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Unbridled Ambition

The University of Minnesota is being groomed to better serve the state’s growing equine community

Unbridled Ambition
Photo by Thomas Strand

(page 2 of 3)

In 2002, there were 14,289 horse and pony farms in the state, up 80 percent from the 1997 USDA Census of Agriculture, and 92,770 horses and ponies, up 75 percent, according to the latest census. In addition, Minnesota boasts nearly 500 related organizations, including reining, trail-riding, fox-hunting, and breed-specific groups.

The demand for equine medical care has also grown, and the new UMEC is expected to rank among the best in the world in research and rehabilitation, on par with facilities at the University of California–Davis, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Valberg and her colleague Jim Mickelson recently received a $2.5-million research grant to head the Equine Consortium on Medical Genetics that will link 18 academic institutions in nine countries—including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute, which is sequencing the equine genome.

“This center has been a long time coming, and it’s going to be fabulous,” says Valberg, who previously worked at veterinary medical schools in Ontario, California, and Sweden, and is a former three-day event rider—a competitor who knows what performance-horse owners expect from their mounts. “We’re really lucky Minnesota horse owners are so dedicated to equine health and also have the means to make this happen.”

AS THE NEW UMEC rises on the northeast corner of the campus, the transition from agriculture to pet culture continues at the old equine building. Surgical rooms designed for cattle are now used for dog rehabilitation therapy. Corridors once filled with Holstein dairy cows now see high traffic in Hanoverian sport horses. Stalls for Ayrshire cows house ailing alpacas. And the men who dominated the teaching and student ranks when beef and dairy cows made up most of the clientele are outnumbered: today, about three-quarters of the vet school students and staff are female.

Photo by Thomas Strand

April Schroeder, a veterinary student wearing a baseball cap and yellow jersey, runs the joystick controlling an equine treadmill where a sorrel quarter-horse mare trots steadily, going nowhere. “Come on Bailey!” she calls and clucks to the mare as she watches the dials. A small patch on Bailey’s neck is shaved, as is another on her hip—areas where blood and muscle samples are taken after a 15-minute interval. It turns out that she suffers from PSSM, the same disorder that afflicts Dreyri.

Many horses carry the PSSM gene, but the modern pasture-deprived lifestyle—too much grain, too little forage, and too much time in a stall—can result in the disease expressing itself in what old-timers call “tying up” (more technically, rhabdomyolysis). This can cause muscle death and cramps, among other things. Bailey is one of the clinic’s resident donor horses (part of a herd developed in 1992) that aid in Valberg’s research. Because some of these muscle disorders are linked to carbohydrates, the horses have been named for sweets: Rolo, Mars, Malt, Hershey.

The new center will capitalize on the U’s complementary disciplines and research. Already, diabetes research benefitting humans has been conducted on this herd. And John Day, a professor of neurology and director of the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Center, looks forward to putting children in the saddle through the We Can Ride program; UMEC will be part of a year-round research program on physical therapy.

“One of the things [we’ve] identified is that horseback riding is a valuable form of therapy—both physical and psychological,” says Day. “It’s been used mostly for children and young adults with cerebral palsy and helps their sense of body control as well as stretches limbs and increases mobility. We’re interested in seeing whether we can use the same approaches with multiple sclerosis, which causes weak and stiff muscles.”

“UMEC will be unique in the nation because of the connections with an academic health and research center,” says Valberg. “We have the depth of research expertise at the U at our fingertips here—the medical school, the law school, a whole web of experts to draw on.”

Those specialities they don’t have, they are acquiring. Just beyond the trotting mare is a new portable stainless-steel underwater equine treadmill. The new center also will feature a lameness exam area where diagnostic nerve blocks can be done, a digital radiology lab, an arthroscopic suite and computerized image center, a CT scanner, and, it is hoped, an MRI that Valberg describes as the strongest in the country.

“Diagnostics are a big focus, but what’s unique is also our rehabilitation ability—we have vet techs certified in physical therapy for horses,” Valberg explains. If future racehorses that experience Barbaro-like misfortune live to walk again, this is where they might re-learn to do it.

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