If A Horse Can Feel It...

Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine promotes research that helps both equines and humans


WHEN IT’S SO COLD THAT IT HURTS TO BREATHE, it really does — hurt you to breathe, that is. That’s the finding of research done by Dr. Michael Davis, director of OSU’s Center for Veterinary Health Science’s Comparative Exercise Physiology Laboratory and holder of the Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine.

“For the first five or six years (at OSU), I was working in the area of equine airway disease — and specifically, the effects of exercising in cold weather on the airways,” Davis says. “I think pretty much everybody has some frame of reference without really knowing it. When you go outside during a really cold winter day and exercise a little bit, and then you breathe a little hard and you get that sort of burning sensation in the back of your throat — that’s essentially injury to the airway as a result of breathing really cold air.”

Davis and his team discovered that this sort of injury can extend all the way into the lungs.

“You can’t feel it because you’re not wired to feel it,” he says. “And it (the cold air) does it in horses as well. In fact, we have been able to reproduce nearly all of the common clinical signs and symptoms of chronic airway inflammation in horses using nothing but breathing cold air while exercising. It’s a significant cause of illness for horses, and we have been able to identify it. Identifying it is half the battle of doing something about it.”

One of the main things that has kept Davis’ research steady is the Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine, which he has held for the last 10 years.

Twenty-five years ago, the Oxley Foundation of Tulsa, Oklahoma, decided to invest in the equine program at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences. Its endowment created the Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine.

“The chair was established by John T. Oxley. Horses are part of the family.” Konnie Boulter, Executive Director for the Oxley Foundation

The endowment is a huge asset providing resources that are difficult to get.

“The Oxley Chair basically allows us to maintain an infrastructure for equine sports medicine that no other university has,” says Davis, who joined OSU’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences in 1998.

Funds help maintain a herd of horses and expensive equipment which expands research capabilities.

Konnie Boulter

Executive Director for the Oxley Foundation, Konnie Boulter

“I like how he is doing a lot of research with the racing horse,” Boulter says. “I had the opportunity to see the race horse on the treadmill and talk about the different breathing issues that are created from racing and also with people running. I love how he comingles the research for humans as well as equines.”

More recently, Davis and his team started looking at the way muscle adapts to exercise.

“Essentially exercise is the muscle taking chemical energy and converting it to mechanical energy,” Davis says. “And really good exercise is doing that very, very quickly. We began using the resources created by the Oxley endowment to help us better understand how that process occurs in muscle and how it improves when horses actually become fit. By using the robust nature of human funding,we get further and get there faster than we would if we just limit ourselves to the amount of money available specifically for horses."

“One of the things that we have been able to do is use animal athletes — dogs and horses — successfully as models of human exercise and do that in a way that still actually helps the animal athletes.”Dr. Michael Davis, Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine

Another bonus with the Oxley Chair is that it provides revenue to employ undergraduate and graduate students. Former graduate student Dr. Jessica Quigg, an intern at Montana Equine Medical and Surgical Center in Three Forks, worked with Davis on both his equine and canine research projects.

“I feel that research has had a very positive impact on my veterinary career,” Quigg says. “It has opened my mind to new heights and dimensions that I most likely would not have appreciated before. There are so many questions that come up in equine veterinary medicine, just in my first year, that have sparked my thinking — ‘this seems to be recurring, and there are no papers out on this topic,’ or ‘this would be a good area to perform a study or collect data for research.’ I can only imagine how much more I can question and study as times change. I greatly appreciate being able to do research with Dr. Davis. Times will change, veterinary medicine will change, and more often than not, it is thanks to those performing ongoing research.”

Davis employs about a dozen undergraduate students to help take care of the lab, focusing to improve the health and wellbeing of animal athletes.

“It’s more than just a workforce to keep the horses fed,” he says. “I am teaching them how to care for horses properly — sort of raising their standards for what it takes to maintain a healthy, happy horse. There’s nothing that makes me and everybody in the lab prouder than for folks to see our research horses and mistake them for actively competing athletes. They are cared for in just exactly the same level of meticulous detail as if they were owned by somebody who viewed them as a million-dollar asset.”

Davis’ research horses will have ample opportunities to race on the treadmill in the future.

“We’re starting to make some really interesting progress in the field of muscle metabolism,” he says. “We’ve known for centuries that a working horse gets hot. In the last century, we’ve realized that it’s an incredibly high temperature that is generated inside the muscle. Temperatures that if a horse were to generate that just standing still, it would damage the muscle. And yet, it doesn’t seem to damage the muscle when they do it through exercise. So, I’m really interested in figuring out what protects the horse’s muscle from those high temperatures? How do they maintain the correct muscle function when the temperature goes up in the muscle upward of 10 degrees?”

Michael Davis

Dr. Michael Davis, Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine

“We’re starting to make some really interesting progress in the field of muscle metabolism. … How do they (horses) maintain the correct muscle function when the temperature goes up in the muscle upward of 10 degrees?”

Some of Davis’ preliminary work shows that maybe the muscle doesn’t preserve itself as well as previously thought.

“There’s some indication that the high temperature directly results in muscle damage that we commonly see and just attribute to overexertion,” Davis says. “There is also some reason to believe that part of the training process of a horse is the muscle learning to tolerate those higher temperatures. So that a muscle temperature of 108 or 110 degrees in a fit horse does far less damage than the exact same temperature in an unfit horse. That becomes a very important practical consideration. How do we make those muscles more tolerant to the high temperatures that are inevitably going to occur when the horse exercises?”

How indeed is a question Davis will no doubt continue to explore thanks to the veterinary center, the Oxley Foundation and the Oxley Chair in Equine Sports Medicine.

For more information on research at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences visit cvhs.okstate.edu/Research.

To support equine research or learn more about establishing funds in support of the veterinary center, visit our Center for Veterinary Health Sciences page or contact Chris Sitz, OSU Foundation senior director of development, at 405-385-5170 or csitz@osugiving.com.


For details about Davis’ work on Comparative Exercise Physiology Laboratory, watch the video below.