Townsend, who spent most of his 42-year career as a veterinary clinician, educator and researcher at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), is world renowned for his research work in developing equine vaccines and improving their efficacy.
In addition to his roles at the WCVM, Townsend worked as a research scientist and program manager at the USask Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) for over a decade.
Townsend’s many contributions to the horse industry will be celebrated at the SHF’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony and banquet on March 17 in Saskatoon, Sask. Morton (Mort) Seaman, a draft horse breeder and owner from Choiceland, Sask., will also be recognized at the event.
In Western Canada’s closely-knit horse community, Townsend is well known for his efforts to raise the profile — along with millions of dollars in donations — for the WCVM’s Equine Health Research Fund. In recognition of his work, the charitable organization was rechristened the Townsend Equine Health Research Fund (TEHRF) after his retirement in 2015.
A seat in the SHF Hall of Fame is an honour that Townsend finds “daunting” but one that he acknowledges is very meaningful for the veterinary profession and the research community. Townsend is the first equine practitioner, academic and scientist to join other provincial inductees in the ceremonial hall that was established in 2019.
“It does make me very happy to see that this close relationship between horse owners and their veterinarians is being recognized through this award — I think that's great,” says Townsend.
“I'm delighted to be recognized, but everybody knows that I'm just one of a very long line of veterinarians who have dedicated their time and energy to try and care for horses and to try and learn how to do it better.”
Building a western Canadian focus on horse health
Originally from Calgary, Alta., Townsend first came to USask in 1969 to study veterinary medicine — a career that he initially chose because he liked the idea of helping people and their animals. After graduating from the WCVM in 1973, he spent several years practising in New Zealand and Australia before returning to Saskatoon in 1977.
He came back at the invitation of Dr. Ole Nielsen, then dean of the WCVM, who asked Townsend to help bolster the college’s efforts in equine research and specialized training for veterinarians. With help from Townsend’s family and friends, he and Nielsen connected to key people in Western Canada’s horse industry and raised enough seed money to help establish the Equine Health Research Fund (EHRF) — a vehicle to support equine research and specialized training for veterinarians in Western Canada.
“One thing led to another and fairly quickly, I was invited back from Australia to become the [fund’s] first equine research fellow,” recalls Townsend, who completed his Master of Science degree at the WCVM under the supervision of equine surgical specialist Dr. Peter Fretz.
While most of Townsend’s body of research focuses on the epidemiology of infectious disease, his graduate project targeted equine back pain — an elusive topic in humans much less in horses. His mentor was Dr. W.H. Kirkaldy-Willis, a human orthopedic surgeon at Saskatoon’s University Hospital, whose advice included studying dozens of boiled-down vertebrae extracted from equine cadavers.
Based on their observations, Townsend worked with Fretz and PhD student Dr. Doug Leach to develop a method of measuring movement in the equine spine. Their painstaking work, which has never been repeated, yielded three papers in peer-reviewed research journals and is still cited in current studies.
In 1979, Townsend joined the WCVM faculty — a role that allowed him to continue doing horse health-focused research while teaching equine medicine to new generations of veterinary students, interns, residents and graduate students.
“As a faculty member, you're expected to have a viable research program and the horse was a natural fit for me. I just carried on working with equine health care and trying to raise the profile of the fund while carrying out my own research projects or projects in collaboration with my colleagues,” he says.
It was an exciting time for equine research and training in Western Canada: there was no shortage of horse health problems that needed further investigation, plus there was a ready supply of young veterinary graduates who were keen to do the research work and gain further training in equine health.
Donations to the college’s equine fund flowed in from provincial horse racing commissions, the equine ranching industry and many other equestrian groups and individual horse owners who were committed to supporting research projects that would help to address a variety of puzzling health issues affecting horses in the region.
“I think the real contribution of the Equine Health Research Fund was that it just brought a clear, organized focus to the horse and horse health. Prior to that [its creation], if you go back and look at the scientific literature, there were virtually no equine-focused publications coming out of the WCVM and very few out of the rest of Canada,” says Townsend.
“It just led to so many students, veterinarians and faculty getting involved in horse health. And suddenly, we were producing experts who were going back out into the field in Western Canada and elsewhere and becoming influential as equine practitioners, professors and research scientists.”
Seeking better vaccines
In the mid-1980s, Townsend spent a sabbatical year in England. While he was based at Cambridge University, most of his time was spent in Newmarket where he worked with equine scientists at the Animal Health Trust to investigate the bacterial population in racehorses with respiratory disease.
It was a pivotal experience that helped Townsend develop new approaches for studying equine respiratory illnesses — particularly for modelling equine influenza. This highly contagious respiratory illness, which easily spreads among congregated horses at horse shows or racetracks, is rarely fatal but can lead to long-term health issues in some animals. It also causes significant economic losses for the industry.
One of the most impressive studies involved 600 thoroughbred racehorses that were stabled at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Sask. Townsend and his graduate student, Dr. Paul Morley, were conducting an epidemiologic study to learn more about how respiratory diseases spread among horse herds.
“There were several equine influenza vaccines around, but there was one that was very prominent at the time. We devised a randomized, controlled, blinded field trial of the vaccine, and amazingly, more than 90 per cent of the horse owners and trainers agreed to participate,” says Townsend.
All of the horses were randomly assigned to two groups: one group received the actual vaccine while the other group received a placebo.
“Just by sheer luck, three weeks after completion of the vaccination program when the effect of the vaccine should have been at its height, we had an outbreak of influenza that went through that entire population of horses. And that’s when we discovered that the rate of disease was no different between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated horses,” says Townsend.
“We produced irrefutable evidence that the vaccine didn’t work.”
That convincing study led to more fascinating work in investigating the efficacy of existing vaccines and helping to test more effective vaccines for equine influenza and other infectious diseases. Townsend and his collaborators were also the first group to carry out randomized, controlled influenza vaccine challenges in horses in North America.
Based on their track record, the researchers also went on to work with Heska Corporation, a Colorado-based pharmaceutical company that developed a new intranasal vaccine for equine influenza (Flu Avert I.N.).
“That vaccine is still in use. We did the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) efficacy studies for that vaccine — and that was the first published evidence for a North American influenza vaccine efficacy that I’m aware of,” says Townsend.
“Another terrific opportunity came with Dr. Tasha Epp’s case-control study that provided the first scientific field evidence of the efficacy of the West Nile virus vaccine for horses. So, it was all pretty exciting.”
Always at the centre of all this activity was Townsend, someone who has never lost his enthusiasm for problem solving, connecting with people or talking about horse health.
Looking back on his career, he says he enjoyed all of it — whether it was working with interesting and dedicated people, making a diagnosis for a patient and devising a treatment plan, coming up with a new research project or finding a new way to solve a problem.
“It’s all very stimulating, very interesting and very rewarding,” says Townsend. “It’s always a great challenge — there’s so much we don't know and so much to do. It’s still a big challenge.”
Visit the Saskatchewan Horse Federation website for more information.