Testing kit for infection looks like a runner for horses

A new, rapid test offers on-the-spot results about whether a horse is under stress from infection


How do you know if a horse is sick? If the animal is seriously ill, it will probably be obvious, but being a little under par could be harder to spot. Yet being under par could affect the performance of a racehorse or show jumper.

Entrepreneur Dr Heinrich Anhold has been developing an approach to get results on the spot about whether a horse is under stress from a potential infection.

“We have developed an immediate test to tell if a horse has an infection or not,” he explains. “It confirms infection and it quantifies the infection – the marker we look for in the blood is not normally there if the horse is healthy, and the more of it that is there, the harder the body is fighting infection.”

Blood sample
To demonstrate the test, which is called StableLab, Dr Anhold takes a small sample of blood from Ben, a horse at his family’s stable in Sligo.

Ben flinches a little and I hold the horse’s head as the blood is drawn, but then it’s all over and Ben walks back across the paddock.

Dr Anhold immediately mixes a few drops of the blood with a solution from the kit and places the sample on a small plastic slide.

Within a couple of minutes a pink “control” line appears on the slide window to show the assay is working, and there’s no colour at the “test” line – so the result shows that Ben is in fine fettle.

If Ben had an infection, explains Dr Anhold, a second pink line would have shown up and we could compare the line’s intensity to a small reference card to see how much of the “biomarker” was present in the blood.

Prone to infection
The core technology itself is not new, explains Dr Anhold, but he has been using his horse sense to put the test together in a way that will work at the stable door.

He founded a company, Epona Biotech based at Sligo Institute of Technology, and started to develop the portable horse-side test.

“Most horses in training don’t often get sick, but they are prone to various injuries and ailments – lung infections in race horses or joint-problems in show-jumpers are like tennis elbow in tennis players,” says Dr Anhold, who was a competitive show-jumper before studying biochemistry at NUI Galway.

“We wanted to develop a product for the people who work with these horses on a daily basis, to help them manage their horses’ health and keep them right.”

Dr Anhold’s initial focus in Epona was to carry out standard tests for elevated white blood cell counts at the stable door rather than having to send blood samples off for testing, but he recently started looking at different markers in the blood.

A study he carried out with input from the University of Cambridge looked at levels of various markers in samples from around 150 horses over a season and pointed to a biochemical in the blood called serum amyloid A as being a useful marker of infections.

So Dr Anhold applied the portable to look for serum amyloid A and earlier this year he asked trainers, breeders and vets in Ireland, the UK and the US to try it out.

“They got really excited when they found it could help them to track how a sick foal was responding to treatment, or if they got a result that told them a horse should not be competing,” he says.

Keeping vets in the loop
A big question was who would actually carry out the tests, and Dr Anhold opted to cast the net wide.

“We are not out to replace lab testing – that serves a very important purpose – but this is a horse-side test,” he says. “So we designed the test such that it could be used by non-vets and vets alike.”

So far, trainers seem to use it mostly to test horses in the run up to competition, and vets can use it to make call-outs more efficient, according to Dr Anhold.

“If the vet visits an animal, they can get a result on the spot as to whether the horse has an infection and the severity of it, rather than having to wait for results to come back,” he says.

“And if the horse has an infection the vet can quickly start to use a whole series of procedures and medications. It makes things more efficient. And for me the golden result would be when vets and trainers are discussing what steps to take next on the basis of that rapid test.”

StableLab’s website launched recently and already online sales have been brisk, reports Dr Anhold, who believes the key is developing a product that suits the customer.

“The part that excites me the most – and this is the horseman in me – is that I understand how that works in practice,” he says. “We designed the assay around that from day one.”