Monday, November 14, 2016
Dr Sue Dyson, expert in equine orthopaedics, has returned from the University of Kentucky having been inducted to their UK Equine Research Hall of Fame. As Head of Department at leading veterinary research charity, the Animal Health Trust (AHT), where she has dedicated almost 35 years to treating hundreds of patients each year, she is honoured for her service and contribution to equine research. Sue collected her award surrounded by her peers, colleagues and previous inductees, who have nominated her for this accolade. 

With a strong background as a rider and a particular interest in lameness and poor performance in sports horses, Sue has an in-depth knowledge and understanding of performance problems in horses of all disciplines. Her contribution to horse health, welfare and improved performance is justly recognised with this world-renowned achievement. We speak to Sue about what this means to her, and her life in research…

Sue, what does this award mean to you?

As a lameness clinician, I feel humbled and honoured to have been elected to join an elite band of scientists in the UK Equine Research Hall of Fame. I owe a huge debt of gratitude, not only to the friends and colleagues with whom I’ve had the privilege to work, most particularly at the Animal Health Trust, but of course also to the horses, which provide endless challenges. I have been constantly inspired to try to improve the welfare of these fantastic athletes. 

You have a specific interest in sports performance, but did you have any aspirations in research when you first began?

I have always had a thirst for new knowledge and quickly learnt that by thorough documentation of clinical observations certain patterns emerged which could be translated into recognition of a new lameness condition. I didn’t think of this as research – just learning on the job. It was quite a lot later when I began to investigate specific problems in a more hypothesis-driven way.

How do you feel equine research has developed over time?
I have been fortunate to have had a career coinciding with the development of advanced imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging. This has resulted in recognition of new injuries, a need to validate our interpretation of the images and to understand more about the pathogenesis of injuries, so that ultimately we may be able to take preventative measures. We also need to learn how better to treat injuries; currently our ability to diagnose outstrips our ability to treat successfully.

What do you feel are your biggest achievements in research?
I have proved the usefulness of local analgesia and highlighted its limitations for identification of pain causing lameness, a crucial step in lameness diagnosis. I have teased out a variety of conditions in the proximal metacarpal and metatarsal regions causing pain and lameness and greatly increased our knowledge about suspensory ligament injuries. I have validated ultrasonography, scintigraphy and MRI for routine diagnostic use. I have also demonstrated the importance of correct saddle fit for optimal development of the horse’s back muscles, demonstrating how horses change in their back dimensions over time and the need for correct saddle fit. All of which, as is always my objective, have contributed to huge improvements in the practical application of veterinary medicine, supported by robust scientific evidence. 

How does your clinical work link to your research, and what are the benefits and difficulties?
Our clinical cases are integral to our research. Without them and the willingness of their owners to contribute their data to our research projects, we would not be able to advance veterinary techniques as comprehensively as we do now. At the AHT we have developed a cycle, whereby our clinical patients feed into our research, and in turn our research results are fed back into the industry to develop veterinary and owner knowledge to support the care of horses worldwide. 
A typical example of the integral link is the observation that the most common cause of a saddle slipping persistently to one side is hindlimb lameness. In a prospective clinical study, abolition of lameness by diagnostic analgesia resulted in resolution of the saddle slip. The presence of lameness, often difficult to perceive by owners, may therefore be highlighted by the presence of saddle slip.  Improved success with treatment of lameness requires early diagnosis, which in turn requires owners to recognise the presence of a problem. Current work is focussing on the assessment of facial expressions and other aspects of horse behaviour when ridden as indicators of pain.  The difficulties relate to education of the horse owning public and all allied equine health professionals, and also the acquisition of funding.

What does the future hold for you and your research?
There are many unanswered questions and the learning process proceeds endlessly – and excitingly. We hope to continue to improve our understanding of the relationship between hindlimb lameness and thoracolumbar function, and to increase our knowledge of the causes of sacroiliac joint region pain. If funds could be found I would love to try to establish whether there is a genetic component to suspensory ligament injuries to try to better understand why they occur. 

Sue continues to investigate equine health and welfare, inspired by the resilience of these athletes; she still works tirelessly to improve their care for years to come. 
For more information on Sue’s and the AHT’s extensive equine research visit: 

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