(1 minute read)
As the race that stops a nation once again stops the the nation you may well wonder what horses have to do with snakes. If you're steeped in mythology you may well connect good old St George rescuing a princess from a dragon - which in Arthurian type legend was the largest of serpents. But that's probably a leap too far. There are some horses in the Australian racing scene named after snakes, though none are Melbourne Cup contenders. There was a racehorse called Viper whose mother was named Serpent but that thing, with 0 wins from 15 starts was hardly a shoe-in for the Melbourne Cup and is likely carting school kids around the Gold Coast hinterland somewhere. A Red Belly Black has 1 win from 11 starts while Little Tiger Snake has 1 win from 14 starts. Despite his awesome name King Cobra has not fared any better with no wins at all and only 3 starts. There's even a Diamond Python whose dad was Golden Snake but you would have to imagine with a name like that it would be up the back of the pack. Those Diamonds move pretty slowly. It has no wins on the track either.
Where horses and snakes win every single time are in the 'saving human lives' stakes. Those stakes are pretty high, especially for the more than 20,000 Australian lives that have been saved since 1951. Apparently there are about 3,000 snake bites per year in Australia, resulting in about 500 hospital admissions with over half requiring anti-venom treatment.
Horses play a crucial role in the production of the anti-venom which has saved all those lives. Every snake in Australia, including those deadly sea snakes, along with a handful of spiders such as the funnel web, and that nasty stone fish have an anti-venom produced by CSL in Victoria which can negate the effects of a toxic injection. (Sheep and goats are used too but there are no jockeys on sheep today so we wont be talking about them!)
How does it work?
Venom is injected into horses in small doses. The horse reacts by producing a small amount of antibodies. The amount of venom is gradually increased until the horse is producing large amounts of antibodies which are then harvested, purified and used as the basis of an anti-venom. The picture here shows blood samples from horses inoculated with particular snake venom.
Photo: University of Melbourne
There is a rather excellent podcast on ABC conversations which tells the story of how taipan antivenom was developed. There are some real heroes in that story.
If you are bitten by a snake you need to give yourself every fighting chance to be given some of that antivenom. A snake bite kit is an excellent place to start and you can find one right here.