Plaidcast 385: Stevie McCarron Wigley & Dr. Robert Jacobs by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services

Plaidcast Episode 385 Stevie McCarron Wigley Dr. Robert Jacobs

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Piper speaks with Stevie McCarron Wigley about training and managing her business. Dr. Robert Jacobs of Purina Animal Nutrition also joins to talk about the equine microbiome. Brought to you by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services. Listen in!

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Piper Klemm: This is The Plaidcast. I’m Piper Klemm, publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine, and coming up today on episode 385, I talk with Stevie McCarron Wigley about horse training and managing client calendars, and I also talk with Dr. Robert Jacobs of Purina Animal Nutrition about the equine microbiome. This episode is brought to you by Taylor Harris Insurance Services. Stevie McCarron Wigley grew up in Los Angeles, California as the daughter of Hall of Fame Jackie Chris McCarron. Stevie competed and worked for many top professionals through her junior and professional career, including Karen Healy, Butch and Lou Thomas, and Ann Krasinski. Stevie started her own business in Lexington, Kentucky in 2005 and has been running Cloud9 Farm ever since. Welcome to the Plaidcast, Stevie.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to do this.

Piper Klemm: So you started your business, Cloud9 Farm, in 2005. Can you talk a little bit about how it’s evolved over the last two decades?

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yes, I moved here when I was working for Anne Krasinski in New Jersey. My parents had approached me about wanting to move to Kentucky and my dad wanted to start the first jockey school in the United States. And my mom, being a very big supporter of mine, sort of convinced my dad to buy a farm and I could start my own business. So that’s really how it started. I came to Kentucky. I was just so excited to kind of get going and that farm was actually in Georgetown and I’m not there anymore. So I bought my farm in Midway about nine years ago and it really has grown quite a bit. I think I started with about 12 stalls initially in Georgetown. Now I have 24 and we do everything from ponies, rail kids, all the way up to some amateurs and jumper riders, and kind of everything in between.

Piper Klemm: Can you talk to us about your show schedule and kind of how you organize your year?

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yeah, so the show schedule is pretty simple actually, just with the fact that we’re 20 minutes away from the Kentucky Horse Park makes it very easy for me in the respect that we show at the horse park two weeks out of every month between May and the beginning of October. So that’s a pretty straightforward schedule. And then with the fact that we have the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington so close, I try to do about one week every month through the winter time there. And if the timing allows, then we possibly try to go down to Florida for two to three weeks with a handful of horses. I pretty much just put it out there at the start of the fall and say, all right, who’s interested in going? And then if it seems like we can make it happen, we do. So that’s pretty much the standard show schedule for us.

Piper Klemm: It’s not, in today’s world, like it’s not a ton of horse showing in a lot of ways. And, you know, because it’s close by, you’re ending up spending a lot of time at home and a lot of time training. Can you talk about what people get out of having more balance and being at home more? 

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yeah, I really worked for people when I turned professional that did a ton of flatwork and the mechanics of riding and the technique. And really understanding what you’re doing when you’re riding was always very important to me. And it was just the way I was taught. So, you know, we’re very lucky, you know, to be able to spend so much time at home. And our lessons are very much, you know, wrapped around lots of flatwork, lots of specific exercises, counting exercises, some no stirrup work, you know, trying to teach the kids how to feel their diagonals. You know, it really is so beneficial to spend the time at home and not necessarily just have our students meet us at the horse shows and, you know, get on and off they go into the show ring because I find it’s incredibly hard to find the time at the shows to really do all the groundwork. So we try to focus on that. I really believe that every horse has a certain amount of jumps in them. So I try not to waste those so much at home. And we really just focus so much on the flatwork, on poles on the ground, cavalettis, you know, trying to jump a little bit smaller, but spending a little bit more focus on the, you know, the detail of it and how they’re executing every little aspect of what they’re doing. And also understanding, you know, what they’re doing, why they’re asking that certain thing, you know, and sort of being aware of the results.

Piper Klemm: We’ve almost lost like this, the most basic part of our sport and the training that we’re doing, which is to build skill and build ability in both the rider and the horse. And I got back from Devon and I was watching all junior weekend and it really struck me that I think in today’s world, we have the best horse trainers that we’ve ever had. I mean, I think this era of horse training, I think people are such exceptional trainers of horses. And I’m not sure that we necessarily have people who are as good at training humans right now. And so I’ve been thinking about that a lot. And in a lot of ways, I would say it’s almost easier to train the horse to compensate for the human than it is to train the human to ride correctly. Or teach the horse. And I was kind of thinking about like reasons and then part of that, and I think a lot of that is we spend so much time traveling that would be better spent in the saddle or in the barn. And so that’s why part of why your program is so interesting to me is, by and large, you’ve taken the excessive travel component out of it. And I know some of that is just simply a location thing, but there are so many people in Lexington who get on that hamster wheel of having to show every weekend, having to show all the time, having to travel in the winter, and that time where you can truly teach riders to ride correctly and teach horses and then train and have the rider meet the level of the horse. I mean, that has got to happen at some point in the year. And it sounds like for you, you have a lot of time in the winter, especially to do that. 

