Campus: Cal Poly, Pomona -- August 14, 2000

Cal Poly Pomona Equine Research Catches Attention of BBC Documentary Producers

Cal Poly Pomona Arabians are no strangers to appearing on film. Horses from W.K. Kellogg's original herd appeared in movies with Rudolph Valentino and one was even sketched to be Prince Charming's horse in Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Last week, however, university Arabians were captured on film by the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) for the advancement of science.

"This series will delve into the mysteries of animal movement," said associate producer Ingrid Kvale. "We've selected only top locomotion scientists to show us animals in motion on land, in air and in water."

The four-person film crew took a trans-Atlantic flight to Cal Poly Pomona to talk to biological sciences professor Don Hoyt and animal & veterinary sciences professor Steven Wickler about the research they have been conducting on the function of equine muscles.

The researchers' project originally shared a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with six other Cal Poly Pomona projects. Hoyt, program director, and Wickler, a principal investigator, applied and received a renewal in May. The renewal, which totals $6.4 million, will be shared with eight other biomedical studies being conducted at Cal Poly Pomona. Each project is part of the California State University's Minority Biomedical Research Support program, which provides opportunities for student researchers who might otherwise not have the chance to take part in such studies.

Hoyt, Wickler and other university equine researchers utilize a special treadmill and diagnostic equipment to measure what muscles do while in motion and how the muscles change as a function of speed.

"We're trying to understand how muscles actually function in animals when running," said Hoyt. "While running, muscles function fundamentally different from what they do in swimming and flying. And also fundamentally different from what people have assumed for the last 70 or 80 years."

The researchers are also interested in a ubiquitous locomotive behavior that has undergone very little investigation - a phenomena called preferred speed.

"Preferred speed is the behavioral tendency of animals to use a narrow range of speed instead of the broader range of speeds they are capable of using in a gait," said Hoyt.

Hoyt explained that when a horse is trotting it can use speeds between 4 and 12 miles per hour. However, if the horse is allowed to choose its own speed, it will only use speeds between 6.5 and 7.5 miles per hour.

"We wanted to test the hypothesis that muscles function without changing length and that the preferred speed phenomena has something to do with muscle function," said Hoyt. "We have shown that on an incline the animals have a lower preferred speed, which is the most economical speed for an incline. We don't really know why they prefer that speed but we still think it may have something to do with muscle function."

Ultimately, the results that Hoyt and Wickler come up with should be generally true of all terrestrial locomotion, which means they can be applied to both horses and humans. And although the Cal Poly Pomona scientists are not focusing on the application of their research, their contribution to the area of locomotion will be used as a springboard for scientists in the equine, biomedical and robotics industries.

"From an applied standpoint, if we understand how the muscles work and how much it costs and the amount of force involved, those are all key to athletic performance," says Wickler. "But what is more important is just understanding the basics of how muscles function. There is still so much that we just don't know."

For the rest of the land locomotion, the Natural History unit of the BBC will also travel to New Orleans, LA, to film elephants, Australia to film wallabies and kangaroos, and New Brussels, Belgium, to film chimpanzees. They will also meet with experts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Harvard for swimming locomotion and Harvard and the University of Montana for flight locomotion. The three-part series is set to air in April 2001 for UK Open University students as well as prime time viewers.

For more information on this important research, contact the Equine Research Center at (909) 869-2156.

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