Uplifting equine research gains support
A University of Saskatchewan (USask) research team that’s working with Saskatoon’s RMD Engineering Inc. to create a unique rehabilitation harness for horses has received financial support from Mitacs, a publicly funded not-for-profit research and training organization.
“If this works, the potential impact will be huge because there are no long-term rehabilitation harnesses available on the market today,” says Dr. Julia Montgomery, the research team’s leader and an associate professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
Biomedical engineering master’s student Samantha Steinke joined the research project in 2016. Last year, Steinke was awarded an 18-month master’s fellowship by Mitacs, which is sharing the cost of her $45,000 fellowship equally with RMD. Mitacs supports collaborations between industry, academia and governments in Canada.
“I’m very fortunate Mitacs is supporting me because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to continue on this project, which is a huge passion for me,” says Steinke. “It’s great to work on this harness and make improvements with hopes of creating a useable long-term rehabilitation harness.”
Challenges facing researchers include the unique biomechanics of a horse, which carries 60 per cent of its weight on its front legs. When the animal injures a limb, it redistributes its considerable weight — from 400 kilograms to more than 550 kilograms — to its uninjured legs, often leading to supporting limb laminitis, which has a poor prognosis.
“Support slings and rescue slings aren’t suitable because they pick up the horse under the chest and abdomen, where they should not be picked up because it affects their breathing and other physiological functions,” says Steinke.
Long-term use of rescue slings for rehabilitation also can create pressure sores in horses, adds Montgomery. Pressure from slings can also damage horses’ internal organs and nerves.
Montgomery has worked for the past four years with RMD on testing and fine-tuning the company’s equine assisted rehabilitation lift, designed to suit the horse’s biomechanics. The harness will complement the functions of the lift, which uses a computer-guided weight compensation system to slowly load the limbs of a horse during the rehabilitation, and support them if they stumble.
“We want to provide controlled mobility, not suspension from an overhead crane,” Montgomery says. “The system will help remove some of the weight so that horses can walk around and avoid load-associated complications. It’s intended to reduce immediate complications from immobility, such as wasting muscles. With the lift, we can rock horses from side to side to maintain blood flow.”
Steinke’s work with RMD is focused on the load-bearing structures on a horse, and on building the harness so as to distribute the weight over solid bone structures, not muscle or organs. With quick release buckles, the harness will be easy for one or two people to put on or remove.
For Steinke’s master’s project, the team is focusing on testing a breastplate designed and built by RMD that will help redistribute weight on the front of the horse. The device will have electronic sensors that detect pressure, heat and moisture levels, and proprietary means for adjusting its load to relieve pressure.
RMD aims to have the breastplate ready for testing on a thoroughbred horse at the veterinary college this spring, with testing continuing through the summer to modify the design.
Visit news.usask.ca to read the original news release by USask Research Profile and Impact.