Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Environmental Hoof: Will Wild Horse Feet Adapt to a Sudden Change in Climate and Terrain? Australian Researchers Switch Brumbies, Observe Hooves

By Fran Jurga and Brian Hampson | November 25, 2008 | www.hoofcare.blogspot.com

Herding horses out of the bush in Australia; photo by Dr. Chris Pollitt

One of the challenges to the paradigm of the wild horse foot as a model for domestic horses has been the criticism that most studies have been done on horses running on arid terrain in the US west. Skeptics have pointed to the platter feet of sand dune horses on the east coast of the USA and variations in herds like the Sable Island ponies that have been limited in genetic input.

Dr. Chris Pollitt was scratching his beard over that one when he launched his Wild Horse Research Project at the University of Queensland in Australia last year. Would it be enough to study generic brumby hooves in the wilds of Queensland? Or would he need to hoof it further afield?

For the past six months, Pollitt and his lead researcher, hoof science PhD candidate Brian Hampson, have indeed been hoofing it, to the wilds of the far Australian outback.

“The aim of this project is to determine if the typical shape of the feral horses’ feet from soft sandy country will develop into the typical shape of feet of the rocky country feral horses when placed on hard rocky country for six months,” writes Hampson. “The reverse case will also be tested.”

“There is currently no evidence that horses’ feet can adapt to suit the terrain they are moving over. If the foot type of the feral horse can change by changing the substrate, then domestic horse’s feet, too, can be presumed to respond to a change in environment. We will demonstrate that sub-optimal foot conformation can be rehabilitated by movement over the right terrain.

“It has been confirmed during the first 12 months of this project that feral horses living on soft sandy country have long and often splayed hooves. Feral horses living on hard rocky country have short, rolled hooves. We will swap six horses from each of these environments for six months to test the effect of the environment on the foot type," he writes.

This foot collected during previous studies from the Waterloo Station bush camp is from a horse that lives on dry rocky ground. (Chris Pollitt research series photo)

This hind foot is typical of the brumby feet from the sandy environments of Australia. (Chris Pollitt research series photo)

He continues: “It is hypothesized that the foot type of the subject horses will switch from the sand model to rocky model and vice versa. We hypothesize that it is the environment that shapes the horse’s foot rather than predetermined genetic factors. It is currently believed that certain breed types are predisposed to certain foot types. By exposing the same horse to two different substrate conditions, the breed factor will be controlled.

“We will use this information to devise a better housing model for the domestic horse. The housing model may include hard substrate and movement stimulation. Our aim is to improve the foot health of the domestic horse.”

Pollitt and Hampson plan to pen an important publication from the study; the results will be presented at scientific conferences in Australia and the USA, and publicized to farriers and horse people during an Australian tour.

You know there had to be some drama and poetry in this study, as you will find if you look beneath the surface of most of Dr. Pollitt’s research. In this case, Pollitt and Hampson will saddle up and ride into the back country. No helicopters for them! They will not only capture their chosen brumbies, but gentle them and then lead them out of the bush.

The chosen environments are the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria on the north coast of Queensland, and the rocky desert of Central Australia, 400km southwest of Alice Springs, if you have a map handy. Both locations have feral horse populations in excess of 10,000 horses and have been well studied by Pollitt’s team.

Horses will wear a GPS tracking collar for the six months of their release and a VHF beacon for relocation. Horses' feet will be photographed, radiographed, and their loading pressures and pattern will be assessed using an RS scan pressure plate, both before and after the swap. They will also measure hoof wall growth rate over the six month release period.

The Australian Wild Horse Research Project is unique in that the researchers include not only scientists and students but private citizens who are interested in wild horses or hoof physiology. Donors to the projects are eligible for consideration as mates on the trail, presuming you can brew a decent Billy Tea and waltz beside the billabong. Australia has more wild horses than any other place on earth; in excess of 500,000 horses roam freely, according to Hampson, but he notes that they are subject to periodic sustained drought and culls by "government bodies and private graziers".

Visit wildhorseresearch.com for more information about how you can support the research…or possibly be part of it. We will all certainly benefit from this Outback experiment.

PS I thought this post would be appropriate since today is the premiere of the film Australia in the USA.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing for the Wild Horse Research Project and Dr. Chris Pollitt. No use without permission. Permissions for use elsewhere can be arranged.

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