April 2, 2008

Disease threats to the British equine population and the challenges facing Olympic horses this year were among the topics up for discussion at last week's National Equine Forum.

Brigadier Paul Jepson BVetM, MRCVS PhD, Chief Executive of The Horse Trust spoke about the seriousness of the exotic disease threat to the UK. He examined the very real threats of African Horse Sickness, Swamp Fever and West Nile Virus in the UK's changing climate. He emphasised their potential to devastate the UK horse industry unless safe, effective vaccines were developed, particularly for African Horse Sickness which could produce a 90% death rate of infected animals if an uncontrolled outbreak occurred.

John McEwen BVMS MRCVS, Chairman of the Veterinary Committee of the Federation Equestré International presented a reassuring paper on the health and welfare challenges for horses at the 2008 Olympics. He discussed the veterinary challenges, including the implications of local diseases, transport, facilities and the key issue of climate. He went on to report on the very thorough test event which enabled systems to be checked and for competing horses to be monitored in the prevailing climate. John McEwen summarised; "The climate may be a challenge but we have the data and expertise to ensure that horses are able to perform safely at their best. Welfare of the horses has been paramount in the planning process and they will be better looked after than the riders! We are ensuring that we leave no stone unturned and the Games will be exceptional."

Dr Alf-Eckbert Fussel DVM, Deputy Head of Unit European Commission DG SANCO reiterated the importance of a coordinated approach to equine health and welfare. Following five years of discussions and negotiations EU member states had reached agreement on the development and implementation of new EU equine legislation. Dr Füssel outlined the new regulations that will revise existing horse passport legislation, to improve the identification, registration, control and compliance.

Soraya Morscher of the University of Limerick and winner of the Eqvalan Duo Equine Thesis of the Year, presented an important analysis of peri-parturient and postnatal events in Thoroughbreds. Soraya explained that the great economic value of Thoroughbred foals made it imperative to establish early on whether delivery of the foal and events surrounding the birth are within normal ranges. Any aberration could pose significant risk to the mare and foal. She called upon an impressive study sample of 1.297 births over 13 years from 1993 to 2006, from a large public stud farm in Ireland.

She concluded that: "The study provides important baseline data on foaling events and early foal behaviour in the light of changing husbandry and management practices. Furthermore it highlights the high incidence of red bag presentations and the high incidence of difficulties during foaling in a stud farm setting."

Dr Debbie Goodwin BSc PhD FLS Dr Goodwin, a Lecturer in Applied Animal Behaviour at the University of Southampton and President of the International Society for Equitation Science, took a balanced look at natural horsemanship. She explained how natural horsemanship trainers have produced a cultural change in the thinking and approach to horse:human interactions and how academic equine ethologists have been concerned at the way some natural horsemanship trainers have presented 'equine ethology.' Often personal opinions were claimed to be facts, without any associated objective study of horse behaviour in the natural or domestic environment. She pointed out that good natural horsemanship trainers are talented observers of horse behaviour and can detect and respond precisely to subtle cues during horse training but that not all followers of these methods are as effective as the originating trainers. Dr Goodwin expressed the importance of sharing knowledge for the ultimate good of the horse and that natural horsemanship scientists studying horse behaviour had recently formed International Society for Equitation Science to help communicate their work.

In the topical spots Pat Harris MA PhD, VetMB DipECVCN MRCVS was called upon at short notice to present an update on strangles, when the original speaker Professor Josh Slater was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness. Professor Harris detailed the new developments in strangles research including the genome project, which makes genetic typing of strangles possible, and the launch of a new blood test this month by the Animal Health Trust.

Presentations were also received from Dr Tim Watson MRCVS Chairman of the Scottish Equestrian Association who examined what devolution has meant to equestrianism in Scotland; Linda Whetstone, Chairman of the British Equestrian Federation Council who discussed a commonsense approach to health and safety legislation and Dr Peter Whitehead Medical Officer for the BEF World Class Performance programme who explored the health and welfare challenges for humans in the 2008 Olympics.

The NEF is the only event of its kind which brings all sectors of the equine industry together for the balanced and rational discussion of both topical and specialist subjects. It is chaired by Professor Sir Colin Spedding and has been convened by Graham Suggett OBE JP DL since its inception. Prof. Suggett has now stepped down to concentrate on his crucial role with NED although he still remains a member of the NEF committee. The role of convener has been passed to NEF committee member Air Cdr (Retd) S Miles D Williamson-Noble.

The Forum is supported by the ABRS, BETA, BEF, BHS, BHA, The Blue Cross, Dodson and Horrell, The Donkey Sanctuary, Jeffress Scholarship Trust, The Horse Trust, ILPH, and Merial Animal Health Ltd.