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Sharon Hinsley on Fragile Thoroughbreds link to GMOs?



by Paulick Report Staff | November 17, 2010 12:46 am

Following the 2008 Breeders’ Cup, where European horses had their best results ever, the Paulick Report Daily Poll questioned readers about why the European runners fared so well. Was it the recent California ban on anabolic steroids, leveling the playing field for international runners who have never raced on the medication? Was it the synthetic surface at Santa Anita used for the traditional dirt races? Or were European horses simply better this year? The results were mixed, but 47% of respondents thought the synthetic surface made the biggest difference.One thing that never crossed my mind was a possible difference in the feed given horses in Europe vs. what they are fed in the United States. Sharon Hinsley, who with her husband runs a public stable in Chicago and Tampa Bay, thinks that could be a factor in the increasing fragility of American-based runners.Pending the results of scientific research, some ingredients have been banned from feed in Europe, where a movement for “natural” or “green” food ingredients is much farther along than in the U.S. GMO feed (with genetically modified organisms) is labeled as such in European Union countries.  Nutrition experts here caution us, however,  that “natural” products are not necessarily any safer, and that all food ingredients should be monitored and tested.The following commentary by Sharon Hinsley (who can be reached at certainly opens for us a new debate about food ingredients, one that has been ongoing in European and Asian countries. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the Paulick Report, but we think the subject matter is important enough to be discussed. 

By Sharon Hinsley

My husband and I have been owners and trainer of a public racing stable for over 22 years. As with so many others whose life’s work has been in this industry, we have seen first-hand the increasing fragility of the Thoroughbred and its growing impact on this once-great and beloved sport.

Following the European success in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, I couldn’t help but think back to several of the comments voiced in a magazine article about the success of the European runners. For instance, a comment was made that American-bred horses competing in Europe race significantly more than their counterparts here in the United States.

In the same discussion, someone questioned whether changes in the water or type of feed may be contributing to the durability problem. While factors such as racing surface, breeding practices oriented toward speed and precocity, steroids and medication (both legal and otherwise) have dominated the discussions about the seemingly increased fragility of our horses, have we missed some very important and fundamental contributing factors? Could something as basic as what we feed our horses be a part of the durability and soundness problem? Is there something different about the feed given to horses in Europe versus what we feed our horses in the United States?


A review of UK horse feed Web sites shows some interesting terminology not seen associated with horse feed in the United States. For instance, many of the UK feeds contain statements such as “non-GMO” and “Identity Preserved”. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and Identity Preserved refers to quality assurance programs and certifications aimed at ensuring that products can be traced through the entire production cycle so they have not been contaminated by genetically modified organisms.


 A genetically modified organism is the result of genetic engineering. Also known as transgenic organisms, they are the product of laboratory processes that take genes from one species and insert them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired characteristic. Although genetic engineering holds great promise, particularly in the field of medicine, its application in the agricultural arena has been primarily focused on herbicide tolerance and pesticide control. By making a crop herbicide resistant, herbicides can be applied over and over again allowing the plant to live while everything else around it dies. This has proven to be economically advantageous for the producers of the herbicides but potentially troublesome for consumers, not to mention the environment. And what of the effect that ingestion of these genetically modified crops might have on horses?


There is a significant difference between what has happened in the United States agriculturally and in many parts of Europe where GMOs have been banned from being grown or used in any feed or food.    Within the United States (and Canada), the proliferation of genetically modified organisms within the food supply is troubling, particularly given the high degree of uncertainty that exists with respect to the health effects of GMOs in food. This is equally true for the unknown effects that GMO feed may be having on our horses.


The current technology of genetic engineering is not nearly as precise as most would believe. The insertion of new genetic material is still a highly inaccurate procedure. Unintended side effects are often encountered, and many of these unintended side effects are not well-studied or documented. Genetically modified plants have been known to create toxins. The plant may be significantly altered with respect to its nutrient content, the balance of proteins within the plant may be disrupted, again with unknown consequences. In addition, due to the use of antibiotic resistant marker genes, GMOs may be contributing to increased antibiotic resistance, particularly in critical gut bacteria. GMOs may also be contributing to increases in allergies. The effect of GMOs in what we feed our horses is simply not well-known or understood. In the United States, though, it is likely we are feeding our horses a steady diet of GMO feed. Could this be a contributing factor to the durability issues of the modern Thoroughbred? It is certainly food for thought.


As horsemen we must become educated about what is in our feeds. We cannot assume that the quality of grains we used to get in decades past is the same as what is now in bags of feed. The recipes of our favorite brands may have changed without us even knowing. Oftentimes, we may simply see that bright label saying “new and improved.” However, “new and improved” might mean something substantially different from what we would expect it to mean. We must put pressure on our mills to produce non-GMO feed free of pesticide contamination just like our European counterparts have available to them. We need to start asking and validating the contents and quality of the feed we provide to our horses.   Even though every horse in the racing business is for sale one way or another, we have a moral obligation to preserve the durability and quality of the breed no matter who owns the horse we raise. Garbage in/garbage out and eventually we are all out of business.
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