The woman transforming horse breeding - Irish Country Magazine features Dr Barbara Murphy

Barbara Anne Murphy’s love of horses and inquisitive nature led her to a career in equine science. Now at the helm of the course in UCD and also a company that is making horse breeding more efficient, Barbara is positively impacting the field at a global level as well as influencing the next generation of horse industry professionals. “I was always asking questions, when I was in college and when I worked on stud farms. I always wanted to know why something was being done a certain way,” Barbara says. “I found that often people didn’t know the answers. They were just doing it, giving a horse a hormone or feeding them something because it was always done that way. That was never good enough for me – I had to know why.”

Frequently in Ireland, people in the trade come from a horse background and have a strong family link. This was not the case for Barbara. “We had a pony at home growing up but my dad worked in banking and mum was in art. I think it’s good that I have that different background, because it helps the students I teach to realise they are not limited by not having a background in horses or not coming from a stud farm,” Barbara says. She studied equine science at the University of Limerick, which included a work placement in Kentucky. Her lecturers picked up on her deep interest in scientific research and encouraged her to apply for graduate research, and she got a full scholarship to do her PhD in the US, which took six years. Barbara was then offered the position to develop UCD’s Equine Science programme, and jumped at the chance. “I was given the rough names of the modules for the course and was told to design the course. I went from being a PhD student to a PhD supervisor to running a degree programme within two months, which is not what normally happens,” Barbara says. “I was overwhelmed but it was really a no-brainer to take the job and move from America back home to Ireland.”

Within a year she had settled into the role, overseeing the programme, teaching four courses as well as other responsibilities, and she decided to delve back into research as it is important to stay active in that field as well as teaching. She was interested in circadian rhythms and how light affects a mare’s reproductive activity. The timing of horse breeding has a huge impact on the commercial value and performance of foals. “Nature intended that foals are born during the longest days of the year. But sometime back in the 1800s a gentleman decided that all thoroughbreds should have the same birthday, 1 January, in order to make racing fairer so horses of the same age would race together. So because of this arbitrary date, regardless of when a foal was born in the previous year, on 1 January it is considered one year old,” Barbara explains. “Breeders want foals born as soon after 1 January as possible so that when they actually turn one on the following year they will be a big strong animal. Horse sales go on in the summer, and if you have a valuable pedigree foal that was born on 1 January and you have another one born on the 1 June there’s a six month difference between them in size and development before they go to the horse sales.” This means breeders are not going to make money if foals are born late in the year, and they are also less likely to run as a two-year-old to be competitive. So there is a huge economic pressure on breeders to produce early foals.

The solution is that breeders keep horses in stables with the lights on until 11pm to trick their reproductive systems into thinking it is summer. This must be done for two months before it has an effect on their body. The Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association estimated that is costs €23 per day on average to keep a mare in the stable, which is over €2,000 when one considers the horse may be indoors up to 100 days. This is expensive and not ideal for the horse. “I worked on stud farms and horses are a lot healthier when they are moving. They are not designed to be in a box, they are a migratory species that should live outside,” Barbara says. “I worked with a lot of valuable mares, they weren’t very fertile if they were indoors and they weren’t very happy. I wondered if there was any way we could stimulate this effect in their reproductive systems without having to keep them inside where we are paying for bedding and labour.” She teamed up with Professor John Sheridan at UCD’s engineering department to design a mask that would fit over the mare’s head and direct blue light into one eye. This became the key product of her company Equilume. “Sunlight is made up of a lot of blue light, and this blue light suppresses melatonin which regulates reproduction. Turning on a fluorescent light in a stable is not going to have the same effect,” she says. “You are going to use a lot less energy powering a mask for three months and the horse can live outside, but the challenge was creating something that would stay on an not get destroyed in that time.”

And given that it is an industry based on heritage and the passing on of knowledge through generations, there can be resistance when it comes to innovation. “It took a lot of convincing, all the way through, even at the scientific stage. When you do something new and challenge the norm people will always push back,” Barbara says. “We launched in June 2013 in Australia, and it was really fast uptake. They love leaving horses outside because they don’t have the same level of labour as we do and it is easier without the wet weather to keep the horses outside.” Now the product is available in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland, and they have extended the product range. A variety of masks are available, and they have also produced a stable light, as the blue light has proven beneficial to horses in other ways. “Aside from breeding, it improves their coat condition, immune system, they put on weight in muscle faster, respond to training well, and they have improved behaviour. A lot of horses left in stables for too long get down just as humans get seasonally affected disorder, and we have gotten great feedback about horses perking up thanks to the mask from people who work with them every day,” Barbara says. The light has also led to healthier, stronger and more valuable foals being born. Barbara and her team recently published in a reproduction journal for animals that giving the blue light to mares in their final trimester, causes foals to be born 10 pounds heavier, makes pregnancies an average of 10 days shorter, and they have lighter coats and are stronger.

Not only is it rewarding to see healthier foals being born around the globe and mares getting to stay outside where they belong, but Barbara also thinks it is positive that her students can see the value in research and innovation. “A lot of things are passed through the family and succession planning takes a long time. At UCD there is a huge focus on equipping the next generation of farmers and horse breeders with knowledge and training and new technologies and that is changing the industry for the better.”

(Produced by: Róisín Healy, Irish Country Magazine)

Related links

Research profile - Dr Barbara Murphy