Cosequin Presents Aftercare Spotlight: Horses Giving Back

by | 07.12.2017 | 11:48am

Often when human athletes retire from professional sports, their next career is in some way related to the sport they love. Even more often, these former players are passionately committed to giving back to a sport that gave them so much, volunteering their time and pursuing opportunities that will positively impact the next generation and make their sport accessible, fair and safe for the masses.

At the University of California, Davis (and at many other colleges and universities across the country), there is a group of horses doing just that for the Thoroughbreds of today and tomorrow.

Horses in the exercised Thoroughbred research herd at UC Davis, supported through funds provided by the California Horse Racing Board, take part in drug administration studies, most of which are used to establish recommendations for horseracing. Dr. Heather Knych, DVM, PhD, DACVCP, says 80 to 85 percent of the recommendations put forward over the past several years by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (and often adopted by various racing jurisdictions) regarding therapeutic medication withdrawal protocols prior to competition have been established using data collected from the UC Davis herd.

“We typically maintain a herd of 15-16 Thoroughbreds,” said Knych, whose research focus is in Equine Pharmacology, specifically in performance horses. “Our horses participate in many types of studies, with the most common study being what we refer to as a 'drug administration study,' in which horses receive a therapeutic drug and then we collect blood and urine samples at a number of times post-drug administration. This allows us to determine how the drug behaves in the horse's body, how the drug is metabolized and eliminated and how long the drug can be detected.”

Knych is quick to point out the studies conducted by her research group are not terminal. Rather, horses in the herd live an enviable life, getting daily exercise and grooming, along with regular “vacations” from work.

“Horses reside either at the Vet School or at the Center for Equine Health (at UC Davis),” she said. “We have fantastic technicians who are dedicated solely to taking care of the exercised research herd and they treat every horse as if it is their own. Horses are housed either in a box stall or a stall with a run. They receive daily exercise, usually in the morning, which consists of a combination of workouts on a Eurociser and a high-speed treadmill. We also like to give the horses turnout time whenever possible, allowing them to simply be a horse. They also receive what we like to call “vacation time” between studies. For this we trailer them out to the Center for Equine Health and give them some pasture time with other horses.”

Horses used in the studies carried out by Knych and her team range in ages between 2 and 7. Typically horses remain in the herd for 3 to 4 years before they have either aged out of the program or have taken part in the maximum number of studies allowed. Once they have completed their tenure with the program, Knych says there is a wide variety of “third career” options for them.

“Mares in our herd have been placed with the reproduction service at UC Davis and have gone on to become embryo recipient mares,” Knych said. “Other horses have joined the UC Davis teaching herd, where they participate in animal handling and physical exam labs for the veterinary students. We have also had horses who have been purchased from the University and placed in outside homes with approved caretakers. These horses have gone on to excel in show jumping, barrel racing, hunter/jumper events, three-day eventing and as trail and lesson horses.”

Knych grew up riding Quarter horses and Paint horses and competed in a range of disciplines from cutting and jumping at both the local and national level. She says everyone involved in the UC Davis research program are horse-lovers at heart and enjoy getting to know the members of their herd on a personal level.

“With a herd of 16, there's a wide array of unique personalities,” she said. “'Nemo' is a horse that joined our herd about three years ago. He's very goofy, happy and a bit mischievous, always getting into things, including the technicians' snacks. Another horse, 'Champ,' loves playing with his Jolly Ball [toy], swinging it around in his teeth and throwing it up in the air.”

The members of UC Davis's research herd have helped the school make significant contributions to the horseracing industry.

“Data generated from studies in which these horses participate is often used to establish regulatory recommendations, such as withdrawal times and therapeutic medication thresholds, for horses prior to racing,” said Knych. “Over the last several years, we have focused on joint medications (corticosteroids), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. flunixin, firocoxib), methocarbamol and meldonium, to name a few. In addition, many of our studies also focus on novel, more objective ways of determining the effects of drugs, such as biomarkers.”

To learn more about the research being carried out by UC Davis, visit the school's Center for Equine Health at

The school is currently seeking several new horses for their research herd. Horses must be between the ages of 2 and 5 years-old and owners have the option of either donating the horse to UC Davis or leasing the horse to UC Davis for the duration of their time in the research herd. Horses can be located anywhere in the U. S. To learn more about the program or to donate a horse, contact Dr. Heather Kynch at [email protected].

Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.

Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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