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Oh yeah, definitely. I really try so hard to teach my students how to ride. And it doesn’t necessarily matter what animal they’re on. What gives me so much pride is they can take the tools that I’ve taught them and they can ride a variety of different horses and really take those skills and apply it to a variety and not just sort of this cookie cutter. Okay, well, this pony is super quiet and you just have to learn how to kick around the ring. If they get on another pony that is a little bit hot or a horse that’s a little bit forward, they’re gonna have a hard time with that. And so it really is important to me that the students do develop into good riders and good horsemen. And I love the side of what I do, of thinking about what is going on in the horse’s head and really understanding why the horses do what they do and trying to be a step ahead. And I just love being able to pass that along to my students and some get it, some don’t. And I think what I’ve learned through the years of having my own business is, I have a certain way of doing things and maybe my goals aren’t going to WEF or we don’t have students going to indoors all the time and things like that. But at the same time, I think the students are competitive and it’s important to me even at maybe a lesser level than maybe the top level of the sport. They’re still trying really hard and they can still ride well and people are still impressed with what they put out. That’s really important to me. 

Piper Klemm: But it’s this kind of fundamental question, I think in our whole sport, are you teaching people to show and ride in the ring and to win? Is your responsibility as a trainer to put ribbons on the tack rim or is your responsibility as a trainer to teach people skill and teach people how to ride and teach them that side of the sport? And the answer is balance and both, but the answer is have a conversation and be in the right program for you. But it is really interesting how this focus, especially because we have divisions all the way up, like if your goal is to put ribbons on the tack rim wall, you can truly be very quote unquote successful in this sport without building any skill. 

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Of course, of course, and I’ve always felt like if you’re in the right class and the right division and you put out what you consider to be a great round for you and your horse, I think you should do well and I think you should get good ribbons. And that to me is more important than necessarily just sort of buying the nicest horse that you can buy. And that’s essentially how you’re going to get good ribbons. I don’t love going in the ring and getting lots of top ribbons, maybe just because we have a well-known horse or something like that. That doesn’t feel very satisfying to me.

Piper Klemm: Switching gears, you were fairly young when you started your business. What kind of things have gotten easier over the years? What kind of things have you really had to develop in yourself? What are a lot of the things you learned on the job? And I think we encourage people to apprentice and assistant for a long time, but at some level, nothing ever prepares you for having it be yours and having to take the heat on everything.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Oh gosh, no, it is hard. I would say something that’s gotten easier is having a real good sense of what kind of clients I want in the barn, what my personal philosophy is, and trying to have clients and horses that sort of match those ideas. I think that’s gotten a little bit easier And I’m 44 now, and I’m a little bit more at peace with sort of the way I run my program. And I think that it works for me. There’s so many different ways to run things. And I would say it’s worked well for me, the way we feed the horses and turn out, and the lesson schedule, and all of that stuff has kind of gotten easier as far as bringing new horses in and being able to manage them. That part has definitely gotten easier.

Piper Klemm: I mean, what hasn’t gotten easier? I mean, what continues to be just a challenge every day?

Stevie McCarron Wigley: I would say it’s just, it’s a very difficult business as far as having personal time and trying to step away and not feel like you owe all of your clients and all of your horses, every single waking moment of your time. I think that is a very hard part that it’s incredibly demanding. And for me being able to say, okay, you know what, I’ve not had a day off for two weeks and I haven’t really seen my family very much and I’m going to take a day off and spend time with my family and let my staff kind of handle things. I’ve gotten better at that over the years, but it’s still hard and you still feel a sense of guilt, or at least I still feel a sense of guilt over that. I’m very, very fortunate that I have a lot of families that understand my position and they’re very supportive in that, oh, great, you’re going away for a week with your family, that’s awesome. Hope you have a wonderful time, that sort of thing. But it still is hard to accept that, okay, I’m going to just not go to the farm today and sort of be okay with that and not feel any guilt.

Piper Klemm: Your husband’s an athlete.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yes, he was a steeplechase jockey in Europe and then he galloped horses here for good often. When he first came to Kentucky, he grew up in England and now he is an equine dentist. So, but he certainly knows how to ride horses and all that.

Piper Klemm: So he gets the lifestyle and-

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Oh yes, very much.

Piper Klemm: And all the pieces of this, is that hard to kind of balance his time off and your time off and figure out? Cause it’s, the industry is so flexible in a weird way, but so time, you know, and I don’t think anyone’s really balancing the time consuming with the flexibility in quite the same way as our industry is.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yeah, no, he is, he’s very understanding of, you know, my schedule and incredibly, you know, helpful and supportive. So I’m, I’m incredibly lucky in that respect, but there, you know, there have been many times where both of us are busy and we call on my dad to, you know, look after our son or, you know, we call on a nanny or something to, you know, work through the weekend. I think for sure, as time has gone on, things get easier as your, as your kids get a little bit older, but, but yeah, it’s hard and people say, oh, there’s a balance. I don’t, I don’t know that there’s ever a perfect balance. I think I, I constantly feel pulled, you know, in certain directions. When I’m with my family, I feel pulled to the barn. When I’m at the barn, I feel pulled to my family, you know, so, so it’s, it’s a constant struggle, I think, you know, in that respect.

Piper Klemm: Let’s talk about growing up in the sport and deciding to become professional. Can you talk us through your childhood in Los Angeles and, and some of the people and some of the things you learned from them?

