Robotic horse lifter aims to speed up recovery from injury

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The equine lift in use. It holds the potential to help horses recover more easily from injuries. 
The equine lift in use. It holds the potential to help horses recover more easily from injuries. © Christina Weese

Researchers and engineers in Saskatchewan have created a new robotic lifting device to help horses recovering from limb fractures and other traumatic injuries.

Hundreds of horses are fatally injured and euthanised every year after suffering racetrack injuries, a large majority of which are fractures. But even horses used for pleasure riding can break a leg.

After a horse undergoes surgery to fix a broken leg, it’s normally confined to a stall and given pain medication. But because of a horse’s heavy weight and its strong flight response, recovery is fraught with complications and secondary issues such as supporting-limb laminitis – as was the case with the famous racehorse, Barbaro.

The Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind fetlock in the Preakness Stakes in 2006. Surgeons successfully repaired his leg, but eight months later, Barbaro was euthanized after developing laminitis in his other feet.

The new fully computerised lift developed by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan is aiming to increase the odds of survival of horses with such injuries. It is designed to help rehabilitate horses suffering from injuries and other musculoskeletal problems by providing mobility, weight distribution and support.

“I think it will give a lot of horses a chance that before, didn’t have a chance,” said team leader Dr Julia Montgomery.

Veterinarians regularly use slings to help support injured horses, but current designs significantly limit the animals’ normal activity and support all of their weight on the thorax and abdomen. This leads to further problems because of compression on the lungs and development of pressure sores.

Montgomery said the new lift system allows clinicians to dynamically reduce and redistribute the weight the horse is carrying. This allows the animal to be mobile with its weight partially or fully supported.

“We can allow the horse to move around so we don’t have issues with muscle wasting,” Montgomery said, adding that this function will also allow for more controlled rehabilitation of horses.

Leg fractures are one of the most common injuries that will benefit from this new technology, but the lift can also be used with equine patients suffering from other musculoskeletal and neurological problems.

The robotic lift is designed to decrease pain for equine patients, shorten recovery time and reduce complications. 
The robotic lift is designed to decrease pain for equine patients, shorten recovery time and reduce complications. © Christina Weese

Montgomery and her team have been conducting initial trials with the lift on three healthy horses to see how they tolerate hanging for extended periods of time in the sling and prototype system. Next, they will use it with horses with limb fractures who would otherwise be euthanized.

These trials will help them find out how the lift affects horse behaviour and physiological parameters such as muscle enzymes and blood flow.

If all goes as planned, the team hopes the robotic lift system will decrease pain for equine patients, shorten recovery time and reduce complications. This will in turn help lower treatment costs and reduce emotional distress for both horse and owner.

“It really provides a novel and unique solution to a very frustrating problem that currently doesn’t have a solution,” Montgomery said.

The lift is the result of a collaboration between the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and Saskatoon’s RMD Engineering. Research team members include engineering experts, an equine biomechanics specialist and Montgomery’s husband James, a board-certified veterinary radiologist.

The idea for the equine lift originated from a similar lift system that RMD designed to help people with multiple sclerosis.

Dr Julia Montgomery also worked on the new “camera pill” innovation, which used an endoscopy capsule about the size and shape of a vitamin pill to have a look inside a horse.

The equine lift research team, from left, students Alison Williams and Louisa Belgrave, with Dr Julia Montgomery and Dr James Montgomery.
The equine lift research team, from left, students Alison Williams and Louisa Belgrave, with Dr Julia Montgomery and Dr James Montgomery. © Christina Weese

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