By Erin Gibbs
I purchased Norsk out of a herd of low-level racehorses—2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds—who didn’t make the cut as winners. He was one of the few in the field without “racing jewelry” on his legs, and he had the shiniest coat of the bunch. In seven starts as a 2-year-old, he won a paltry $70. After a starting gate accident, his racing career was over. Norsk’s face was loveably sad and his demeanor was kind. I took him home as a project, thinking I could train him up and sell him in exchange for a “real horse.”
Little did I know, he was my “real horse.” He would be my show hunter, show jumper, equitation horse, three-day-eventer, fox hunter, my children’s first horse, my broken-leg rehab horse, and my trail/camping horse extraordinaire. There was nothing he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Twenty years after picking him out from that herd, he died in my arms—a champion and teacher on so many levels. But ultimately colic took him from me. He developed chronic colic in his teens that might have been prevented had I been aware of the important research on gastric ulcers, shipping, diet—plus the practical application of that science to a horse like mine—research funded by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation (GJCRF).
But for Holly White’s Appendix Quarter Horse, Gus, the research funded by GJCRF did save his life. Gus was admitted to Cornell University with severe colic that required surgery. He initially recovered well, but developed adhesions in his abdomen permanently trapping the colon in the wrong position, causing chronic colic and suspected gastric ulcers. Left untreated, the ulcers could contribute to ongoing colic episodes. Knowing the research, White changed Gus’ diet from long-stem forage to a low-bulk diet of Hydration Hay (haylage) and soaked hay pellets, affectionately referred to as “slop.” The life-saving measures, diet, and post colic treatments were the result of GJCRF projects straight out of Michigan State University and North Carolina State University. White was so transformed by the experience, she is now the development officer for the foundation.
“I think that the public can’t always link that the research we are doing benefits their own horses,” says White. “Research is sometimes hard to understand because it’s not necessarily a tangible item. The general public doesn’t always link equine health research to their own horse until they have a horse with gastric ulcers, or one that undergoes colic surgery, or laminitis treated with cryotherapy, or stem cells used in a soft tissue injury. They don’t link how that process stemmed from research to a treatment.”
That statement sums up my personal experience, and considering the U.S. has a horse population of almost 4 million, I can’t be alone in this. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had heard of the foundation, but thought it focused only on racehorses. I didn’t connect the science to the sport horse industry at a high level, or for at-home amateurs like me. The truth is that the health of the horse is everyone’s responsibility, from the top levels to the entry levels, from owners to trainers, riders, vets, farriers, and even transport staff.
“The foundation adheres to the philosophy that research fosters the health and soundness of all horses, from those in an individual’s backyard to those in a top trainer’s stable,” says White.
It All Started 81 Years Ago
It all started in 1940 when the original Grayson Foundation was formed and named after Admiral Cary Grayson—a surgeon in the U.S. Navy and personal physician to President Woodrow Wilson. An avid horseman who loved Thoroughbred horse racing, Grayson owned Blue Ridge Farm, a breeding/training/racing operation in Upperville, Va. It is still owned by the Grayson family and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original foundation assisted in the promotion of research for horses, and The Jockey Club was an early supporter. It helped raise part of the $100,000 in seed money to bring Grayson’s research funding idea to life. The mission was always to fund research at existing institutions rather than carry out research itself.
In 1983, The Jockey Club Research Foundation joined the Grayson Foundation to become the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation Inc., now the nation’s leading source of equine research funding. The research helps all breeds of horses. The organization is led by a 32-member Research Advisory Committee (RAC) composed of research scientists and practicing veterinarians from across the country. They meet annually to evaluate proposals, which are whittled down to the best ideas for recommendation to the board of directors, who make the final decisions. Any funded project is expected to produce at least one peer-reviewed published article. Of 230 completed projects since 1999, all have met this criterion.
The powerful path of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has led to the raising of $30.6 million to fund 397 projects at 45 universities that are focused on helping horses of all breeds.
“All of the research is done through universities so that there are no lab set-up costs,” says Jamie Haydon, president of GJCRF. “We exist to help all horses by funding excellent and significant veterinary research at universities throughout North America and beyond and are committed to the advancement of horse health for all horses regardless of breed or discipline.”
Most of the studies average two years at a cost of $200,000 per project—probably much more than what Dr. Grayson could ever imagine in his day. The current hot topics of research include infectious disease, reproduction, laminitis, colic, and respiratory and musculoskeletal issues. A great example of how a single GJCRF-funded research project became beneficial to all horsemen was data that proves shipping horses in box stalls is more comfortable for the horse and leads to less shipping fever and coughing.