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Yeah, I started riding with the great Mousy Williams in Los Angeles years and years ago. I think I started when I was about four and I then switched over to Rob Gage and Cindy Merritt, where they had G&G Stables. And then from there, I started riding. I think I was about 15 when I started riding with Chancellor Akelyan. And that’s when I started doing the jumpers and then rode with him for about a year and moved to Karen Healy. That was my last junior year.  And so I had a junior jumper with her and I loved the jumpers. I was a little bit at a place where I was like, oh, I don’t want to do the equitation. I don’t want to be judged. I just love the jumpers where I can just rip around and just go against the clock and not have to worry about the rest of it. Karen was like, you’re not going to learn anything from doing one class a day on your jumper. I really think you should do the equitation. So we leased a horse. I qualified for most of my medals during the Indio circuit. Back then, it was Indio and that was in 97. And so then fast forward the season and I ended up going to indoors with a fairly green horse that Karen imported. And we did Harrisburg, we did McClay, it was still at Madison Square Garden. And I did not qualify for Washington just because I didn’t have the points. But we did the zone team on my junior jumper. We ended up with the gold for that, ended up eighth overall in the McClay. And then I think when my last junior year happened, I deferred to the University of San Diego, because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, honestly.  I knew I always wanted to ride, but I wasn’t 100% sure that I was going to be able to teach people. Karen offered me a job, and so she had Melissa Jones working for her, Archie Cox working for her, and so I took it. And I learned so much from- I basically just stood next to Karen for a year and just listened to every single word that came out of her mouth. And, you know, I rode a little bit. I was sort of the exercise rider, you know, getting the horses quiet and stuff. But really just standing on the ground, listening to her teach, that really, I think, set the path for my teaching. And then I went on to work for Butch and Lou Thomas in Northern California at Willow Tree Farm. I was there for three and a half years.  And then I got a private job working for Barbara Ellison at Wild Turkey Farm. And then I moved to Kentucky and I was here very briefly working for Candice King. And then I got the job with Anne Krasinski in New Jersey. And I worked for Anne for a year and a half before I went out on my own. And for sure, I think working for Anne, that was really what gave me the confidence to run my own business. Because she had a farm that was very different from your typical California facility where a lot of the trainers just rent stalls from these large property owners. And they’re not really having to take care of the land and drag the rings and things like that. So when I worked for Anne, it was the icing on the cake as far as the riding, the teaching, the managing the farm.  And that gave me so much information and knowledge and confidence to then be able to do it on my own and feel good about it.

Piper Klemm: What Karen said to you is so interesting and I think so relevant today to even with the jumpers. I mean, I think there are a lot of situations that I’m completely outside of that I look and I’m like, oh, like, it almost seems like, oh, that kid’s not doing the hunters or the equitation because it’s easier to put them in the jumper ring than to teach them how to ride.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I think with Karen’s program, I mean, we would we would go to the horse shows and we would have lessons in the warm up area every single morning before we would show in four or five classes. I mean, we we just spent so much time in the saddle and talk about detail and understanding why you were asking for certain things and how to ask for certain things And it was so much time in the saddle and really invaluable. I mean, I can’t tell you the amount of girls that are now professionals that were in that same time frame. Kirsten Coe, Jill Gaffney, Lindsay Anderson, Lindsay Archer now. I mean, there were probably 15 girls in every single equitation class that Karen would bring to every single class. So yeah, it was incredibly invaluable for sure.

Piper Klemm: How do you keep people kind of motivated? I talk with a lot of people about this, and some trainers say it’s not the trainer’s job to motivate someone. I’m not sure exactly that the stance needs to be that extreme, but when it’s winter, when things are hard, or when the horse is being difficult, what do you think a trainer’s responsibility is to keep students inspired and then keep them putting in the work?

Stevie McCarron Wigley: I mean, I do think it’s a little bit of my job to keep it interesting for the kids and the adult riders. I think I try to do exercises that keep it interesting, and the side of teaching the riders really how to understand how the horse is thinking and the different behaviors that the horse is putting out and what those mean. I mean, I think for me, that’s what I find so incredibly interesting, and I love getting into the brains of the horses and ponies and trying to figure out how they all work and tick. I try to bring a lot of that to my teaching. And I think when the students seem to be going through the motions a little bit, I definitely sit and think, okay, how can I make them a little bit more interested in this process? Because it is a process. It’s not just get on and go jump a bunch of jumps, and it doesn’t matter how it looks or how you execute it. I think the whole thing is really methodical, and I try very hard to do certain exercises that do keep it interesting for the riders, for sure.

Piper Klemm: Stevie, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Stevie McCarron Wigley: Oh, it’s been my pleasure.

Piper Klemm: Dr. Robert Jacobs is an equine innovation manager at Purina Animal Nutrition. Dr. Jacobs earned his PhD in equine reproductive physiology and nutrition at Virginia Tech and manages the equine research program at Purina Animal Nutrition Center. For the last 10 plus years, he has been leading research efforts for the Purina Equine MQ platform. Welcome to the plaidcast, Dr. Jacobs.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Thanks for having me. I’m really looking forward to talking to you today.

Piper Klemm: Can we talk right at square one? What is equine microbiome? What is that? I think we hear microbiome thrown around a lot, but what does that actually mean? 

