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Straight from the horse’s stomachSeptember 2019

Story by: Stephanie Craig

Horses are highly adapted performance animals, but one unexplained adaptation – a delicate gastrointestinal tract – is their Achilles heel.

As in humans, horses’ stomachs contain acid to digest and break down their food and mucus to protect the stomach wall against the acid. But for a vaguely inexplicable reason, horses lack mucus in the upper half of their stomach. This causes all sorts of issues, including gastric ulcers.

In fact, gastrointestinal diseases are the leading cause of death in horses.

“If acid splashes up, or their stomach is empty, it can really damage a horse’s stomach,” explains Jennifer MacNicol, a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal Biosciences. “But what if we can keep food in there longer and potentially buffer that splashing, or use nutraceuticals to reduce acid production or increase mucus production?”

Her research seeks to “determine what makes a horse’s gastrointestinal tract tick,” and to investigate the effectiveness of nutraceuticals proposed by industry.

Jennifer MacNicol, a PhD candidate in the Department of Animal BiosciencesJennifer, who was awarded a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, is also working to create an in vitro protocol to test nutraceuticals before animal trials.

An in vitro protocol simulates digestion in different compartments of a stomach. She hopes this will be a less invasive way to conduct equine research.

“I think as scientists we have an obligation that if we use live animals, we need to make sure they are the most directed and valuable studies,” Jennifer says. “I want to develop strong and robust in vitro methods so that we can do a lot of things before taking it into the live animal.”

For more information on Jennifer’s research.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in Equine Guelph's next offering of Gut Health and Colic Prevention Nov 11 - 29. Learn more about gut health, assess your management plan and develop preventative strategies to reduce the stresses on your horse's digestive system.

Photo caption: Jennifer MacNicol (B.Sc. in Animal Biology, 2015, and M.Sc. in Animal Biosciences, 2017) in the lab with Pickles, her service dog. Pickles isn’t typically allowed in the lab, but it seemed fitting to let him share the limelight. He’s been with Jennifer throughout her three degrees at the University of Guelph.