Foaling alarms: Could we build our own for as little as $50?

Could a pouch, a cellphone and an app be all that is required for people to create their own foaling alarm?
Could a pouch, a cellphone and an app be all that is required for people to create their own foaling alarm?

I am told that app designers get sick of hearing: “I’ve got a great idea for an app!”

So, without further ado, I’m going to declare that I’ve got a great idea for an app! Or, to be more specific, a horse-related app.

I’m not an app builder and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to market one, but I suspect it may be possible for horse owners to assemble their very own foaling alarm.

So, I’m putting the idea out there in the hope that horse-owners and their app-building friends can help assess whether the idea is feasible, and if it can be successfully done.

I must stress that I’m in no position to judge whether this would prove reliable, but I am certainly of the opinion that the discussion is worth having.

If I am proved correct, the technology needed to build a foaling alarm may be sitting right under our noses. You won’t need a soldering iron. You won’t need to know a thing about electronics, and you won’t have to write a line of programming code for the software that runs it, provided someone comes up with a useable app, or identifies an existing one that will do the job.

Horse owners might be able to assemble their own foaling alarm using a cellphone at its core for as little as $NZ50. That’s around $US34, or £24.

I suspect it would be a relatively simple matter to use the features on even a modestly priced cellphone to monitor a mare through an app to let you know via a telephone call or text when the foal may be about to be born.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. Apps which are currently available are very close to what is needed, but need just a little more work, in my view.

More on that later.

Birthing perils

The foaling process in mares has been described in scientific literature as explosive. Once a broodmare lies down to have her foal, the birth can be over in as little as 10 minutes. More than 90 percent of births occur during the hours of darkness, meaning owners wanting to monitor births may face a string of long, sleepless nights.

The concern of owners is understandable. They have waited 11 months for the foal to be born, and may well have paid for an expensive stallion service and ongoing veterinary monitoring.

Some choose to place their broodmares in the care of studs who provide around-the-clock monitoring during the foaling season. Others choose to invest in foaling alarms. But the great majority take their chances, perhaps keeping their mare near their home in the hopes they will hear the foaling action and get to the birth in time.

The cellphone would fit snuggly within the pouch, but some waterproofing would be required.
The cellphone would fit snuggly within the pouch, but some waterproofing would be required.

Foaling alarms have been with us for a good many years, generally using wireless technology to alert owners when a broodmare is lying down. I don’t profess to be an expert in foaling alarms, but the models I have come across attach to a halter worn by the broodmare.

Slung beneath the halter is the battery-powered sender unit, which is activated when the mare lies down. To minimise false alarms, the alarm will normally have to sense that the mare is lying down for a predetermined time – as little as 30 seconds – before sending a wireless signal which sets off the alarm in the base station, normally sitting beside the owner’s bed.

Some mares in late pregnancy do a lot of lying down – day and night – so the owner may well end up marching in and out to check false alarms quite a few times before the Big Event.

Essentially, my idea is to replicate this technology through the use of a cellphone with an accelerometer and an app.

It won’t be perfect

First, a disclaimer. I doubt that the makers of any foaling alarms offer any guarantees that they will function as intended and alert you to a birth every time. So, while I hope that the end result of this project may be a workable substitute for a custom-made foaling alarm, I am offering no guarantees or warranties.

Professionally made foaling alarms can cost a considerable sum. They no doubt vary in their sophistication. So, one might ask, is there a risk in trying to do the job with a “home-made” alarm?

I take the view that the vast majority of foals born into this world arrive without the benefit of the mare wearing a foaling alarm. The way I figure it, if a cheap cellphone-based foaling alarm can be developed, it certainly won’t guarantee that an owner will get to a birth, but it should greatly increase their chances when compared to running spot checks through the night.

The pouch will need some means of attaching to a halter.
The pouch will need some means of attaching to a halter.

If you are greatly concerned about your need to be there, I suggest you either relocate the mare to a stud that offers 24-hour monitoring or invest in the most sophisticated foaling alarm you can find.

So, with the warning duly given, this is what I have ascertained so far.