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Yeah, you’re 100% right. You can’t open up a magazine, a newspaper, an internet article now without seeing the word microbiome. And so when we think about the horse’s microbiome, what we’re talking about is the population of mainly bacteria, but it’s bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, viruses, and fungi that live within the horse’s gut that help the horse to really do all of the things that make it a horse, right? So it helps the horse to digest all of the indigestible fibers that they eat during the day. So think about the hay and the pasture that your horse eats. Think about the feed that you feed your horse. There’s components of that, that the horse’s body themselves can digest. And then there’s a significant portion that the horse doesn’t have the enzymes or the tools necessary to digest. And so this microbiome lives within the gut of the horse and helps that horse to digest and utilize the nutrition that they’re being fed.  But what we’ve learned more and more recently is that the microbiome impacts every single area of health and physiology in the horse, from the horse’s immune function to their exercise recovery, to their ability to overcome or deal with certain disease processes, all the way down to things like the horse’s individual behavior. All of that is impacted by the horse’s individual microbiome. So when I think of the microbiome, I think of it as this absolutely incredible ecosystem and tool that the horse has to help them to be the best horse that they can be.

Piper Klemm: There was a lot of media focus for a long time on nature versus nurture with humans and all kinds of animals. And everyone has their opinions and we base so many teaching styles, but I think the more we’re learning is that the more how much of this gut health gets started early on in life and individually. And the more of those studies I read, I really think about how we’re importing horses from all over the world and we don’t necessarily know what kind of environments or lineage they necessarily had at a young age.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Yeah, what’s so crazy is this area of science is rapidly progressing. When you think about the first kind of definition of the word probiotic, for example, it actually came out in the early 1900s. I think the paper came out in 1908. So you think, all right, we’ve been around for a little bit, but our understanding and the tools that we have accessible to us that allow us to understand the horse’s microbiome are moving at such an incredibly rapid pace. When I was in grad school, not all that long ago, we’re getting further away from it. I was taught, feed the horse and it’ll keep the bugs happy.  But I think I’ve had a shift in my thinking where it’s almost like feed the bugs and that’ll keep the horse happy. And so as we continue to learn and utilize these revolutionary tools that are available to us, I think that we’re going to continue to understand all the things that you’re talking about. Where does the microbiome develop? How does the microbiome develop? How do all of the things that the horse interacts with on their daily lives impact their individual microbiome? And that’s what we’ve been focusing our research on here at Purina for the past 10 years is exactly that.

Piper Klemm: That’s funny you say that. Someone said to me the other day that like good pasture management is good horse management. And I had, just like you, I had always thought about it the other way that like, but if you go backwards and make the grasses healthy, that makes the horse’s stomachs healthy. And it’s totally opposite of how we were all kind of trained to think about these things.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: We’re absolutely learning every single day how all of these little tiny intricacies that we may or may not have overlooked for so long, or maybe we paid attention to them but didn’t recognize the relevance of them, two things specifically like the horse’s microbiome. And what I think is fascinating is, when we started down this journey, not too long ago, right? Think about RMQ project started about five years ago. I was super interested in what bacteria are there and how many of their friends are they bringing to the party? And as we’ve continued to learn about this, I still think those bacteria that are there are incredibly important and which bacteria are present and what the proportions are and the ratios and what that population is. But we’re learning, what else do these bacteria do? And how are they impacting the health of the horse? And so all of these little things that we do every day impact the microbiome and that then impacts the health, the performance, the wellbeing, the comfort, insert the adjective there for your horse.

Piper Klemm: Let’s talk a little bit about how horses’ lives have changed because I feel like it’s almost going concurrently. The more we learn and the better we do in a lot of ways, almost inadvertently the way our industry and just population basis are changing. Like horses’ lives are changing so dramatically. And even when I was growing up, like you would drive through so many farms in the suburbs. And we just don’t see that in quite the same way anymore. And so many people live in population-dense areas. “So they want their horses near them. And people are really balancing in such creative ways, having horses on less and less geographic footprint. We also thinking about like growing up, almost every horse was on straw. And it’s hard to see or find straw anymore. So we have all these like little shifts and obviously how much we travel right now with our horses is absolutely, you know, bananas. Anyone thinking about it rationally, and yet we all participate in it. How are horses lives changing? And how is that, how do you think about the microbiome in the context of how different your horse’s life is now from where it was 20 years ago or, you know, even 40 years ago?

Dr. Robert Jacobs: I love this question. You know, as a nutritionist, I get asked all the time, you know, why can’t my horse just eat what, you know, Mother Nature intended? And it’s a good question, right? You know, we all want to do what’s best for our horse and horse owners always want to do what’s best for their horse. You know, but I think when we think about, you know, the horse that Mother Nature intended is not the horse that we have today, right? The horse that Mother Nature intended was, you know, about 14 hands high and, you know, lived on hundreds, if not thousands of acres of pretty low quality forage. And they walked around 20-some-odd miles a day consuming, you know, as much of this forage as they could possibly eat to really just sustain their lives. You know, these weren’t performance animals. These weren’t animals that, you know, necessarily were getting bred every single year and expected to produce, you know, a full premier per year. You know, so as we think about how we manage our horses differently, right, you know, whether you have a performance horse that is competing on a routine basis or in training on a routine basis, or even a recreational horse that you ride a couple of times a month. Those are different horses, right? And as, you know, we ask more of our horses, we have to make sure that we’re providing them the building blocks necessary to meet those requirements, right? Our horses now, you know, when possible, they live on really good quality pasture and they, you know, consume really high quality forages when it’s appropriate for them. And we meal feed our horses because it’s typically a little bit easier for us as the owners and, you know, to manage those requirements for that horse. Well, anytime that we change the horse’s eating behavior, we alter that horse’s physiology. And as part of that alteration, we’re altering the horse’s microbiome. A good example of this and research and data that we’ve gotten from our microbiome project, that 5,000 samples from horses around the country, we have a good proportion of horses that consume nothing but concentrate feed. You know, they may be senior horses or they may be horses that don’t have access to good quality, you know, forage. You know, but their microbiome is much different than those horses that have access to pasture. And it makes sense, right? When you think about it, those bacteria that are in the gut of the horse, if that horse is consuming nothing but a concentrate feed appropriate for that horse, you know, there’s a lot less variability in that diet versus the horse that may be out on pasture, you know, consuming a variety of different grasses, a variety of different weeds, you know, or has their face down in the soil. You know, there’s a big difference between those horses’ diets. And so we see drastic differences in the microbiome of those two horses. Now, I’m not saying one of those is better or worse than the other.  It’s appropriate for that horse’s individual lifestyle, right? But as we look at it, you know, that’s a piece of data that we didn’t know before. And then I think it’s fascinating to think, just like you said, Piper, it’s fascinating to think of how we manage our horses impacts all these different areas of physiology. And then from my perspective, it’s how that physiological difference impacts that horse’s microbiome and then what that feedback loop is back to the horse itself. 

