University College Dublin (UCD) is on a roll in the field of equine research, with the development of a new therapeutic light mask that adjusts the reproductive cycle of thoroughbred mares.
Dr Barbara Murphy, creator of the Equilume light mask, was last week awarded the Enterprise Ireland 'One to Watch' award.
The move follows the awarding of €1.8m in Science Foundation funding for UCD researchers, led by Dr Emmeline Hill, to catalogue the genes that contribute to elite physiological performance in thoroughbred racers.
Among the other projects underway at UCD are a study on wormer resistance in Irish horses, led by Dr Theo de Waal and a study of the Irish sport horse industry, which was sent to all breeders who register sport horses with the Irish Horse Board.
Dr Murphy's Equilume light mask, which hit the headlines all over the world last week, is aimed at helping thoroughbred breeders to have foals born closer to the universal birthday of January 1 shared by all thoroughbred foals.
The January 1 birthday causes problems for all thoroughbred breeders because it puts later born foals at a disadvantage to earlier born foals.
Essentially, this means that even if a foal was born on August 1, it is called a yearling just five months later, but it is too immature for sale.
It also means that as the horse grows up, it will be expected to race against horses more physically mature than it.
Thoroughbred mares have traditionally been kept under artificial lights for up to 12 weeks every year from December 1.
This light fools their reproductive systems into thinking that it is summer time.
However, it also means the mares must be kept indoors and costs in terms of extra labour, bedding and power are higher.
The newly developed mask offers breeders the opportunity to keep their mares at grass, while still administering the necessary light to fool the mare's reproductive system.
The face mask provides timed, low-level light to a single eye, limiting production of the hormone melatonin that is usually produced in darkness and inhibits a mare's reproductive activity during winter months
As well as having the advantage of allowing mares to be kept in a more natural environment at grass, the mask has the potential to save breeders around €1,400 per mare every season in labour, bedding and artificial light.
But the Equilume mask is not just limited to advancing the breeding season; it could also be used to shorten the length of pregnancy in mares that have a long gestation period, treating 'horse jet-lag' in globe-trotting equines and helping competition horses to shed their winter coats earlier in time for the start of the show circuit.
The mask can shorten the length of pregnancy by up to 10 days, while it also has the potential to increase the birthweight of foals born early in the year by around 10lbs.
In fact, Enterprise Ireland and Dr Murphy believe that the mask could have a potential global market of more than €60m.