The CAG HorseHealth and Biobank Initiative is an long-term project to create a resource to enable research on horse genetics, health, and complex traits.

The goal is to create a Biobank of hair from horses (for DNA extraction) and health information about those horses. These samples will be used by scientists to investigate the genetic basis of diseases and complex traits in horses (for example, Summer Eczema/Insect Bite Hypersensitivity).

Detailed health data will allow researchers to investigate the incidence of illnesses and of traits of interest in horses and ponies in Europe. It is important to have samples and data from many horses, both healthy and ill. This will give researchers a realistic picture of the health situation of horse breed populations. For example, questionnaire analysis will allow a determination of what diseases/conditions/traits are under- or over-represented in certain populations/breeds and the effect of factors in a horse’s environment that influence a trait or illness. This knowledge can then be used to help improve horse health and welfare.

Would you like to participate? Click below to start!

Health Questionnaire

You may enroll as many horses/ponies as you wish. When completing the health survey, data cannot be saved, so please have any information you need available before you begin. Your horse’s passport may be helpful. After you Submit the survey for the first horse, you will be taken to a page where you get information on how to send in the hair sample. If you have another horse to enroll, click the link to start the survey again.

What is the goal of the HHBI?

The goal of the CAG HHBI is to collect and store hair/DNA and health information from healthy animals, and those affected with health problems. It is intended to reflect the European horse population, thus we aim to collect hair samples from as many horses as possible, regardless of age, breed, or health status. These samples will be used to investigate the genetic basis of diseases and complex traits in horses.

How many horses will be included in the Biobank?

To study a complex trait, we require a large number of DNA samples from horses with and without that trait. The exact number of horses that are required to study a disease varies widely.

A simple autosomal dominant or recessive disease may require only 5-10 related animals, but when a trait is complex (influenced by multiple genes and the environment), hundreds of animals may be required to analyze the trait. Our goal is to collect samples from thousands of horses and ponies of all breeds and backgrounds.

Factors that influence the number of samples required for a study include:

  • Environmental influence – how much of the trait is due to the animal’s nutrition, handling, or housing?
  • Accuracy of diagnosis/categorization – if a trait or disease is difficult to define, horses can be miscategorized.
  • Age of the horse – an older horse is more likely to already have developed traits to which it is genetically predisposed; younger horses may have the predisposition to develop a disease but has not yet experienced the trait.
  • Breed – some traits are most common in particular breeds or lines. If it is not possible to collect a sufficient number of samples of that breed for a study, horses of closely related breeds may be added to have a sufficient number of samples for analysis.
  • The number of genetic variants that may be influencing the trait. Large numbers of variants with smaller effects are difficult to identify; this is also true when both risk and protective variants interact in an animal.

All of these elements, and others, are considered during study design. Our goal is to collect samples and health information from thousands of horses to develop the research Biobank, and ensure that we have a sufficient number of samples to reach statistical significance in such analyses.

What horses can be submitted to the Biobank?

All horses and ponies can be submitted to the Biobank. We wish to research lifelong illnesses, as well as temporary illnesses from which the horse has regained health. It is therefore extremely important for owners to fill out questionnaires and submit hair samples from healthy horses as well! This will give us a realistic picture of the health situation of a horse breed population.

How many samples can I submit?

You may submit samples from any horse that you own, whether affected with a health condition or not. Older horses are of particular interest, because they are most likely to already have developed any health conditions that could develop in their life.

Every completed questionnaire and hair sample is valuable regardless of the horse’s current health status.

How can I submit samples?

Example of horse hair with roots

Fill out the HHBI questionnaire for each horse you would like to enroll. You will then be taken to a page where you can print off and sign a copy of the consent form. Only one consent form is required per package, even if samples from multiple horses are included.

For each horse, pluck approximately 40 hairs from the mane or tail, making sure that hair roots are attached.

Tape the hair to a piece of paper, making sure not to tape the roots. Excess hair may be trimmed, but do not trim the roots! Please write your name and the horse’s name on the paper.

Example of horse hair arranged for mailing.

Send samples and forms by normal post to:
Horse Health and Biobank Initiative

CAG GmbH – Center for Animal Genetics

Paul-Ehrlich-Str. 23

72076 Tübingen

If you write “Porto vom Empfänger bezahlt” where you would usually put a stamp, CAG will cover the mailing cost.

Why is the health questionnaire so long?

Questionnaire analysis will allow us to determine what diseases/conditions/traits over-represented in certain populations/breeds. Because complex traits have a strong environmental component, information about a horse’s environment, such as how the horse is fed and housed, is also essential.

What will happen with the samples I send?

When the sample is received at the laboratory, several steps take place. First, we check to see if the online health survey has been completed. Second, the sample goes through quality control, to ensure that a sufficient number of hairs with roots are included. Third, the signed Consent Form is logged, and cross-checked with the sample and owner information. You will be contacted at this time if any of these steps are incomplete.

Samples that pass quality control are re-packaged and archived with a unique identification number and barcode. This ensures that no personal identifying information is associated with the physical sample. Samples are stored at -80’C. When the sample is selected for use in a study, DNA will be isolated and a genetic profile will be established in the laboratory to discover or verify new genetic variants associated with genetic diseases or traits. Remaining hair and DNA will be stored in the Biobank for use in future studies of horse health.

What will happen with my data?

Data is handled with full confidentiality. Information that you submit with the Health Survey will be de-identified and given a unique sample number and barcode. This means that your name, address, and other identifying information about you and your horse are removed from the records. No identifying information will be released, even to horse owners, because the de-identified data is not trackable.

Data generated will be coded and kept anonymous, and no individual owners or animals will be named in any results. This de-identified health information and DNA may be shared with collaborating researchers and we may publish articles about our findings but no owner or animal identifying information will ever be associated with the findings.

Although the samples are immediately de-identified, we have to collect personal data on the Health Questionnaire, etc., for several reasons. The name and location of the owner is necessary to ensure that a signed consent form is on file for each participant. Each owner is then assigned a unique ID.

The name and other identifying information about the horse (microchip, UELN, etc.) allows us to ensure that animals are not submitted multiple times, with different owners. Pedigree information is helpful to estimate the overall level of relatedness of animals in the database. This data is stored separately from the biological samples, and is never released to studbooks or even to individual owners.

How will this research project benefit me?

This health questionnaire and biobank benefits every horse owner and breeder, as the knowledge and understanding of common and rare equine illnesses may give us the opportunity to prevent and address the problem. If we want to breed healthy and thriving horses, it is essential to understand the current health situation of each horse breed and horses overall. Questionnaire analysis will allow us to determine what diseases/conditions/traits over-represented in certain populations/breeds. Genomic analysis will allow us to identify genetic variants that are involved in complex illnesses and traits, which will provide breeders with tools to improve their breeding programs.

The results of studies that use data or samples from the Biobank will be reported in aggregate (overall incidence numbers, etc.), but de-identification protocols ensure that data security and confidentiality norms prevail. This also means that it is not possible for owners to get individual results for their own horses.