First, this is what I consider is required:

  1. A cellphone, with a sim card and a basic phone plan (pre-pay will be fine).
  2. A little padding to protect the phone. Even bubble wrap would do.
  3. A sealable plastic bag for watertightness.
  4. A belt pouch which can hold the phone and be mounted on the horse’s halter.
  5. An app which I am hoping horse owners will eventually be able to buy online, based around those already developed for fall detection in people.

I managed to assemble these items for less than $NZ50. You might already have a small hand-me-down cellphone that will do the trick, which will save the bulk of this outlay. (I’m going to assume you already own a cellphone to receive any calls or text messages from your foaling alarm – and a halter.)

Let’s look at each of these elements in more detail.

1. The cellphone. We recently bought a $39 Huawei cellphone as a backup spare which I think would do the trick. Whatever cellphone you choose, it must have one essential feature: It must be fitted with an accelerometer. These are the little components that tell phones their current orientation. It is the accelerometer which leads to the pictures on your screen being rotated as you turn the phone. Almost certainly, such phones will have a touchscreen. The really cheap $15 cellphones with tiny screens are unlikely to have an accelerometer. You may only use your foaling cellphone for a week or two each year, so it would be sensible to opt for a network provider that allows you to run on prepay, or a monthly plan that you can park after a month. Before you buy a phone, check its specifications online to make sure it has an accelerometer. And I’m going to state the obvious here: This entire setup will work only if you have adequate cellphone reception.

2. The padding. This is really about two things: providing the phone with a little protection, and preventing it from rattling about inside the pouch attached to the halter. Bubble wrap or some old felt or soft material would be fine.

The cellphone-carrying pouch attached to a leather halter.
The cellphone-carrying pouch attached to a leather halter.

3. A sealable plastic bag. I suggest a plastic bag with a resuseable seal. This is simply to ensure that the phone doesn’t get damaged by water. If you are lucky enough to find a pouch that is waterproof, you won’t need the plastic bag.

4. A belt pouch or camera case with a belt loop. This could well prove to be the trickiest item to source. It needs to be big enough to hold the cellphone, and must have a belt-style stay which will allow it to attach firmly to the horse’s halter. They are usually marketed to hold small cameras, and some hardware stores sell pouches for people to carry their cellphone on their belts. Try big-box general retailers; $1 shops or their equivalents; photographic stores; and hardware stores. In the end, the pouch photographed here was bought from an electronics retailer for $10. You might find yourself paying up to $20 for the right pouch, I suspect. Alternatively, if you’re a whizz with a sewing machine, you could possibly put one together. The more watertight the material, the better.

5. The app. When I first thought about this project, I was unable to find a foaling alarm app. So, I wondered whether an app that fulfills the same essential function might have been developed for some other purpose. Indeed, it has. The kind of app needed is generally described as a fall detector. They were developed for elderly, frail, or disabled individuals. These apps monitor the accelerometer and when it believes the individual has suffered a fall, they telephone the nominated individual or individuals.

There are a range of apps that are said to perform this function, and the input of the wider horse community is needed in this project to assess what’s out there. Hopefully, people’s input will ultimately spark the development of an app that covers every desirable feature needed. I downloaded and tested this free app, which was pretty good but perhaps not quite there. I liked the sound of it because the user can program it to understand what motion is normal and what is not. This is important, because I imagine many of these fall-detection app builders would expect a person to carry their phone vertically in their breast pocket or the like. So, “normal status” would be vertical and “fall status” would be horizontal. This app I assessed as being perhaps 80 percent of what is required – not quite enough to recommend it for our purpose, however.

For us, the phone will be carried in a somewhat horizontal/tilted-forward position underneath the halter. Your pouch might see the phone mounted in line (length-wise) with the head or transversely (across it). So, this horizontal position will be “normal”, as will the all-important tilt forward when the horse is eating grass or drinking. However, the tilt that arises when the horse lies down will be “abnormal”, and is when we want the phone to call us.