Piper Klemm: It’s interesting you mentioned the size thing because I always notice when I’m traveling or go to museums, you see those old coat of arms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their arms and armor section. They’re tiny, these teeny tiny coat of arms for the horses. I mean, those horses 500 years ago were very bodey sized.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: They’re different animals, yeah. When you go back to the history books and you look at it though, people recognize the importance of nutrition even way back then. There’s data back from I’ll call it way back in the day of how to feed some of these horses that were wearing those coats of arms to improve their performance. Even looking at more, I would say, recent past history, horses that were being utilized by the government in the Civil War, there was data and there were feeding tables and there were guidelines on what those horses were supposed to consume to meet their individual performance level. So we’ve understood the role of nutrition for a really long time. But yeah, like you said, we’re feeding different horses and those horses are being asked to do some pretty different things than they used to.

Piper Klemm: And, you know, on our timescales, you know, 4, 5, 10 years seems like a lot, but on evolutionary timescales, like 100, 300, 500 years isn’t that much in the horse’s overall evolution to where they are now.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: So very true.

Piper Klemm: So tell us about what Purina embarked on trying to do. What were your goals when you started this project? I love kind of thinking about, because I remember when you all started this, about, it was this grand, ambitious plan that just seemed insurmountable, and your team has been on it from day one. But what did kind of that more hypothesis, more imagining, designing the experiments level of this project look like for you all? 

Dr. Robert Jacobs: You know, it’s almost cliche to say, right? But this started on the back of a napkin, right? So my boss, Dr. Mary Beth Gordon, and I, you know, were tasked by our leadership team with, all right, you know, this is right around the time where we were launching our Outlast product and the leadership team came to us and said, you know, what’s next? What do you got in the works? And, you know, Mary Beth and I are very up on the science and we pay attention to the science. You know, and we knew that the microbiome was an area of opportunity for us.  And so when Dr. Gordon and I, you know, got together and we sat down and we were sketching this out, all right, what’s important to us? And every kind of thing that we came to, you know, was it’s really hard for us to impact the microbiome of the horse before we understand the microbiome of the horse. So that’s what we set out to do. And about six years ago, Dr. Gordon and I sat down and we said, here’s what our project is. And we thought it was ambitious, right? We wanted to collect thousands of samples, fecal samples from horses around the country.  And we wanted to bring them in house and we wanted to sequence those samples. So figure out what bacteria are there, how many of those bacteria are there. And then we wanted to apply a tool called bioinformatics to those data and really understand all of the things that impact the microbiome of the horse. So things like the breed of the horse, the age of the horse, the gender of the horse, the diet, the competition schedule, the lifestyle, the housing situation, right? And so we set out and developed a kit that we sent out to horses around the country. We actually sent out about 20,000 kits to horse owners, veterinarians around the country.  And we got those samples back and we brought them here to our Emerging Technologies Lab here at our Animal Nutrition Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. And we sequenced them, right? We extracted the bacterial DNA. We put them on our sequencer and we identified what bacteria were there. We then applied the bioinformatics to say, okay, what are the things that impact the microbiome of the horse? Right?  For us, it was that understanding. You know, we need to understand what that microbiome looks like because if you don’t, that’s a really scary thing. You know, if I’m going to impact the microbiome of the horse by feeding a feed, a probiotic, a prebiotic, whatever it is, but I don’t know what’s going on in that microbiome to begin with, you know, that’s a real scary thing for me. So at the same time that we were doing that large scale analysis project, we were doing research here on our research farm where we’ve got 80 head of horses and we were understanding the effect of these different additives, whether they be probiotics or prebiotics, and we were testing all of these different compounds and components to see if we could impact the microbiome of the horse. And so we developed this absolutely incredible body of data that we utilized, right, in order to kind of build and launch what has now become our MQ platform. 

