‘Horse Heroes’ help animal science students earn degrees
Carey Williams gives the needle a twist and pulls it free from its cap before securing it onto a syringe handle. She locates the mare’s jugular vein with her left hand, pressing with her thumb until the vein bulges from the shaved patch on its neck.
Williams, associate director of outreach at the University Equine Science Center, steps back and turns to her two new students, holding up the 18-gauge needle so they can see its bevel. Before she demonstrates holding the needle at a 45-degree angle so it does not go through the vein, she interrupts herself.
“You guys aren’t funny with blood, are you?” Williams, an associate extension specialist at the University, asks her students.
Williams began collecting control blood in 2003 when she arrived at the University. Williams and her students take blood twice a month for the New Jersey Racing Commission’s drug testing lab, filling 40 tubes at a time and sending the vials to state police in East Rutherford.
The 23 mares in the University’s research herd, split between the Ryders Lane and College Farm Road facilities, are considered heroes by their handlers because they tolerate bi-monthly blood collections and help in research studies to advance equine science, Williams said.
The mares in the research herd also provide a hands-on learning experience for students, a component required to obtain a degree from the Department of Animal Sciences, said Karyn Malinowski, director of the Equine Science Center, a unit of the University New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station, which researches ways to improve horse care and health.
Malinowski began growing the research herd in 1980, she said. The University has provided a permanent home over the years for more than 100 Standardbred horses.
“We’ve had some mares here for 15 years,” Malinowski said.
The center’s exercise physiology lab on College Farm Road, known as “the red barn,” is one of only two laboratories in the country not associated with a veterinary college. The single-story red barn contains 14 stalls each of different dimensions on one side and a high-speed treadmill on the laboratory side where research trials are conducted.
Malinowski said running a horse on the treadmill requires 12 people, manpower the center cannot afford.
“With the state continually shrinking funding to higher education, we’ve been scrambling to find resources to take care of those mares,” she said.
University students assist with research at the center and get training and degree credits in return, Malinowski said.
Williams works with students who need research and experience-based credits for their degrees. This semester she teaches 12 students from “Equine Practicum” and “Research in Animal Science” courses, she said.
“Equine Practicum” teaches general care and maintenance of horses, and involves feeding and grooming horses, and mucking out stalls, Williams said.
She demonstrates how to draw blood to new practicum students every semester. Research students, who have already learned to draw blood in theory classes, now reinforce their knowledge through repetition and practice, Williams said.
The 18-gauge needle Williams uses to draw blood is the same size used on humans, she said. Because horses do not have nerve endings in their veins, they just feel a hand on their neck. The actual needle feels like a fly bite to them, Williams said.
Maggi, a 10-year-old Standardbred horse who was donated to the University in 2006 from the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, stood quietly in her corner stall while Williams filled three vials and handed them off to research assistant Danielle Smarsh.
Smarsh, a graduate student in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, joined Williams’ lab at the end of her first semester at the University. Working with Williams, Smarsh researches how exercise training and age affect the balance of oxidants and antioxidants in horses.
Smarsh found that a small imbalance from training can adapt a horse’s skeletal muscle for further training and help improve its performance, but too much oxidative stress causes muscle damage and soreness.
She uses catheters to draw blood samples, which she later measured for stress levels, while running the horses on the treadmill. She also took muscle biopsies of skeletal muscle looking for markers of stress.
The 11 mares in Williams’ research group are only brought inside for tests, special feedings and regular monthly weigh-ins.
At monthly weigh-ins, students weigh the mares and look at fat padding on the neck, shoulders, ribs and rump before Williams assigns the horse a number between 1 and 9 on a subjective weight scale.
Williams ran her hands over Stardust, a bay mare donated from B.J. Farm on Long Island when she was 3 years old. Now 11, Stardust remained still while Williams checked fat levels and asked her students for their conclusions. Though the padding of fat through the neck was high, Williams designates Stardust a true 5.
“There’s not a whole lot of squish [on her shoulders],” Williams said while gently prodding the horse’s shoulder.
Williams said the subjective weight scale looks at the overall fat cover on a horse rather than focusing on body weight. Though Frankie, who weighs in at a 5, is the skinniest in the group while Maggi, a 6.5, is the heaviest, she said both horses are within the healthy weight range.
All the horses look the same at first because they are brown or bay, Smarsh said, but they have different personalities, different likes and dislikes and their own favorite handlers.
Cascade, an 11-year-old mare who has been at the University since 2003, rubbed her halter against the metal grill of the stall, creating a loud grinding sound of metal on metal. Williams scolds the mare as she passes the stall, calling the horse an attention hound.
“Cascade is a big goof,” Smarsh said with a smile.