State of Equine Research
While equine medicine and surgery have traditionally held positions of importance in academic clinical veterinary institutions, actual dollars devoted to equine research is relatively paltry compared with other economically important animal species. The equine species rapidly lost economic importance around 1900, when automobiles became a significant means of transportation. However, sport horses have increased in relative value, and certainly in number, since that time.
Probably most significant is the fact that the government-the major source of animal research funding-has until only recently considered horses to have little agricultural value because they are not considered a production commodity, as are swine, cattle, etc. The USDA has only begun funding horse research since about 1985. Since then, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the Center for Equine Health at the University of California-Davis (through funds provided by the pari-mutuel industry and mandated by state law) represent two examples of industry-based dollars going to equine research.
Other factors contribute to an under-representation of equine research. The horse has only rarely been used as a model for human disease. Many advances in our knowledge of sheep and cattle (not to mention rats and mice) have come from using these species as models for normal human physiology as well as human disease.
Research projects in horses are chronically under-funded and too often aim to repeat original works that have shown "proof of principle" in another species. The net result is that we too often lack a strong foundation of basic understanding in many areas of equine research. A lack of basic physiological research often hampers implementing technological advances worked out in other animal models.
Finally, a general lack of funding results in fewer capable investigators who can carry out research. Researchers need funding to build and sustain their research programs. If reliable, consistent, and significant sources of funding are not available, researchers won't focus their career on equine problems.
Current Areas of Quality Equine Research
Fortunately, since the early 1980s some areas of equine research have managed to prosper.
Infectious disease is probably the most advanced area of equine research. The reasons are clear. Infectious disease researchers are typically virologists, microbiologists, and epidemiologists, who are trained in advanced molecular techniques and/or epidemiological methods that are not species-dependent. Once a disease is identified in the horse, these investigators can make significant headway toward understanding pathobiology and disease control while encountering few species-specific problems.
For example, our understanding of Equine Protozoal Myelitis (EPM), West Nile virus, and Equine Herpes Virus is currently growing dramatically as a result of excellent work by infectious disease researchers. In fact, due to their work, West Nile virus, which initially began affecting many horses on the East Coast and in the Midwest, has been brought under much better control in just a few years. Vaccines have been developed that have saved the lives of many horses.