Piper Klemm: In a lot of scientific fields, you have a lot of basic research happening in academia and a lot of kind of these bases being formed. I think with our equestrian side of things, it’s always been really hard because there’s very little equestrian research done as part of basic research, that kind of marriage between horses and academia has never really happened on a scale where you can reliably trust results. And, you know, without kind of that funding, so Purina’s really taken on this basic research component, which I think is fairly unusual. So can you talk a little bit about even kind of your grasp of your job? Because I think it’s so many people who want to do basic research and ask fundamental questions. I think having that freedom to do that within a corporate structure is fascinating from a science perspective and from a career perspective. And it’s really cool that you get to be part of that scientific pipeline all the way from basic research at your 20,000 unknown samples, literally not knowing what you would find and if it could ever be useful all the way through to a product.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Yeah, for sure. My partners and colleagues in the university system, they’re absolutely incredible. The work that they do every single day, trying to find that funding to do this research in horses, I think is amazing. But you’re right. There are funding challenges. I feel incredibly lucky that Land O’Lakes and Purina have seen the value in the research.  When we, Dr. Gordon and I, launched this or at least, you know, explained this to our senior leadership team, we had to go back and basically say what you said, but hey, you know, there’s a lot of these questions that we don’t have the answer to. But if you want us to develop something that’s truly going to change the way that people manage their horses and change the way that people think about nutrition for their horses, these are the questions that we need to answer. And these are the ways that we need to do that.  And so we got the funding from the senior leadership team to do that. And I count my blessings every day to have, you know, the ability to be in the career that I’m in, where I can, you know, work with the horses and work with my amazing group of research technicians to collect samples and, you know, an amazing group of data scientists to help us to unravel what all this data means. And then work with my technical team to develop these products, you know, and to develop, you know, what I like to call solutions for the horse owner, right? Because I think a product should help to solve a problem, right? Which would be a solution. And so every single day, I get to, you know, do what I love, which is try to make the horse, the best horse that they can be.  And I do that through science. I do that through research. You know, I’ve had the opportunity now, you know, in my 10 years of Purina to launch a variety of different products that, you know, I think help horses all over the country. And I think it’s cool, you know, when I get to go into a feed store and I see, you know, a product that I helped to develop or I formulated or I worked on, you know, I see it on the shelf, you definitely get a sense of pride there. You know, and I know that the rest of our team, Dr. Gordon and the rest of our technical team, feel that same sense of pride, right? We’re all horse people, right? We have horses, we ride horses, we love horses. You know, I manage 80 horses every single day here at the research farm. And so just like all the listeners, we’re horse people also. And for me, that aspect really drives me to do what’s best for the horse.

Piper Klemm: So let’s specifically talk about the kit. How does the kit work? How do you find out about your horse’s individual microbiome?

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Yeah, absolutely. So our MQ equine microbiome tests throughout the development of our MQ platform, right? We collected those samples from all over the country. We have this very robust database, you know, maybe the largest database of equine microbiome samples that’s ever been collected. We developed this kit. And so you can go on to, you know, our website, mq.purinamills.com and you can order a kit for your horse. It’s a very, very simple process, right? The kit comes with really detailed instructions. They’re drawn out. You know, we’ve got some real cool images in there. You take a rectal swab from your horse. You go on to a website. You answer, you know, a survey about your horse. What they eat, what their lifestyle is, less than five minutes, right? It’s a real simple survey. You can do it on your computer. You can do it on your phone. Optimized to really, you know, help that horse owner. You send that sample back to us and six to eight weeks later, we send you a very detailed report. It’s actually an interactive report. So you’re going to get information on, you know, what we call your horse’s MQ status, right? So think of it as red, yellow, or green, right? Your horse will be, you know, come back with an MQ status that’s either red, yellow, or green, indicating how similar they are, you know, to other typical horses of their cohort, right? And so that MQ status was derived from all of those thousands of samples that we collected and through all the bioinformatics, we developed a number of equations to help us to get to what, you know, your horse’s individual microbiome means for their individual health and performance. So in addition to that, we’ll give you some interactive graphs where we say, hey, this is what your horse’s microbiome looks like. These are the different family of bacteria. And when you click on those graphs, it’ll provide you with some really cool insight and say, hey, this bug is, you know, maybe this is a lactobacilliaceae family and this bug is responsible for this specific function in the horse. So on and so forth, right? The other things that you can do is you can look at your horse’s individual, you know, microbial composition and compare it to different horses of different ages, different breeds, different diets, different lifestyles, right? Horse owners are inquisitive people by nature. I don’t think I’ve ever met a horse owner that wouldn’t want, you know, that kind of information. The next part of the report, you know, shows what your horse’s microbial diversity looks like, right? Diversity is an important function or an important factor of the microbiome. More diverse, less diverse. One of those is not necessarily better or worse than the other, right? But you can get an understanding of what your individual horse’s microbial diversity looks like. And then again, compare it to all those different horses. And then the final thing, which I think is maybe one of the coolest parts of this entire process, is based off of that survey data that the horse owner, you know, presented, and based off of the microbiome data that we gathered from the sequencing, one of our team of PhD nutritionists takes a look at all of that, condenses it together, and provides a recommended ration for your horse. It provides you what that ration looks like in terms of the nutrients that are supplied versus the nutrients that are required, and it tells you exactly what and how much of an individual feed stuff to feed during the day. So you basically get an individual nutritional consult from a PhD nutritionist in addition to that report. And so I think it’s a real fascinating tool. It’s something that allows me as a nutritionist to get, you know, I would say hands on with more horse owners and more horses around the country, because I know, you know, I get calls every day, hey, what should I feed my horse?  You know, and I think this gives the horse owner that ability to get a level of insight that hasn’t been, you know, available to them in the past.

