Hippotherapy for the horseless: Meet Stewie the robotic horse

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A robotic horse named Stewie could be at the forefront of a revolution to bring equine-assisted therapy to those without access to the real thing.

Stewie has been created by students at Rice University in Houston, Texas, adding sophistication to an earlier robotic horse project. Stewie is more comfortable and they believe more controllable for riders with neurological or movement disorders or problems with balance who could gain physical and mental benefits.

Senior mechanical engineering majors Kelsi Wicker, Sebastian Jia, Matthew O’Gorman, James Phillips, Wesley Yee and Jijie Zhou took on the challenge as their capstone project, required of most Rice engineering students.

The Rice University hippotherapy horse is based on a robotic concept invented in the 1950s called the Stewart platform, which in this case uses six computer-controlled motors attached to aluminum legs that give the saddle’s movement six degrees of freedom. 
The Rice University hippotherapy horse is based on a robotic concept invented in the 1950s called the Stewart platform, which in this case uses six computer-controlled motors attached to aluminum legs that give the horse’s movement six degrees of freedom. © Fitlow/Rice University

Hippotherapy is thought to help patients with coordination, balance and posture through rhythmic, three-dimensional movement, and there are ranches around the country that cater to patients, Wicker said. “Often, it’s simply an aid to put a patient in a relaxed state to do other therapies,” she said.

Stewie is based on a robotic concept invented in the 1950s called the Stewart platform, which in this case uses six computer-controlled motors attached to aluminum legs that give the saddle’s movement six degrees of freedom – latitude, longitude, vertical, pitch, roll and yaw.

“It’s similar to what you would see on flight simulators at NASA,” Yee said.

The precision motors can be manipulated by the computer in any combination at any time. That allowed the team to fine-tune the saddle’s movements to match those of actual horses. Members worked with the Panther Creek Inspiration Ranch, a nonprofit facility in Spring, Texas, that offers equine-assisted therapy to those who need it.

An attendee at Rice University’s George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase takes a ride on Stewie, a student-designed mechanical hippotherapy horse designed to make equine-assisted therapy available to patients without access to a real horse. 
An attendee at Rice University’s George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase takes a ride on Stewie, a student-designed mechanical hippotherapy horse designed to make equine-assisted therapy available to patients without access to a real horse. © Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

“When we started, we were rigging this whole complicated accelerometer thing,” Wicker said. “Then a professor came by and said, ‘Hey, you have an accelerometer on your phone, right?’”

Ultimately, the students used a $1 app that collected the necessary data. “We taped the phone to the back of a saddle on a horse, and they took the horse around,” she said. “We were able to take all of the data at the same time.”

They brought that data back to Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where they incorporated it into their code and loaded it into a small control panel patients and their therapists could use to select a horse and control the length of a session.

Appropriately, each programmed “horse” is named for the real model at the ranch; Sayed was loaded in first, with two more to follow. “Because the app was on my phone, I had to go out to the horse ranch every time. It was really hard for me to go out and pet all the horses,” Wicker said, smiling.

Stewie is designed to support up to a 250-pound rider, O’Gorman said. “We have a factor of safety of 2,” he said. “It could theoretically hold up to 500 pounds, but we want to be sure it doesn’t break later on.” They’ve designed an additional saddle pad to help accommodate riders with different physiques.

The team members are aware that student projects often end when they graduate, so they’re taking steps now to ensure their work will continue. For starters, all their schematics and code are open-source and will be online and free to anyone who wants to replicate or improve upon their design.

Second, the team has already been selected to compete at the World Congress of Biomechanics in Dublin this July. “The National Science Foundation has already given us $3000 for being accepted as a finalist in their undergraduate design competition, and we’re in the middle of fundraising to pack up the whole thing and ship it over there,” Yee said. “We hope we can all go as well.”

The team is advised by Marcia O’Malley, a Rice professor of mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering and computer science; Matthew Elliott, a lecturer in mechanical engineering; and Gary Woods, a professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering, and sponsored by Carolyn and Harrell Huff.

Rice University students presented their version of a mechanical horse for hippotherapy at the George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase, where they won an Excellence in Capstone Engineering Design Award. From left: Jijie Zhou, Kelsi Wicker, James Phillips, Matthew O’Gorman, Wesley Yee and Sebastian Jia. 
Rice University students presented their version of a mechanical horse for hippotherapy at the George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase, where they won an Excellence in Capstone Engineering Design Award. From left: Jijie Zhou, Kelsi Wicker, James Phillips, Matthew O’Gorman, Wesley Yee and Sebastian Jia. © Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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