It’s not just money that GJCRF depends on, but also people. Top people. Without the dedicated minds of brilliant up-and-coming equine veterinarians and researchers, the well of information could run dry. So, Lucy Young Hamilton and Richard Klein stepped forward to support career development with two awards given to prospective researchers in order to attract and keep such minds engaged in equine research. Hamilton, through the Storm Cat Award, and Klein, through his family’s foundation and in honor of his parents, Elaine and Bert Klein, have bolstered the salaries of post-residency doctors working toward a PhD. The foundation solicits and evaluates proposals from these career development awards. Of 27 doctors who have received these awards, 21 are still doing equine research, helping fill the pipeline with the next generation of researchers.
Going back to Gus and Holly White, one of the veterinarians on the case was Dr. Jonathan Cheetham. He was awarded the inaugural Storm Cat Award and now sits on Grayson’s RAC, which assisted in selecting projects for funding, a great example of this very needed “mind pipeline.”
Some Amazing Saves
A decade ago, our family had a pony with laminitis. It seemed to happen overnight as a reaction to a steroid injection. She recovered to a sound and competitive life, but it took years and daily dedication to her hoof health, diet, and body condition. To see her in pain was crushing, and it’s no different for high performance horses … laminitis is the second leading cause of premature death in horses next to colic.
With GJCRF funds, research on cryotherapy for laminitis has proved highly effective. It could have made treating our pony easier and faster, just as it did for Grade 1-winning Thoroughbreds Bal a Bali, Lady Eli, Lord Nelson, and Paynter. Incredibly, Lady Eli and Bal a Bali returned to successful racing careers, and the others retired as pasture-sound and happy breeding horses. Cryotherapy can be used both for prevention and treatment for acute laminitis in the following ways:
• Apply cryotherapy as first aid to limit disease progression
• Provide pain relief and reduce inflammation with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
• Restrict the horse’s movement via stall rest
• Use orthotic/corrective shoeing
Cryotherapy is described as “foot cooling,” requiring use of a cooling device from the knee/hock down. Think: ice sleeves, ice pack wraps, ice boots, or even tethering a horse in a stream or pool of cold water for an extended period. Other methods involve the recirculation of refrigerated water using recirculating pumps (such as the Equine Spa).
Specifically, they found the following key effects of cryotherapy in laminitic horses:
• Reduces metabolic activity (energy requirements and consumption) in the lamellar tissue of the feet while preserving hoof function and balance … possibly a key to inhibiting pathologic processes in laminitis
• Inhibits inflammatory signaling within the feet
• Inhibits growth factor signaling and cell growth within the lamellae that contributes to stretch and damage within the feet
Now the research is focused on developing a method to deliver cryotherapy on laminitic, septic, or pre-laminitic horses that can be used for consistent and continuous cooling for several days.
GJCRF provides the largest amount of grant funding for horse research. Led by super scientists, they make the impossible possible. There are a number of different ways to get involved with Grayson, from becoming an annual member to leaving a lasting legacy through a planned gift to paying tribute to a special horse in your life.
“Prominent horsemen have ensured the success of the foundation through the years with their generosity,” says Haydon. A quick visit to the GJCRF website offers endless details about the history and people behind the organization, the breakthrough research and practical application of it to all horses, plus what is happening currently in the world of equine research health.
In Jamie Haydon’s words, “We’ve always viewed the foundation as very important to all horses. When you hear Grayson-Jockey Club you instantly associate it with Thoroughbred racing, but all of us who love these animals have to bind together to fund this important research. Disease and injury doesn’t come up to a horse and ask what breed it is. Injuries happen to all horses, and all breeds have been the benefactors of our research funds.”
For more information about this vital organization, please visit: https://www.grayson-jockeyclub.org.
• In 2021, $1,648,434 has been spent to date funding 13 new projects at 12 universities.
• There are 12 continuing projects, and two career development awards worth $20,000 each.
• For seven straight years, more than $1 million has been approved for use.
• The 2021 slate of research brings Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation’s totals since 1983 to more than $30.6 million to underwrite 397 projects at 45 universities.
How Grayson-Funded Research Helps Horses
• First Equine Influenza Vaccine
• Development of Administration to Treat Equine Gastric Ulcers
• Refinement of Knowledge Regarding Safer Horseshoes and the Horse/Racetrack Interface
• Use of Stem Cells for Cartilage Repair
• New Approaches to Vaccination against R. Equi Pneumonia
• Diagnosis and Cause of Placentitis in Mares
• Muscular Factors Influencing Airway Size in Exercising Horses
• Studies of Immunity to Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis
• Laminitis Study Leading to Cryotherapy Treatment Protocols
• Initiated Research and Development of the First Equine Positron Emission Tomography
*This story was originally published in the July 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!