Piper Klemm: And equine nutrition almost seems like it falls a little bit in this hand wavy of, you know, the number of people who self-identify as equine nutritionists in today’s world sometimes almost seems at life coach level. And so having actual data and backing and trust behind it is so essential. 

Dr. Robert Jacobs: It’s a crowded place. You know, I’ve got a phenomenal technical team of PhDs that I work with. And all of us, you know, went to school for a really long time because we love nutrition and we love horses and we love physiology. And we also spend a lot of time, you know, in the data and in the science. So yeah, there’s a lot of nutritionists out there. But the ones that are going to work on these reports and the ones that I get to work with every single day truly are the best in class and the best in the business. And so yeah, you’re right. You get to work with us, if you will. 

Piper Klemm: And talk to us about the probiotic supplement and what that means and how that can help horses once you know more about their microbiome.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Sure, yeah. So, you know, in this whole process, the goal obviously has been to develop products, right? To help horses be their best horse. And, you know, within that kind of bucket falls probiotics. And so, horse owners for years have been inundated with different products that either are probiotics or contain probiotics. But the challenge is do they actually do anything?  Were they actually working? Right? And when you think about the definition of a probiotic, right, it’s a live bacterial species that when fed to an animal, confers a benefit to that animal’s health and performance. And so, relatively simple definition. But when you break that definition down, there’s real challenges there. The first is it’s a bacterial species. Okay, well, which one? There’s millions of different bacteria out there. So, for us, it was, you know, working through our pipeline to understand, well, which bacteria should we look at?  And so, we have a lot of different in vitro analyses that we can use to help us to narrow that field down before we take those, you know, select few bacteria and feed them to the horse, right, during in vivo or trials utilizing the horse. The next part of that definition is it’s a live bacterial species. Well, bacteria are kind of finicky and they, you know, they can die for a lot of different reasons. And when a bacteria dies, it’s no longer a probiotic. Different things that we do when we feed horses, whether we feed them a pellet, whether we feed them a processed powder, whether we feed them an extruded product, all of those different processing parameters introduce heat or pressure or oxygen or light or moisture. All of those things kill bacteria. “The next thing we had to do is either identify a specific way to protect that bacteria or identify a specific bacteria that’s able to survive those processes. Finally, it confers a health benefit to the horse. Our research really focused on all three of those things. It was identification of bacteria. Once we found this group of bacteria that we saw, hey, they have this specific function, let’s test that in the horse. Then we wanted to test it through pelleting and say, hey, if we pellet this, does it survive? In Purina systemic probiotic supplement, you have a live and active bacteria that through rigorous, rigorous testing was shown to survive the pelleting process and not only survive the pelleting process but survive passage through the horse’s acidic stomach so that it can confer its health benefits later on in the horse’s GI tract. What are those benefits? What we saw was we put horses through different challenges to increase their inflammatory stress, their recovery from exercise or their recovery from gastrointestinal distress. And what we saw repeatedly and significantly from a statistical standpoint was that horses that were consuming this systemic probiotic supplement had a reduced inflammatory response to exercise. They recovered from exercise more appropriately. And they also were able to respond to a gastrointestinal stressor in a more appropriate way.  They had improved fecal consistency and I think horse owners all around the world, they’re looking at their horses poop every single day. And if they see something wrong with it, it kind of triggers you, hey, what’s going on with my horse? Well, systemic helps us support that horse’s gastrointestinal tract and allow that horse to maintain fecal consistency even through a stressful situation. So when I look at what we’ve kind of developed with our systemic probiotic supplement is it really checks all the boxes of what a probiotic should be, right? It’s a single bacterial strain, right? We’re not throwing the kitchen sink in there, right? It’s a single bacterial strain, but it’s alive, it’s active, it’s effective, and it’s protective in the gut of the horse. 

Piper Klemm: It’s interesting how many different things at the horse show are basically manifested by stress or inflammation or something about the horse unable to heal. Horses are so incredible at healing, and then when one system gets off kilter, whether it’s a stomach or something else, somehow nothing else seems to be able to. I mean, just like with us, I suppose, once something gets off kilter, healing, anything else seems like it becomes such a hurdle.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: When you have an issue somewhere in the horse’s gut or somewhere in the horse’s body, it doesn’t just affect that singular area. Let’s talk about the GI tract in general. If you have dysbiosis in the hindgut of the horse, so dysbiosis would be an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the hindgut of the horse. Not only does that affect the digestive process that happens in the hindgut of the horse that can result in something like diarrhea, but that diarrhea can then have an effect on the performance of the horse because they may be dehydrated and that can have an effect on the behavior of the horse and that can have an effect on the ability of that horse to digest and utilize nutrition, right? So yes, every single part of this is all so intricately connected, which, you know, it makes it challenging when you’re trying to figure out how to manage or deal with some of these considerations, but you’re 100% right. You know, if you’ve got a problem in one part of the horse, that problem can absolutely manifest itself in so many different ways. 

