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Sensors may predict when horses go lame

Copenhagen scientists testing technology that takes a new look at horses' locomotion

When a horse can’t walk, trot, canter or gallop with a regular motion on all four hooves, it is lame – a condition that can have many underlying causes.

Now, a sensor developed by scientists from the University of Copenhagen may soon be able to help monitor the first subtle symptoms, and find out when a valuable racehorse or showjumper needs treatment.

»An objective measure is needed because it’s not always obvious visually, and even trained observers of horses can disagree when a horse is going lame,« explains Maj Halling Thomsen of the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Checks for left-right assymetry

The technology that studies the motion of horses is the latest in a long line that goes back to photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century who used a high-speed camera to show that a galloping horse at times has all four hooves off the ground. Check out an animated version of it here.

She and her colleagues use miniature accelerometers in three dimensions. The accelerometers were originally developed for use in cellphones, where they are used to orient information displayed on the screen.

»Just like humans, the gait of a horse changes when it starts to hurt. Unlike humans though, a horse’s four legs make it hard to detect with the human eye. But when horses are about to go lame they starts to move asymmetrically left-right as they trot. An accelerometer, mounted on the animal’s back should be able to detect this,« Maj Halling Thomsen explains to the University Post.

None have been successful so far

She and her team have studied healthy horses, and now plan to conduct further tests on lame horses to see if deviations from the »symmetry indices« they have drawn up can help predict the onset of lameness.

Sensoring technology is in demand from race and show jump trainers and racers, with some studies for example trying to optimise the link between stride length and speed.

»But there where I see the most value for this sensor is as a support for practicing vets in diagnosing lameness,« says Maj Halling Thomsen.

They will have their work cut out, says equine surgeon Henry Tremaine of the University of Bristol in the UK to the New Scientist, where Maj Thomsen Halling is also interviewed.

Many biomechanical systems have been proposed for lameness detection, he says, »but none has been translated into practical aids«.

miy@adm.ku.dk

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