The Agricultural Research and Extension Centers are a network of 11 research centers located throughout the state that emphasize the close working relationship between the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Inside the ARECs” highlights the work and accomplishments of these 11 centers and will appear in every Insights.
An equine enthusiast and owner and breeder of racehorses, American philanthropist Paul Mellon established the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension (MARE) Center in 1949 through a generous donation of land and facilities.
The center is located on a farm that covers 420 acres in the heart of Northern Virginia’s hunt country, and is home to Virginia Tech’s world-renowned sporthorse breeding program.
When Mellon died in 1999, he left an endowment to the center to fund research, teaching, and outreach activities focusing on horses. Due to Mellon’s support, for more than a decade, the MARE Center has been instrumental in advancing the knowledge related to the care and well-being of horses. Many of today’s common practices regarding equine nutrition, growth and development, pasture management, and exercise physiology were developed as a result of research conducted at the center. Today the center continues the tradition of research in pasture-based nutrition and has expanded efforts to include the additional disciplines of genetics, immunology, reproduction, and behavior.
Carrying Mellon’s vision forward, Virginia Tech launched a unique learning program for graduate and undergraduate students in 2010 that has become the hallmark of the center. The Equine Studies Program in Middleburg allows students to contribute to all aspects of a large-scale research facility, outreach center, and commercial equine enterprise while simultaneously engaging in a full semester of coursework that includes practical, hands-on training.
The immersive learning program is directed by Rebecca Splan, associate professor of equine science, in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. Splan taught on the Blacksburg campus for nearly a decade before initiating the innovative learning program at the center.
“Our novel experiential learning efforts on the main campus had become quite popular, so it was a natural next step to expand the programs at such a fantastic facility in the heart of Virginia horse country,” said Splan. “We invite students from across the country, as well as internationally, to join Virginia Tech students in a program that combines a strong foundation in equine science and research with mentorship in applied animal management.”
In addition to oversight of the undergraduate program, Splan also mentors graduate students, directs the center’s breeding progam, and leads an active research program at the MARE Center. Her discovery efforts focus on equine obesity and insulin resistance, conditions which mirror similar states in humans, and which are associated with Equine Metabolic Syndrome and laminitis, debilitating and costly diseases which afflict many horses nationwide. She also investigates the effects of maternal diet on fetal development and subsequent offspring health and performance.
Robert Jacobs, a Ph.D. student in animal and poultry sciences from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spent part of his time at Virginia Tech at the MARE Center. His work relates to equine reproduction and various aspects related to the physiological interactions that occur during pregnancy between a mare and her unborn foal.
His activities on a daily basis reflect the wide range of experiences students are exposed to at the center.
“A typical day for me at the MARE Center would be based on what is happening with my research,” said Jacobs. “I would normally check on my research animals and I may perform some assays in the on-site lab, in addition to taking classes through Adobe Connect. I also have the opportunity to mentor undergraduate interns at the center. I also help the faculty, staff and undergraduate student with research trials or other center activities.”
Faculty at the MARE Center have teamed up with Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as faculty from universities and colleges across the country to design and assess new teaching and learning strategies for equine science education and to research topics important to the horse industry. These partnerships help Virginia Tech prepare the next generation of scientists and industry leaders, and position the MARE Center as a premier institution in equine science.