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Penn State Equine Research Team Explores the Florida Horse Industry

Posted: May 18, 2018

PSERT members learned more about the Florida equine industry and made presentations at an undergraduate research symposium at the University of Florida.
Members of PSERT stand on a horse scale at the University of Florida's large animal hospital.

Members of PSERT stand on a horse scale at the University of Florida's large animal hospital.

Members of the Penn State Equine Research Team (PSERT) traveled to Florida in early May to expand their knowledge of the breadth of the equine industry as they interacted with diverse operations and leaders within Florida's equine industry.

The trip included a day-long undergraduate research symposium at the University of Florida where the students made presentations, visits to five equine operations in Ocala, and a behind-the-scenes visit with animal nutritionists at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Faculty advisers Burt Staniar, Ph.D., and Danielle Smarsh, Ph.D., accompanied the group of 11 students. Staniar said, "Our students did a phenomenal job presenting the results of research they have conducted while here at Penn State. It was great to see them interacting with the equine undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty at the University of Florida. I know that our students brought a lot of great ideas back to Penn State for future work."

Students from both Penn State and the University of Florida presented a wide range of equine research projects. Ashley McNally, Warwick, NY, provided a thorough overview of the ins and outs of coordinating a research project that involves over 40 students and 10 equine facilities. Scarlett Loya, Washington, PA, discussed analysis of exercise data collected by PSERT on close to 75 horses, from which she is evaluating athletic condition. Molly Rogus, Jamison, PA, and Hannah Taylor, Allentown, PA, two recent graduates, discussed their work studying gastric ulcers, an important topic in the horse industry today.

In the second half of the symposium, students participated in a wide range of hands-on laboratory exercises that focused on different research techniques: collecting samples for genetic testing, working with cecally cannulated horses, evaluating flight behavior, principles of operant conditioning, and performing standardized exercise tests.

 The students also toured the University of Florida veterinary school and met with veterinarians, including Penn State grad, Dr. Andrew McClain, a surgical resident.

In Ocala, students

* Engaged with staff at KER's Equine Research Facility.

* Toured the University of Florida's Equine Research Center.

* Learned about traditional Chinese veterinary medicine at the Chi Institute.

* Discussed management and care of Arabian horses at Rohara Arabians.

* Experienced many of the equine physical therapy modalities at the Equine Performance Center.

A definite highlight for PSERT members was the behind-the-scenes tour of some of the animal care facilities at Disney's Animal Kingdom. PSERT members were treated to a five-hour tour that focused on the nutrition and general care of a wide range of the animals. Care of Animal Kingdom's white and black rhinos was highlighted due the students' interest in horses and the similarities between rhinos and horses.  Sarah Kunkel, Nazareth, PA, expressed the feelings of many of the students, "I learned so much about the care of these large animals. There's no doubt that being this close to them and talking with those that care for them was a unique experience."

Students learned that many of the professionals they engaged with at Disney, as well as the other facilities, had degrees in Animal Science. Loya, the incoming president of PSERT, says, "These trips allow club members to interact and network with professional and academic individuals in and around the equine industry. Through this trip, PSERT members become much more aware of research and career opportunities that we might pursue upon completion of our undergraduate degree."

Students also included some time for recreation, including a trip to Paynes Prairie where they had hoped to see some wild horses and some swimming in Florida's famous natural springs at Rock Springs Run.

The trip proved to be highly successful. A YouTube video produced by Kunkel, one of the students on the trip can be seen HERE.

PSERT is made up of students interested in using the scientific method to answer questions regarding the health and performance of the horse. It is an official student organization at Penn State, giving undergraduates an opportunity to experience equine research while having informal and enlightened discussions of equine science.