There is a member of the Purina research team that epitomizes the term “gym rat.” His job includes exercising regularly and watching what he eats. In fact, his entire diet is carefully researched and monitored. This all might sound strange for a research professional, but there’s something a little different about this 20-year Purina veteran—his name is Tractor and he happens to be a horse.
“He actually got his name because he’s scared of tractors,” laughs Mary Beth Gordon, Ph.D., director of research for the Equine Unit at Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s premier animal nutrition research facility.
Affectionately called “the farm,” the Purina Animal Nutrition Center sits in Gray Summit, Missouri, just west of St. Louis. It’s hard to describe how picturesque of a place this 1,200 acre working farm is. Rolling green hills rise from the morning mist. Horses dot the pastures surrounded by white board fences, their dappled coats shining in the sun. The farm is where our animal nutrition (think animal feed) research happens. Here, 3,000 animals from a variety of species are cared for by 100 people. More than 24,000 animal nutrition research studies have been conducted onsite. What we learn through these trials helps us help animals reach their full potential.
Tractor has always called this place home. He was born here, grew up here and will live out his retirement here. Being a part of this working team—and being a part of the Purina family—is all he’s ever known.
At 20 years old, Tractor is in the senior age bracket for a horse, but don’t tell him that. Although he’s currently enjoying semi-retirement, he’s still spry, a bit of a ham and one of the farm favorites for the horse research team.
Led by Mary Beth, the team is figuring out how to feed horses better. What people might not know is that most new products take 3-5 years of work. First, the team runs trials at the farm. Those that are successful in this controlled environment are then taken to field trials. This is when we ask industry representatives to try the product for a set period of time and provide feedback on real-world performance before we take it to the market.
"We're on the cutting edge," says Mary Beth. "We are using new technology to research horses in ways that no one else has. And with hundreds of thousands of horses are eating Purina feed every day, where else can I get that kind of influence on the animal I care about?"
Mike Jerina manages operations at the Equine Unit—this could be anything from operationalizing research studies to hosting thousands of visitors each year. With 80 horses to care for 24/7, it’s a big job.
"The research team drafts a protocol that we need a certain number of horses and the test parameters," says Mike. "Then, it's my job to figure out how we run the test, what horses to use, how to get the feed onsite, gathering the data and then shipping the data back to the team for analysis."
Mike says he started when Tractor was a year old. They’ve both grown their careers at Purina, helping millions of horses along the way. And although Tractor spends most of his time relaxing in the pasture nowadays, he still makes appearances to show visitors his favorite activity—running on the treadmill. The data points (heart rate and other vitals) gathered from Tractor over the years has helped the team develop 12 products that are currently on the market.
There is another reason Tractor is great for show-and-tells. Just take a look and you’ll see no words are needed, because when there's greatness on the inside, it shows on the outside.