansmann says. “But there’s certainly a major need for equine health services in North Carolina, as well as across the Southeast, that we can fill.”
The horse industry had an economic impact of more than $700 million statewide in 1996, with more than 30,000 horse owners and about 6,500 people employed in the industry, according to the most recent study by the NC Department of Agriculture. Effective marketing of the resources offered at the CVM campus in Raleigh and through the extension satellite at VERC could raise those numbers, Mansmann says.
Dr. Carlos Pinto splits his time between Raleigh and VERC, where he runs an equine assisted reproduction lab in what once was the post-operative recovery room of a former animal hospital. He oversees clinical services like collecting, freezing, and shipping stallion semen for breeders and transferring embryos from show horses and young mares to surrogate mothers. He also works with graduate students on research projects like developing a hormonal test to predict equine fertility, which would allow horse owners to schedule breeding.
A Brazilian who became fascinated by cows and horses only after he left São Paolo to attend veterinary school, Pinto still describes himself as “not a horse guy.” But he welcomes the task of getting NC State’s equine reproductive studies program off the ground. “It’s a huge challenge to build a program from scratch,” he says. “We want to become a major training ground. Having more reproductive specialists in North Carolina attracts more breeders and provides the benefit of advanced reproductive services. That is good for the industry.”
The CVM already is world renowned for its treatment of gastrointestinal problems in horses. Dr. Anthony Blikslager is building on that reputation with research on using drugs similar to Vioxx to treat colic. He has worked for eight years to find an anti-inflammatory drug that could relieve the pain caused by colic without the adverse side-effects of current medications. “They’re good painkillers, but they’re not that friendly to the gut,” he says, noting the drugs inhibit the ability of a horse’s stomach and intestines to repair the ulcers created when colic twists them into knots and cuts off blood supply.
Having grown up on a horse farm in England and now co-owner of a stable near Raleigh, Blikslager has seen the devastating effects of colic firsthand. Although only 1 to 2 percent of cases are fatala couple hundred horses a year in North Carolinahe quickly acknowledges the statistics aren’t small when it’s your horse that is stricken. To speed post-operative recovery and improve a colicky horse’s chance at survival, he hit upon the notion of using COX-2 inhibitors, the same type of drugs used to treat arthritis in humans with no stomach upset. Federal regulators pulled many of these drugs off the market in recent months after studies linked them to heart problems in humans. Blikslager says that could open an avenue for the equine market, which drug makers usually ignore because it’s fairly small. “Horses have the perfect diet and lifestyle for a good heart, so the likelihood of them encountering problems is very remote,” he says.
But a lifestyle of exercise sometimes produces muscle and joint injuries, which is what Dr. Rich Redding plans to address with a new equine sports medicine program. Meeting in a converted operating room at VERC, Redding introduces the newest imaging technology to horse owners. MRI is available to equine patients in only a few locations in the world, but none with the capabilities of the Iams Pet Imaging Center on NC State’s Centennial Biomedical Campus.
The images give Redding a better picture of tendon and ligament damage so he can design an appropriate treatment regimen. He also is studying the use of equine adult stem cells to heal joint injuries. “Our ultimate goal is to make the tendon or ligament as strong as it was before the injury,” he says. “We’re trying to take clinical cases and work them up with as much advanced technology as we can. The sports medicine program is a way to introduce our capabilities to horse owners and veterinarians.”