Horse sense holds the key for equine breeding expert

24th November, 2019
Horse sense holds the key for equine breeding expert
Barbara Murphy, founder of Equilume

Equilume founder Barbara Murphy has learned the hard way that selling a new technology in a traditional market can be particularly challenging.

A lecturer in equine science at UCD, Murphy established the business in Naas, Co Kildare in 2012, having developed light-based technology to help breeders in the equine sector.

“There has been a big educational aspect to what we do. Because we’re selling to a very traditional industry, a lot of knowledge has been transferred down through generations and there is a bit of resistance to new technology,” Murphy said.

“You have to influence clients’ key stakeholders. For us, those stakeholders have been vets, and for vets to be convinced, the work we were doing needed to be published. The science behind it needed to be really solid.”

Equilume's original product was a light mask designed to help breeders get mares in-foal during the annual industry breeding season, which runs from mid-February to early July.

“One of the economic pressures on horse breeders is this need to have foals born as soon after January 1 as possible,” Murphy said.

“January 1 is the official birth date for all thoroughbred horses in the northern hemisphere, and in the southern hemisphere, it’s August 1. In order to have horses competing at the same age, the industry needed to decide on an arbitrary birth date, but it goes against nature.”

In nature, foals are born in late June or July, with the mare’s reproductive cycle kick-started in the spring by longer daylight hours. To simulate the same effect in the thoroughbred industry, breeders bring mares into the stable in November and leave overhead lights on until late at night.

“This gives the mare the idea that it’s a long spring day and switches on their reproductive system. But mares are naturally more fertile if they’re outside in the field. They're less stressed when they’re with their buddies and not on their own,” Murphy said.

Her light mask is fitted with a low-intensity blue light and can be worn outdoors by the mare, offering breeders an alternative means to kickstart the reproductive cycle.

“There’s a high proportion of blue light in natural daylight and receptors in our eyes have evolved to be sensitive to it,” Murphy said. “Breeders in the northern hemisphere are starting to put the light masks on their mares right now.

"Come the start of the breeding season in February, their mares will be cycling without the need to keep them in stables and the high electricity bills that go with that.”

Equilume secured €550,000 in seed funding five years ago and exports to Britain, France, the US and Australia. Its clients include Coolmore Stud in Co Tipperary and Shadwell Stud in Britain.

“Growing sales is my priority now, and I’ve learned that you can’t spread yourself too thin on that front," Murphy said.

“When you have less experience, you might think: ‘There’s a huge horse market in Brazil', for example, but it’s very hard to get product to South America and it’s very hard to service that market. It’s sometimes better to concentrate on growing the markets in which you already have a foothold before going after new ones.”

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