Disease Du Jour: Senior Horse Research

In this episode, Amanda Adams, PhD, discusses Kentucky's new Linda Mars Aged Horse Care and Education Facility.
old horse girl riding western
Senior horses make up about one-third of the horse population worldwide. | iStock

Amanda Adams, PhD, said it is an exciting time for senior horse research. Adams head of the University of Kentucky’s new Linda Mars Aged Horse Care and Education Facility. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. Adams is also Adjunct Faculty at Lincoln Memorial University, College of Veterinary Medicine, in Harrogate, Tennessee.

While researchers at the Gluck Center have been studying senior horse health since early 2000s, Adams started the UK Aged Horse Research Program in 2017. Adams said that senior horses make up about one-third of the horse population worldwide. Collaboration between Linda Mars, Mars Equestrian and Waltham Science Institute (the Mars Petcare Science Center) is what has helped support the research program, and special thanks to Linda for her support of the new UK Senior Horse Facility.

“A Center of Excellence for Senior Horse Heath and Research, that’s who we are, and the things that we are now capable of doing to support the aged horse research program at UK … the sky’s the limit for what we can do,” said Adams. “Our goal for this facility is to continue to discover new ways we can care for these senior horses and train the next generation of equine scientists!”

Better Care for Senior Horses

The focus of the Linda Mars Aged Horse Care and Education Facility is focused on four “pillars” of research.

  1. Study of Insulin Dysregulation (ID), Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Hyperinsulinemia-associated laminitis (HAL)-nutritional management of these horses, along with discovery of novel diagnostics.
  2. Study of Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), i.e. Cushings Disease, what causes this disease, and discovery of novel treatments, as well as management of muscle atrophy in these horses.
  3. Study of transportation stress on immune and endocrine function.
  4. Study of general healthcare of older horses, including parasite control, vaccination programs and dental care.

Adams said her group is wrapping up a project studying dental pathologies and dental disease related to inflammation in older horses.

She said they are just starting a new study to investigate novel treatments for PPID, along with strategies to improve muscle loss in these senior horses.

We are currently putting most of our research efforts into trying to generate science behind nutritional management of horses with insulin dysregulation, said Adams. So when vets or horse owners ask what should they be feeding, there will be research to verify the recommended diets and NSC (non-structural carbohydrates) levels.  This has been a goal of mine for the last several years, and now that we have some of these results, it’s really exciting.

Adams said her group is also working in the area of novel diagnostics. They are also trying to put science behind the current diagnostics tests currently available for insulin dysregulation in horses and looking at novel pharmaceutical treatments for those cases.

Senior Horse Facility

The Linda Mars Aged Horse Care and Education Facility has a state-of-the-art lab, offices and a teaching/workshop space. That space will allow instruction of 20-40 students, vets, techs or horse owners with hands-on opportunities.

“We can provide great ‘live examples’ of horses the varying endocrine diseases,” said Adams. She oversees a unique research herd of horses with PPID and other metabolic issues at the facility. These senior horses have an important job, they teach us new things daily, and they really do have a great retirement as they live out the rest of our lives with us.  They are helping us help other senior horses.

Recent Senior Horse Research

“We’ve published a number of studies now that look at how we can better manage these ID horses in terms of nutrition,” said Adams. She said her team is looking for what levels of NSC or crude protein or components of the diet stimulate exagerated insulin responses in these horses.

“Why do we care about insulin?,” Adams posed. “That’s the defining characteristic of these animals…they can’t control their metabolic or insulin responses to a diet challenge or a sugar/carbohydrate challenge.”  It’s the high blood levels of insulin after consuming a meal that sets an animal up for developing laminitis.  Thus, the goal is to lower these insulin levels with changes to diet and management which we have been saying all along, but we just didnt have the research to support science based recommendations.

Nutrition is a powerful tool that can be used to help these metabolic horses.  Just to name a few studies, Adams and her group are currently investigating the effects of different forage types on these insulin responses, and further putting science behind recommendations for when it is “safer” to turn horses out on pasture.

More Info on Senior Horses

Adams said the goal of her research program is to continue to be a Center or Excellence for Senior Horse Health, Care and Research.  When it comes to managing senior horses, it oftentimes requires a team effort, bringing together vets, nutritionist, and researchers.   

Learn more about Adams research on senior horses at her website SeniorHorseHealth.com. Make sure to check out the Published Research page.

Adams said veterinarians and techs are welcome to email her for information on senior horses. She said sometimes they are looking for donations of senior or metabolic horses. Folks who might want to donate horses can connect with her via email(Editor’s note: Dr. Adams’ space is limited for her herd, so please understand if she cannot take all of the horses that are offered.)

Adams extended a big thanks to Linda Mars, “because without her support and passion for senior horses, the new facility would not have been possible.”

About Dr. Amanda Adams

Amanda Adams, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky.  She is also Adjunct faculty at Lincoln Memorial University, College of Veterinary Medicine, and has been recently honored as a Mars Equestrian is an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center.  Fellow, specializing in the care of senior horses.  As a lifelong horse woman, she was diverted from vet school by interest in equine research after internships with Boehringer Ingelheim during her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology obtained at Stephens College.

She then went on to complete her PhD in Veterinary Science with an emphasis in Equine Immunology from the University of Kentucky and then completed a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in areas of Immunology and Endocrinology at the Gluck Center. She then succeeded through the ranks at UK as Research Assistant Professor, Assistant Professor and now Associate Professor. Currently, her research program encompasses the study of equine immunology and endocrinology in the areas of aging, obesity/endocrine diseases/laminitis, and stress.

Her research program is world renown in that she has established and supports a unique herd of aged, PPID, obese/metabolic syndrome, insulin dysregulated horses that are maintained at the Gluck Center, for both basic and applied research to further our knowledge in these areas in order to improve the health and well-being of the aging horse population.

UK’s Aged Horse Research Program was established by Adams. She has established and supports a unique herd of aged horses who have conditions ranging from pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, more commonly known as Cushing’s disease, obesity, equine metabolic syndrome and insulin dysregulation.  

Her research program has been supported by Foundations (AQHA, Morris Animal Foundation, Waltham-Buckeye Equine Grant), USDA-ARS, and the pharmaceutical and nutrition industries.

Adams said, “We always welcome monetary donations to the program.”

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