It sounds a little complex, but I promise you it’s not. If you’re struggling with the idea, grab your cellphone and hold it in the position that you would mount it on your horse’s halter. This will be a “normal” position for everyone. Now tilt it way forward as if the horse is eating. This also needs to be programmed as a “normal” position. Now, tilt the phone either way, as if the horse is lying on one side or the other. These will be “abnormal” positions from which we expect the app to dial our phone.

Equally, if a pouch can be found that’s slim enough, I can’t see any issue in mounting the phone vertically on the side of a halter.

The pouch in position on a halter and being worn by a mare. All that is missing now is the right app!
The pouch in position on a halter and being worn by a mare. All that is missing now is the right app!

I would welcome anyone’s experimentation with apps which might perform this role. The first ones that need checking out are those for “fall detection”. Ideally, some horse owners might encourage a friend to build a specialist app for our precise purpose! One feature that I think would be useful would be for the cellphone to send a text once its battery charge drops below 30 percent.

So, before we look at what I think is required in terms of the app, let’s see what is already being done with features in existing fall detection apps designed for people. They can detect a fall using the phone’s accelerometer. Most will sound an audible alarm for a predetermined period of time – say 30 seconds – so if a person accidentally triggers it, they know to disable it before it dials out (this is not needed on a foaling alarm app). You are able to get the cellphone to alert several people, via either a phone call or text message. It can even send GPS coordinates, which might be handy on bigger stud farms.

So, here are what I would consider to be the requirements of a great foaling-alarm app:

  • It needs to be simple to use.
  • It needs to be Android, because the phones are more affordable.
  • It would be great if the amount of time before it sent out an alert was adjustable from, say, 15 seconds to maybe a minute.
  • It either needs to be programmable (in that you teach it what positions are normal and which are not) or it needs to be pre-set, which may require it to be mounted in a certain way on the horse’s head.
  • It needs the ability to contact two or more people.
  • It needs to be able to send text alerts and dial phone numbers. (One fall-detection app opens the phone line, so the receiver can hear what is going on. This could prove very useful).
  • It needs to reset automatically. This would save the user having to reset it in the dark in the paddock after checking on their mare.
  • It needs to send an alert when the battery is below a certain level.
  • It would be nice to have the option of sending the GPS coordinates.

That is my “vision”. Perhaps there are some pitfalls or obstacles I have not recognised, so I would welcome any feedback. Perhaps, with everybody’s help, we might end up with an app combined with a particular model of cellphone that is found to work especially well.

Some observations:

  • I have concentrated on the Android operating system. I have done so because an Android phone with an accelerometer is far cheaper than an iPhone. That’s not to say that you couldn’t source a cheaper second-hand iPhone and use an iOS app, but most people won’t be going out to buy an iPhone to power their foaling alarm, even though the accelerometers in them seem very good.
  • I’m no expert on cellphones or accelerometers, but I imagine it will be a case of “you get what you pay for”. It may be that better quality phones are needed to obtain better quality accelerometers. That has yet to be established.
  • You will need to get a good handle on the battery life of whatever phone is used. Needless to say, it won’t work if the battery runs flat.
  • The entire operation relies on reliable cellphone coverage.
  • The phone needs to fit snuggly within the pouch, and the pouch needs to be a snug fit on the halter. I believe a firmer halter, perhaps leather, will work best, because it must be set up in such a way that the phone can’t be pulled by gravity into the “normal” horizontal position when the horse lies down. In other words, when the horse lies on its side, the cellphone has to lie on its side, too. The pouch will be prone to getting wet, especially in poor weather and when the horse is eating damp grass. Waterproofing must be organised.
  • I read a study about one fall-detecting app which has yet to be released to the public. It apparently performed fine in a scientific study. The researchers noted that the algorithms for what constitutes a fall and what doesn’t can be adjusted to suit circumstances. This ultimately means that an advanced app could be programmed with quite complex algorithms to detect a fall and eliminate false alarms.

What do you think? Can we do this?

One thought on “Foaling alarms: Could we build our own for as little as $50?

  • November 16, 2016 at 10:34 am

    I love this idea! Any updates on it??


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