Identifying the racing-performance predictors for equines is a possibility, says EVMC scientist
“To finish is to win" is the mantra of endurance riding, an equestrian sport based on long-distance races up to 160 km. It is an extremely strenuous form of horse racing, generally dominated by Arabian horses due to their renowned stamina.
The elimination rate in endurance riding is between 30-70 percent, with lameness, dehydration and metabolic disorders being the main causes of disqualification. And scientists may have the answer to whether a horse is metabolically “fit” to run such an endurance race.
In a collaborative effort between Qatar Foundation entities, researchers from its Equine Veterinary Medical Center (EVMC), Al Shaqab’s endurance department and Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), have been exploring the use of a technique called “metabolomics” to assess the readiness of a horse before a race.
“Metabolomics is a relatively new technology used to measure hundreds of small molecules called metabolites, that are found in a biological sample. Metabolites are the products of constantly occurring and life-sustaining chemical reactions in all living organisms.
“Their production and removal from the blood stream is dependent on multiple factors including genetics, diet and lifestyle. Any change in these factors is reflected by a change in specific metabolite levels, which allows them to be used as biomarkers” said Dr. Tatiana Vinardell, Head of Research and Education, EVMC.
A pilot-study on equine metabolomics was inspired by Prof. Karsten Suhre, Director of Bioinformatics Core at WCM-Q and his desire to create a “health and fitness passport” for athletes. It turns out that horse endurance races are just the ideal test environment to explore such an idea.
Every living organism has a metabolic fingerprint, and by frequently monitoring this fingerprint, we can establish the reference or baseline metabolic readings indicative of that organism’s wellness.
“Every living organism has a metabolic fingerprint, and by frequently monitoring this fingerprint, we can establish the reference or baseline metabolic readings indicative of that organism’s wellness.
“Any changes in the health of the organism can be detected by comparing their metabolic state to their established baseline. If a considerable change is seen between the two, it can be indicative of a health problem that should be further investigated,” said Prof. Suhre.
Metabolomics research in human athletes has provided important insights into energy demands and training physiology, allowing scientists to identify novel biomarkers associated with better performance.
Metabolomic allows us to observe the metabolic effects of different training regimens at a level we have not seen before.
This field is lagging in equines despite their prevalence in competitive sports. Some preliminary studies have been done in Europe, but they cannot be applied to horse races in a desert region due to the vastly different weather conditions.
“Our aim in this pilot study was to perform an in-depth investigation of the metabolic consequences of endurance riding, which may ultimately allow us to establish a metabolic performance profile for the horses that finished a race successfully. This profile can then be used as a reference to determine whether an animal is biochemically ready to participate in an endurance competition,” said Dr. Anna Halama, Assistant Professor of Research in Physiology & Biophysics, WCM-Q.
This isn’t just about predicting a horse’s performance in a race, it is also about animal welfare. If we can tell whether a horse is actually ready before subjecting it to a challenging activity, then why not
The group studied 62 horses – a mix of pure Arabian and half-Arabian breeds, all of which were experienced in endurance riding. Their blood samples were collected before and after the race in up to three different competitions and metabolic-based profiling was conducted using a technique called mass spectrometry, using a platform established in collaboration with the Antidoping Lab in Qatar. They measured 805 metabolites, out of which 437 showed significant alterations after the race.
“We compared the metabolic profiles of the horses that were eliminated to those that finished the race and were able to identify six metabolites that could predict equine performance in endurance competitions. Some of the metabolites that we identified could also serve as performance indicators of the horses while others could be used to optimize diet to enhance performance,” said Dr. Halama.
Dr. Vinardell explained: “Metabolomic allows us to observe the metabolic effects of different training regimens at a level we have not seen before. If one horse does better than the other, could it be because it follows a different training regimen which produces metabolites that promote performance in endurance riding? Similarly, perhaps there is a particular diet or a dietary supplement that is beneficial at a metabolic level, which if identified can be recommended to other horses participating in endurance races.
“This isn’t just about predicting a horse’s performance in a race, it is also about animal welfare. If we can tell whether a horse is actually ready before subjecting it to a challenging activity, then why not.”
Having finished this pilot study, the groups now plans to repeat the study with a bigger sample size to corroborate their results and further investigate the identified metabolites.