Interesting Recent Horsey Research

Where do racehorses get their speed? How can we reduce the spread of bacterial infections among hospitalised horses and the staff who care for them? Are bog spavins much of a problem among Clydesdales?

Three recently published studies delve into these questions:

1. Thoroughbred racing – Can the genetic basis of speed in racehorses be pinpointed? 

European researchers have found that one variation of a gene that plays a key role in muscle development originated in a mare who lived in Great Britain about three hundred years ago. The gene is a variation of the myostatin gene “MSTN”, and remained rare in the population until the 1960s when the stallion Northern Dancer, by Nearctic, began passing it on to his offspring. It appears that this may have played a key role in Northern Dancer becoming one of the most influential Thoroughbred sires in the twentieth century. (Read the abstract of the study here

Hyperion (1930-1960)
Hyperion, damsire of Nearctic. Did he have the “speed gene”?

It has always fascinated me how random events, such as the mutation of genes to form new variations, can alter the course of an entire breed’s history. For example, what would Thoroughbred racing have been like today if that mare had never had a single foal?

Would it have made much of a difference? Have other “speed genes” been lost due to the random nature of life and genetics?

2. Horse Health and Biosecurity – Screening for antibiotic resistant bacteria in hospitalised horses

A study in Belgium took samples from the nasal chambers and skin of 30 horses that had been hospitalised long term, in order to test for the methicillin-resistant bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus. They found that the samples from the nasal chambers were the best for detecting whether the bacteria was present or not, but were not sufficient on their own. Testing of the horses’ skin found the knee to be the best location to sample, followed equally by the neck, withers and croup. It is hoped that the results of this research will assist with future development of screening procedures, and also help with containment of infection when identified. (Read the abstract of the study here)

Chestnut Horse BowingGesundheit

One thing I found interesting about this study, from the perspective of someone who seeks to minimise risk of transferring disease from sick horses to healthy ones, is that the knee was found to be a good place on the skin to test for this particular bacteria. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Where does the horse wipe his nose when no-one is around with a tissue to help him out?

3. Horse Health: Bog Spavins in Clydesdales

A mail survey of Clydesdale owners in the UK and USA found 10% of the 935 horses covered in the survey had bog spavins. Bog spavins are evidenced by a soft swelling in the hock, and in this study were being investigated as an indicator of osteochondrosis.

One key finding of the survey was that although Clydesdale owners saw the condition as being of concern, only a minority of them were aware of the implications of bog spavins. The researchers suggest that education may be of benefit. (Read the abstract of the study here)

The second point doesn’t really surprise me, for the simple fact that there is so much to know about horses – it takes a lifetime to learn everything you need to know about every possible health problem your horses might have. In my experience, most horse owners will research a particular health issue when they need to – ie . when their horse has got it. In the case of bog spavins, the general lack of lameness associated with the condition/symptoms could well contribute to a perceived lack of urgency in diagnosing the underlying cause.

Clydesdales 1


1. Bower MA, McGivney BA, Campana MG, Gu J, Andersson LS, Barrett E, Davis CR, Mikko S, Stock F, Voronkova V, Bradley DG, Fahey AG, Lindgren G, Machugh DE, Sulimova G and Hill EW. “The genetic origin and history of speed in the Thoroughbred racehorse.” Nat Commun. 2012 Jan 24. Abstract online.

2. Van den Eede A, Hermans K, Van den Abeele A, Floré K, Dewulf J, Vanderhaeghen W, Crombé F, Butaye P, Gasthuys F, Haesebrouck F and Martens A. “Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on the skin of long-term hospitalised horses.” Vet J. 2012 Jan 19. Abstract online.

3. Weaver MP and Wilant L, “Owner survey of tarsocrural effusion (bog spavin) in Clydesdale horses.” Vet Rec. 2012 Jan 18. Abstract online.





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