• John McGary, Woodford Sun News Editor

KER prepares for WEG

EILEEN PHETHEAN, the chief operating officer of Kentucky Equine Research, is pretty busy these days preparing for the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C. However, she still finds time here and there to hang out with Marvin and the other research horses at their Delaney Ferry location. (Photo by John McGary)

About seven miles from downtown Versailles, Eileen Phethean, Kentucky Equine Research’s chief operating officer, is preparing for next month’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) and seeing a good bit of the world while doing it.

Kentucky Equine Research (KER) is the official equine nutritionist of the FEI World Equestrian Games Tryon 2018 and its feed, hay and supplement supplier. (Tryon is the host city in North Carolina.) KER was founded by Joe Pagan, PhD, who opened the Delaney Ferry Road operation in 1988.

Phethean and company are responsible for procuring and supplying required feeds, forages, grains, along with nutritional supplements such as electrolytes.

Before an interview with the Sun the previous week, Eileen Phethean had just returned from England, where she examined more than 40 tons of feeds from around Europe before shipping them to the U.S.

Asked if American feeds weren’t good enough, she smiled.

“If you went to China, would your tummy be happy, totally changing a diet? You want to keep these athletes on feeds they’re accustomed to…” she said.

The athletes in question weigh upwards of a half-ton and are susceptible to colic – abdominal or digestive problems, Phethean said.

“Anytime they get a bellyache, it’s really serious, because they can’t throw up, and it can take up to two days for whatever it is to work its way out of their system. And for these athletes, anytime you change their nutrition, or change the type of feed they’re getting, that’s a risk of colic,” she said, then added, “They don’t burp, either.”

Phethean is overseeing the shipment of 135 different feeds from Europe and nearly four dozen more from the U.S., some of which are European brands. Most of the horses from the U.S. will be shipped with their own feed, she said.

Phethean said 750 horses will take part in eight different disciplines at this year’s WEG, with the first arriving Sept. 2, nine days before opening ceremonies.

The responsibilities of testing, organizing and shipping so many different products isn’t Phethean or KER’s first rodeo. The company has performed similar functions at previous Olympics, as well as at the 2010 WEG at the Kentucky Horse Park.

A barn next to the office at KER houses several horses and equipment used to measure how the company’s products are working. There’s a high-speed treadmill and, in front of it, a face mask leading to an machine that measures oxygen use and how many calories are being burned.

Phethean says about two dozen of KER’s 35 worldwide employees work at the Delaney Ferry Road facility.

She described KER’s mission as a “research consultation and product development company focusing on equine nutrition and exercise physiology.”

“What that really means is we research and we stay up to date on the research that is done elsewhere around the world,” she explained, “and one of the things we do is help the horse feed industry apply that research to their current products and to develop new products to help maintain and develop healthier, more athletic horses.”

It’s also a labor of love for the Florida native and 16-year-employee of KER who said she “grew up on a horse.”

“I think there was just no choice. They were part of the family… I grew up where the horses came first. When nobody else in the world understands you, you can go and talk to your horse. You could go for a ride and escape the rest of the world. And you can do stuff on horses that you can’t do on your own. I can’t go out and jump four feet on my own, go gallop five miles. I run a quarter of a mile and I’m done. But I can go for two or three hours on a horse.”

These days, Phethean is spending less time on horses and more time making sure the ones arriving in America in a couple of weeks eat what their owners want them to eat. She has to ensure that their diet is not only nutritious, but doesn’t contain banned substances – like morphine, which can show up in a horse’s blood if it consumes too many poppies, which are prevalent in parts of Europe.

“ …If we’re providing the feed, we need to make sure we’re not providing products that could, in the end, result in one of these competitors having a positive drug test… through no fault of their own,” she said.

KER makes some of the supplements and other products that will be used at WEG, but Phethean said the company isn’t being paid by WEG and will primarily benefit in other ways.

“I think in this business, we probably rely on word of mouth more than any other business. KER, (we) are the nutrition people, so (we get) to work with national federations and people at the top of their game, so that when they run into somebody who has a nutrition question, they feel comfortable saying, ‘Oh, if it’s about horse nutrition, you need to call these folks. They’re the experts.’ That’s what we want to be,” Phethean said.

Some things haven’t changed, however. Horses still love apples and carrots – especially carrots, of which the 250 horses at the 2016 Rio Olympics ate 10 tons. If the pace of carrot-eating remains the same for WEG’s 750 horses, they’ll consume 30 tons of the orange vegetable.

“You can run out of the feed they want or the hay they want, but if you run out of carrots, they get really upset. They will go through four to five pounds of carrots per horse per day,” she said.

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