Project offers unique support to horses

Louisa Belgrave spent eight months assisting Dr. Julia Montgomery with her equine lift system project. Photo by Caitlin Taylor.

In August 2015, I left the comfort of my English village and headed out to Canada to join a unique research team at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).

The team’s goal is to develop a novel robotic lift system. This system will help rehabilitate horses suffering from acute injuries and other musculoskeletal or neurological problems by providing mobility, weight distribution and support.

As a horse owner myself, this research project really called to me. Any owner’s worst nightmare is the diagnosis of a limb fracture from our veterinarian. In many cases this diagnosis is a death sentence. Or it’s the beginning of a long and stressful road to recovery for both horse and owner.

This is especially true for those horses that can not cope with weeks of restricted box (stall) rest or horses off the track that have sustained stress fractures and need a safe and cost-effective rehabilitation program.

This is about to change.

The U of S researchers are working with RMD Engineering, a local Saskatoon engineering and manufacturing company, to design and build the lift system. The principal researcher for the project is Dr. Julia Montgomery, a large animal internal medicine specialist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). She is also collaborating with researchers from the U of S College of Engineering and Dr. James Montgomery, a board-certified veterinary radiologist.

The collaboration between veterinary professionals and engineers is a relatively new one, but it seems to have been a long time coming. RMD Engineering owner Jim Boire says his company is built around the desire to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.

“We’re driven by helping people fix problems,” says Boire. “That’s what we like doing and that’s really what our company does.”

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

“When we meet people like James and Julia [Montgomery] that we get to work with, it just makes us smarter. We really push hard to make it a team, we run things as projects and everybody has their role,” says Boire.

After a horse undergoes surgery to fix a leg fracture, it’s normally confined to a stable and given medication to alleviate the pain. However, due to a horse’s heavy weight and its strong flight response, recovery from musculoskeletal problems is fraught with complications and secondary issues such as supporting-limb laminitis and muscle wastage.

An ethical consideration must also be applied to these situations; when surgery, recovery and rehabilitation can be so stressful for these horses, and are often unsuccessful, is it ethical to continue with this course of treatment? Or is it kinder to euthanize the animal upon initial injury?


Belgrave holds up a sling prototype as part of the robotic lift system. Photo by Caitlin Taylor.

It’s an extremely difficult decision for veterinarians and horse owners to make. But once the sling and lift system is certified, clinical teams will have a very effective tool available to support their injured patients’ recovery.

Veterinarians are already using slings to help support injured horses, but the design of these slings significantly limits an animal’s normal activity and pools all of a horse’s weight on its thorax and abdomen. This leads to respiratory complications caused by pressure on the lungs and trachea (windpipe) and can lead to the development of pressure sores.

The biggest limitation that Montgomery and her collaborators have faced is the design of the sling that is currently available; the design of this sling is not suitable for long-term recovery. Part of my personal input in this project has been the design and development of a new sling system, which will alleviate the negative implications of current sling models.

Our main goal is to develop a sling that resembles a horse’s “second skin.” It needs to be comfortable to wear long term and easy to put on and take off a horse, which is not the case with the current sling. Other features of the new design include breathable fabric that will prevent sweating and pressure sores, and quick release attachments to the lift. We also hope to offer a made-to-measure service, allowing the most stress-free rehabilitation for each horse.

During my time in Saskatoon, we ran trials with the horse lift to determine any system problems and to quantify the problems caused by the current sling system, which will allow us to make a new and improved sling. In our initial research, we examined how two healthy horses tolerated the sling and lift for extended periods of time. In the next stage of our research, we will test the sling and lift with equine patients that have sustained limb fractures and would otherwise be euthanized.

During these trials, we have monitored the horses’ basic physiological parameters such as heart and respiratory rate, muscle enzymes and blood flow to ensure that the new sling and lift system doesn’t cause the muscle reduction problems encountered with currently available slings. This lift allows horses to move around with their weight supported so this should already work toward preventing muscle wastage.

We have also focused heavily on behaviour monitoring to determine the effects of prolonged exposure to weight compensation provided by the sling and lift.

In time, as we continue making improvements to the sling and lift system, we hope that the prognosis for these serious limb fracture injuries will be much less frightening, and that our research will help to save equine lives – from a valuable racehorse to a little girl’s cherished first pony.

Louisa Belgrave is a third-year student in veterinary biosciences at the University of Surrey, U.K. As part of her BSc degree programme, she spent eight months working as part of Dr. Julia Montgomery’s research team at the University of Saskatchewan.

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