Tipping point to development of the Equine Initiative

In 2001, Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS), a disease that had not been previously recognized, and whose cause was unknown, appeared in Central Kentucky and resulted in widespread foal loss in mares. During that time, an estimated 30 percent of the 2001-2002 Thoroughbred foal crop was lost, and the Kentucky horse industry suffered economic losses of approxi­mately $340 million. Scientists from across the Col­lege of Agriculture, Food and Environment), including the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, the Livestock Disease Diag­nostic Center (now Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory), Entomology and Plant and Soil Sciences, among oth­ers, worked around the clock to find the cause.

By July 2001, less than three months after the disease was discovered, epidemiological and field studies demonstrated that MRLS was associated with unprec­edented populations of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, wild black cherry trees and waterfowl on horse farms in Kentucky. A series of studies over the next five years subsequently revealed that horses inadvertently eat the caterpillars and the caterpillar hairs embed into the lining of the alimentary tract. Once that protective barrier is breached, normal alimentary tract bacteria can gain access to and proliferate in sites with reduced immune surveillance, such as the fetus and placenta. Fetal death from these alimentary tract bacteria is the hallmark of MRLS.

The rapid work by many scientists at the University of Kentucky provided farm managers with recommenda­tions to reduce the risk of disease. By any stretch of the imagination, this was a remarkable research suc­cess story for UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

This backdrop post-MRLS served as a tipping point within the College of Agri­culture, Food and Environment. The crisis highlighted communications and stakeholder relations weaknesses within the college’s disparate equine endeavors and identified a crucial need for a central access point to all of the college’s equine activities. It also underscored the importance of Kentucky’s equine industry, at that time the lead­ing cash crop for the state. The seeds were planted for some far-reaching changes within the college.