Researchers a step closer to an objective test for detecting horses with ataxia

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Dr Emil Olsen evaluates a horse.
Dr Emil Olsen evaluates a horse.

Ataxia in horses is a neurological problem resulting in an uncoordinated gait, but it isn’t always easy to tell it apart from other mobility issues.

Research has shown that veterinarians and horse owners can easily put mild cases down to lameness. Indeed, there can even be marked disagreement among veterinary surgeons about whether a horse is ataxic.

Now, researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London have developed a method of objective evaluation that can help tell the difference between horses with ataxia from those with lameness or mobility issues.

Ataxic horses have greater variation in the movement of their lower limbs than normal horses. Researchers found that blindfolding ataxic horses made the deficits more readily identifiable, suggesting that a compensatory mechanism exists that could be targeted for improved rehabilitation.

RVC researchers, in an international collaboration with Bern University in Switzerland, used motion-capture cameras to assess horses’ gaits down to an accuracy of 3mm, in parallel with assessments from a team of expert clinicians.

They found that variation of the vertical movement of the hoof and fetlock is markedly increased for horses with mild to moderate ataxia and further, that blindfolding the horses significantly increased the variation of their walking movements.

“This increased variation of the gait when the blindfold was applied in ataxic horses hints towards vision playing a role in helping stabilise the gait – something that has never been shown in animals,” explains Dr Emil Olsen, the primary researcher and a resident in Large Animal Internal Medicine and Neurology at Cornell’s Department of Clinical Sciences.

“By demonstrating that related parameters can also identify ataxia in horses, we hope now to refine these experiments to create a practical approach for assessment of horses with neurological conditions,” Olsen says.

Professor Richard Piercy, who leads the equine neurology service at the RVC, added: “We believe our study will improve diagnosis and assessment of these horses, which are otherwise so frustrating to deal with in practice.

“Further, we aim to use this system to evaluate surgical and medical treatments for ataxic horses in the future.”

Dr Olsen conducted his PhD at the RVC’s Structure and Motion Lab, where he worked on subjective assessment of equine ataxia. He will return there early next year for a clinical research fellowship, working on gait analysis for dogs and horses with neurologic diseases.

People who believe their horses may be ataxic should contact their vet.

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