Innovation Awards 2014
Equilume: Light mask to aid horse breeding
Dr Barbara Anne Murphy designed the Equilume Light Mask
A fact well-known to horse racing and other equestrian sports lovers is that every thoroughbred and sport horse has the same “official birthday” of January 1st. This can have quite dramatic consequences for a racehorse’s career.
For example, the Epsom Derby is held in June each year for three-year-old horses carrying nine stone. This means that horses born in the first week in January will actually be three-and-a-half years of age when contesting the race whereas a horse unlucky enough to be born in December would be 11 months younger but the same official age and be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of size, strength, and speed.
Horses born early in the year therefore bring higher prices at the sales and with racehorses frequently costing millions, it is not at all surprising that a lot of research has gone into managing the fertility of mares to ensure they have their foals at the right time.
It has been well-known for some time that mares respond to light and that administering light therapy for 10 to 12 weeks starting around the beginning of December acts to inhibit production of the hormone melatonin and fools the mare’s reproductive system into activating earlier in the year.
“You have to expose the horses to light for 14 to 16 hours a day for up to 12 weeks to achieve this”, says Equilume founder Dr Barbara Anne Murphy, who is also head of subject for equine science at UCD. “That means that you’ve got lots of pretty miserable mares standing in their boxes all day. And it’s quite expensive to do this as well.”
Her solution to this is the Equilume Light Mask which is worn by the horse and delivers low intensity blue light to just one of its eyes for the required duration.
She recalls what first sparked the idea. “My PhD supervisor warned me about shining a flashlight in a horse’s eye when I was taking blood samples at night as it could interfere with hormone production. That led me to looking into if we could give light to just one eye and we did some experiments in UCD which showed there was no difference between one eye and two.”
After that, she found that very low-intensity blue light would work just as well as white light and then she set about designing the mask. “We had to design a device for horses to wear that wouldn’t interfere with their normal behaviour and stand up to up to four months wear-and-tear while being worn outdoors.”
The device has already been enormously successful and has achieved sales of several thousand units since its launch in the southern hemisphere last year.
“The Australians are brilliant. They are very willing to try out new things and we sold 500 units in two weeks just travelling from farm to farm. We then launched in Ireland, England and France and we are looking to at least treble sales this year. Everyone who took two or three units to try them out last year has said they want to use them on all their mares this year.”