Experimental Careers: Horses Integral at Kentucky Equine Research

Warmblood Sport Horse workout on treadmill

By Esther Hahn

By the time a nutritional supplement hits the shelves of a tack shop or lands in a shopping cart, multiple levels of research and development theoretically support its effectiveness. How often does the consumer know the intricate process between product concept and realization? Apart from the ingredients, how the item fared in research studies and in real-life application should be a deciding factor in the purchasing decision.

One company stands at the forefront of advancing equine nutrition through product innovation and research. Whether developing its own products or consulting for other brands, Kentucky Equine Research aims to produce healthier, more athletic horses and to support the nutritional well-being of all horses.

Horse-Focused Approach

Joe Pagan, Ph.D., founded Kentucky Equine Research over 30 years ago to fill a void that existed between research groups and the people that most needed the results of research, namely feed manufacturers and horse owners. With facilities in Versailles, Ky., and Ocala, Fla., Kentucky Equine Research naturally uses horses to help develop products.

These horses are primarily Thoroughbred geldings, purchased either at sales as young horses or claimed in races. They play active roles in studying products specific to horses in race training. Even if the research horses aren’t actively racing, their management closely parallels the lives of racehorses using the Ocala facility, equipped with a racetrack. As the horses age or show signs of no longer being competitive on the track, they are then placed in either the sporthorse or research program.

“The horses we select may not be super successful horses on the track, but they’re sound and happy to run on a racetrack, so we can use them in field studies,” explained Ashlee Hauss, the research barn manager at Kentucky Equine Research. “The horses are handled extensively and subjected to different experiences, such as work on a high-speed treadmill, so we don’t necessarily want a typical, high-strung racehorse. We’re looking for a well-muscled, good-boned, sound horse that’s happy to do a multitude of jobs.”

The sporthorse division at Kentucky Equine Research is directed by Pagan’s wife, Anna Kjellstrom, an amateur event rider. Horses in the sporthorse program are asked to perform basic dressage and jumping exercises on a schedule designed to peak at competitions. The results from the sporthorse studies correlate well to horses in many disciplines.

“The horses can rotate in and out of the three programs: research, sporthorse, and race training,” Hauss said. “If Dr. Pagan gets a young racehorse, he’ll go into the race program first. We’ll see if he can hold up to that level of intense exercise.

“If soundness becomes an issue, or the horse doesn’t enjoy the job, we’ll move him over to our sporthorse program. Does he like jumping? That kind of life? If he doesn’t work out in that program, then he can go on to be a research-only horse. Some horses are happy to just eat feed as part of palatability studies. No matter the program, we use all of the horses for research.”

A Day in the Life

A research horse’s day is shaped by the studies underway at the facilities. Currently, Kentucky Equine Research is looking more closely at its omega-3 fatty acid product, EO-3, in two ways: palatability studies without an exercise component at the Kentucky facility and product performance in correlation with the racehorses in training in Florida.

For the former, the research horses will come in from the fields in the morning to eat two different feeds, each of which contains a different flavored version of the product. After a set amount of time, the two buckets of feed are removed from the stall. The researchers will then determine which flavor the horses preferred by weighing the uneaten portion of feed. After their breakfast, the horses are turned back out until the afternoon, when they’ll come back in for another two-choice preference trial.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the racehorses are fed EO-3 twice a day with their grain meals while continuing their normal race training. Researchers collect blood samples from the horses monthly. In this specific study, they are examining how omega-3 fatty acids affect exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, also known as “bleeding,” a problem that besets many racehorses and some sporthorses. Researchers hope the results of this study will show that EO-3 helps bleeders, which in turn will help many horses realize their athletic potential.

“A day in the life of a research racehorse changes all the time,” Hauss said. “Exercise training is six days per week, whether on the treadmill or the track. On some days, the horses will have light exercise, and on others, they’ll go gallop.”

“If we’re doing studies with our sporthorses, we try not to control the management too much, to mimic how people actually care for their horses, with natural differences in competition schedules,” she added. “In eventing, you’re going to do dressage one day, jump one day, go cross-country schooling the next, for example. The training varies, but we try to make the supplementation consistent, in terms of the amount fed and the delivery method. In that way, the day-to-day life of an event research horse is similar to any other active horse.”

The data derived from these studies are integral to developing products that are effective and safe for the general market. The company’s research takes the guesswork out of the equation for the consumer.

KER Research Farm 6.22.17.

Learning is the Constant

As the summer season approaches, hydration is often on the minds of horse owners and competitors. It’s still an area that Kentucky Equine Research is actively studying because the old adage “you can lead a horse to water…” still holds true.

Through sweat, especially when exercising heavily in a hot and humid climate, horses lose electrolytes. While Kentucky Equine Research has formulated several electrolyte-replenishing products, like Race Recovery and Restore SR, the hunt for the right product to encourage a horse to drink more is still a work in progress.

“We have ideas for electrolyte trials coming up where we’ll look at blood values of electrolytes and how those change with different water management,” Hauss revealed. “The study would be applicable to any active horse and its management leading up to, during, and after competitions. We’ve done a lot of water intake studies, looking at different products to get horses to drink.”

This core concept—that there’s still work to be done and products to discover—keeps the company busy with innovation and research.

“With so much of our research, we don’t find an answer and move on,” said Hauss. “We are always trying to develop new questions to answer, to delve deeper. That way, we can help more horses.”

Even for a staple product like EquiShure, a time-released buffer targeting the hindgut, Kentucky Equine Research continues to do studies to reconfirm efficacy and to see if the formulation can be improved upon. Additional studies follow if a product can be improved, which is sometimes the case as research unfolds. The research not only looks for the positive health benefits of a product but also for the possibility of any negative ones. In the case of any changes in ingredients or in suppliers, the company requires research to ensure palatability and effectiveness and to rule out any possible health implications.

“We look at safety at every stage of product development so that we can offer these products with absolute confidence,” Hauss explained. “We want to be sure that our customers don’t have to worry about feeding our products.”

With this extensive testing and research, Kentucky Equine Research has built a brand and a company that horse owners can trust. The company and its team of researchers, both equine and human, work to improve nutrition and the overall quality of life for all horses

To find complimentary tools to optimize an equine nutrition program, visit ker.com/tools

Originally from the April 2020 Issue.