Piper Klemm: And I think, you know, the stomach issues, we see manifesting in both things we can kind of relate and think about, like colic and stuff, and then we also see them manifesting in ways like being spooky under saddle or, you know, extra anxious or alert and things that you don’t necessarily think are stomach off the bat, but it’s that baseline discomfort just comes out in a different manner.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: That’s it. I’ve got little girls at home, right, to bring it to the human side. And, you know, I would say 99% of the time when they’re being ornery or they got some behavioral issue, it’s because something’s bothering them.  They got a tummy ache, they’re hungry, whatever it is. Your horse is no different. Oftentimes the behavioral things, you know, the behavioral challenges that we may see in our horses are due to the fact that they’re uncomfortable, right? And that can be, you know, comfort in their stomach, it can be comfort in their feet, you know, or it could be comfort, you know, and function of the horse’s, you know, overall gastrointestinal tract. So, yeah, you hit the nail on the head.

Piper Klemm: We have a lot of young people listening for young people who want to go into equine research. What kind of pathways or advice or things would you recommend they look into kind of at the younger stage of their career?

Dr. Robert Jacobs: You know, what I always tell people that are interested in research is, you know, first off, go for it. You know, I had to, I’ll never forget, you know, when I finished my master’s degree and I called my, you know, obviously called my parents and then they knew about it. You know, and they were like, great, well, what are you going to do with that? I’m like, I’m going to be an equine nutritionist. And I promise you, both my parents were like, awesome, you’re going to live in our house for the rest of your life, right? There’s so many amazing opportunities out there for people that are interested in research.  And so, you know, as you continue to go through school, put yourself out there, work in different places, work with different species, right? Work with different animals, go to different veterinary clinics. And as you get into college and you get into the university setting, if that’s what you’re interested in, seek out different professors. I know that there are professors that are always looking, you know, to help young people to figure out what it is they want to do with their lives and give you the opportunity to do volunteer research. Go out and get internships. I know here at Purina, we offer internships, paid internships.  And so, you know, go out and get an internship in different places and in different fields. But I would say for those that are truly interested in the research, never lose that inquisitive nature. I would say I ask more questions than I know the answer to every single day. And so I think that that’s the most important thing that you can do, is continue to ask questions, continue to never be satisfied with the response, and just continue to seek out the information that you need. We have so much information at our fingertips now with the access to technology just in our phones and on the computers. Continue to reach out and seek out that information.  I love talking to young students that are interested in this area. So reach out to people that you hear on podcasts like this. I know we all, myself and the rest of my team, we all love to talk to young, interested students because, you know, hey, we’re passionate about horses and equine nutrition. We would love to talk to other people that are passionate about horses and equine nutrition.

Piper Klemm: I was going to ask you your advice for established horse owners too, but I think it kind of sounds about the same, be inquisitive and learn and read and be as involved. And anything else you want to add to that?

Dr. Robert Jacobs: Yeah, you know, never trust the first answer you find on Google. You know, I think that, you know, Google is a wonderful thing. It allows us access to information. But man, there’s a whole lot of misinformation out there. And so, you know, understand the source of that information. You know, like we talked about before, the different, you know, levels of nutritionist, if you will. You know, and understand the source of that information. And truly, when a product says it does something, ask for proof. Hey, where’s the data? Where’s the research on this? You know, when you want to understand something a little more, call up the company. One of the things that I love about my job is that, you know, I get to talk to horse owners all the time. You know, when I equate it to this, you know, if I have a problem with my car and I call up the company that manufactured my car, you know, and say I got a problem, I’m probably not going to talk to the person who designed my car. But what’s really cool about my job is that if somebody, you know, has a question about their horse or a question about the product that they’re feeding their horse, they’re one phone call away from getting in touch with the individuals that develop that feed or that formulated that product. And so, you know, I love that aspect of my job and talking to horse owners and so, yeah, the advice for horse owners out there is ask the questions, you know, almost demand the answers and be skeptical. I think a healthy level of skepticism is super important. 

Piper Klemm: And I also think like, and this is where I think a lot of horse owners don’t think like scientists, which would really help them, is that everyone wants there to be the answer, you know, the answer. And there’s no the answer that’s right for every horse. And that’s part of why I think this project is so interesting is because you are, by mapping the microbiome of every individual horse, you’re acknowledging how each horse brings such a different set of parameters, by so many factors, breed, age, gender, experience, location, and many more things, that each horse is bringing something different into this. And there’s no one size fit all. There’s no the answer. We all spend a lot of time around horses and develop good feel, but at the end of the day, which is so hard in our industry, because we don’t have a ton of data, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: That’s it. I love that. I’ve never heard that before. But I absolutely love that sentiment. The variability associated with horses makes it even more challenging in this area. But yeah, there is no one answer. And especially as we think about the microbiome of the horse, I would say that we have a greater understanding of the microbiome of the horse now than we’ve ever had in the past because of the work that we’ve done in this area. But that doesn’t mean we’re finished. It doesn’t mean we’re stopping. It doesn’t mean we’re satisfied with where we’re at now. It’s utilizing the tools that we have, the additional ability to analyze the different data points that we have to continue to build our knowledge and to build our database so that we can continue to make these useful recommendations. We can continue to make these efficacious products. All of that goes hand in hand with the data.

Piper Klemm: Dr. Robert Jacobs, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Dr. Robert Jacobs: It was my pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity. I hope everybody out there just learned a little bit more about their horse. 


Piper Klemm: 
To learn more about anything we’ve discussed on today’s show, visit theplaidhorse.com. You can find show notes at theplaidhorse.com/listen, follow The Plaid Horse on all the social medias. You can subscribe to the print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine at thepladhorse.com/subscribe. Please rate and review The Plaidcast anywhere you listen to it. And if you enjoy this episode, please share it with your friends. I will see you at the ring.