Rutgers Equine Science Center’s virtual Summer Showcase

by Judy Van Put

Recently, Rutgers University Equine Science Center presented its first Virtual Summer Showcase. Although similar in content to Summer Showcase events in the past, by taking place online, participants needed only to log on to participate. The event was free of charge, and the program was open to anyone who registered in advance. I was happy I did, as the two-hour seminar provided a very enjoyable and educational afternoon.

There were five sessions, each hosted by a different member of the team, including updates from the Equine Science Center, a virtual equine anatomy lesson, a tour of the Equine Exercise Physiology lab, an update on equine research and a fun, new Equine Quiz Game in which registrants were able to participate.

The impressive lineup of panelists included Kyle Hartmann, the Equine Science Center’s public relations specialist who served as moderator; Karyn Malinowski, Ph.D., director, professor of Animal Sciences; Kenneth McKeever, Ph.D., FACSM, associate director of research, professor of Animal Sciences; Carey Williams, Ph.D., associate director of outreach, associate professor of Animal Sciences; and graduate students/Ph.D. candidates Ellen Rankins and Jennifer Weinert.

Malinowski began the program with opening remarks as well as a brief history of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers and introductions of the panel. McKeever gave a virtual tour of the Equine Exercise Physiology Laboratory, a world-class facility which was built in 1995, as well as a demonstration of a study conducted on the high-speed treadmill. Participants were able to view the facility as well as photos and videos that provided insight into the important studies performed there. Results of these studies have been shared with the racing commissions of New York and New Jersey.

It was fascinating to watch the horse on the treadmill during a test that was designed to simulate a horse racing at high speed – up to 40 mph – for a total of two minutes, replicating conditions horses experience during a competitive race. McKeever explained that participating horses are trained to run on the treadmill as well as being trained to stand still. The horse is led onto the treadmill, which is equipped with a safety harness and siderails connected to an emergency switch, as well as a horizontal bar with a pad in front for them to lean up against and run. He stated the horses love to go on the treadmill and work out! There is a warm-up period of two minutes before the speed increases to prepare for the exercise test, and everything in the lab is controlled, including air temperature, for the horse’s comfort. The horses are monitored to determine their maximum aerobic capacity; blood can be drawn automatically through a narrow tube that is inserted prior to the test, and the professors and students have a live view on a screen that monitors oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide output and other parameters to determine how the horse’s cardiopulmonary system is responding during the exercise, rather than having to stop the horse from running to draw blood as in years past.

An exciting offshoot of these studies, which involve a team of hundreds of students participating and assisting in all phases of the study, is that the results can be used for humans as well, as physiologically horses are similar to humans. In a typical session there are two people standing at the front end of horse controlling the treadmill, a student taking blood samples and up to 10 students assisting. Once all measurements are taken, the data are analyzed – for blood chemistry as well as what the effects of exercise are on the components of the blood.

Williams, who has been teaching online for weeks, conducts a virtual 4-H Horse Project Camp lecture every evening. Topics included nutrition, environmental best management of the horse farm, the effects of pasture on the diet and nutrition of the horse and equine skeletal anatomy. She presented an entertaining and interactive educational lesson on equine anatomy, which included comparisons to human skeletal counterparts. Participants were able to use the open chat button and actively participate in answering questions about horse anatomy, providing an enjoyable and fun way to see how much we knew about the muscles and bones of the horse and how they compare to human anatomy.

Jennifer Weinert, Ph.D. candidate in endocrinology and animal biosciences, presented next. Every year the Summer Showcase hosts an “Equine Jeopardy!”-type game, and this year registrants were not disappointed. Weinert presented the Kahoot Equine Quiz Game that everyone was able to join as long as they had a second internet-capable device, such as a smartphone or tablet. After doing pretty well on the equine anatomy competition, the group learned a lot about biosecurity through the multiple choice and true/false questions of the Kahoot game.

Wrapping up the two-hour Summer Showcase was Ellen Rankins, also a Ph.D. candidate in endocrinology and animal biosciences. Rankins gave an update on her research, showcasing her pilot work with electromyography (EMG) units, which measure stress in horses. Using EMG units that accurately collect data, her research examines the interaction that occurs between horses and humans, an important tool utilized by Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies (EAAT) to treat veterans with PTSD.

Rankins demonstrated technology from the EMG pilot studies she saw last year to determine whether horses experience the same type of stress and tension that humans do. She used as an example how a person, after sitting down to take an exam, can get up feeling “stressed out” and exhibiting tension in the shoulders, jaw and neck, a condition well-documented in humans. She wondered if horses react to stressful situations in the same way, and so she exposed her test horses to new situations while being connected to the EMG machine. Similar in theory to an EKG, small electrodes are placed on the horse that collect electrical signals in skeletal muscles. In the sample situation she devised, electrical signals are monitored from the horse’s jaw, neck and shoulder. The wires are attached to a lead which is plugged into a transmitter that wirelessly transmits data to the laptop. The participants could see the steady methodical frequencies emitted when the horse was walking and taking steps forward, as well as those indicating stressful situations the horse was exposed to, such as social isolation, standing on a tarp and being clipped with an electric clipper, where the frequencies rose and fell dramatically with increased muscle activity. Two types of stress were monitored, and viewers could easily recognize the behavioral indicators of stress during social isolation and when the horse paced, pawed, reared and bucked upon being separated from other horses, as well as the muscular indicators of stress during the clipping. This was another study that could be correlated with humans.

After the presentations, Malinowski gave closing remarks with ample time for questions via the participants’ chat boxes, and all agreed that this first Equine Science Center virtual event was a great way to stay in touch and enjoy the annual Summer Showcase. All were encouraged to avail themselves of the many resources the Equine Science Center offers – whatever study papers have been published are available to the public. One needs only to send an email to esc@rutgers.edu to request a file of documents of study. For more information, visit esc.rutgers.edu/about-us.

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