CSU equine lab breaks barriers

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — In the western foothills of Fort Collins, miracles are happening.

Hair-thin needles break through the walls of cells that are invisible to the human eye. In a flash, a single sperm shoots forward and the egg is in the earliest stages of becoming something more — something that will be a treasure to a horse owner in Colorado or perhaps some other location across the globe.

But at the Colorado State University Equine Reproduction Laboratory, these miracles are almost a matter of routine, the Coloradoan reported. The lab's researchers pioneered many of the techniques used in modern horse breeding over the course of its half-century existence, from freezing semen samples to the one-embryo, one-sperm method of in vitro fertilization.

The lab burned to the ground about five years ago and was rebuilt in 2013. Today, its work plods along without a hint of ash.

The ERL does more than just the hard-science aspect of horse breeding. It also houses and cares for pregnant mares and new mothers with colts and fillies. The quality of care in those stages makes the CSU program stand out from other horse breeders, longtime client and champion cutting horse rider, trainer and breeder Lindy Burch said.


"You can't put a monetary value on (the horses)," Burch said. "They're not just a horse, and they're not just an animal. (CSU staff members) treat them like the Faberge egg they are. Really a one-of-a-kind piece of art."

Burch, a resident of Weatherford, Texas, just west of Fort Worth and Dallas, has been trekking her mares to Fort Collins for CSU's expertise for the better part of two decades. The in vitro work and subsequent embryo transfer has helped Burch maintain her legacy of championship horses.

One champion, Bet Yer Blue Boons, was able to have an embryo transferred to a recipient mare and pass her genes onto another champion, Bet Shes Smooth. Bet Yer Blue Boons was getting up in age, and carrying and birthing a foal herself would have been too dangerous, Burch said.

"Without that procedure, and without Elaine and Jerry, that just would not have been possible," Burch said, referring to ERL professor Elaine Carnevale and Director Jerry Black.

Burch said she has used other breeding facilities for less risky procedures, and doesn't speak ill of any others, be they private ranches or other public universities. She also declares "my allegiance is certainly at CSU," particularly with the trust she has in Carnevale.

"If I'm going to put my mares at risk anyway, it's going to be with Dr. Carnevale or I'm not going to do it," Burch said.Black called the lab the equivalent of a fertility clinic for people. It doesn't detract from the skill of a general practitioner — and he noted that many skilled veterinarians and breeders exist in the area and in the country — but sometimes a person, or a horse, needs a specialist.

"We have that experience and expertise," said Patrick McCue, a professor of equine reproduction at the ERL. "There's a lot of good breeding farms and veterinarians out there, but we have that expertise."

Stories like Burch's, where she takes her mares to the facility regularly for reproductive help, are common, McCue and Black said. It's also reflected in the donations the lab has received — both men are proud to point out that every building on the 60-acre campus is donor funded.


The breeding programs also help the program sustain itself. The ERL brings in about $1.5 million annually, with the money funneling back into the program and, if there's any left over, into the university's equine sciences department, according to ERL officials.

The routine of animals revolving through the program helps the lab to fulfill its main mission as well: teaching and advancing the realm of equine sciences. Aside from the enrolled CSU students, the facility holds regular seminars for other breeders and ranchers.

Passing that knowledge is what ultimately separates the ERL from private practices, McCue and Black said, even with the potentially lucrative procedures and techniques developed at CSU being put into play.

"(A private researcher) would want to patent all of this," McCue said. "We learn, then we teach and pass it on to others. It's the purpose of a university."

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