Researchers say they hope a robotic lift system will help improve how horses recover from limb fractures and other traumatic injuries.
Veterinarians teamed up with engineers in Saskatchewan to design and build the lift designed to help rehabilitate horses suffering from various injuries. They say the lift provides 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, a large animal internal medicine specialist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan.
Hundreds of horses are euthanized every year in North America due to racetrack injuries. A large majority of which are reportedly fractures. Horses used for other types of equine sport can also break their legs.
After a horse undergoes surgery to fix a broken leg, it’s normally confined to a stall and given pain medication. Due to a horse’s heavy weight and its strong flight response, the recovery process is complicated.
Secondary issues often arise, such as supporting-limb laminitis. That was the case with the famous racehorse, Barbaro. The Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind fetlock while racing 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.
Veterinarians regularly use slings to help support injured horses, but current designs significantly limit a horse’s normal activity and support all of its weight on the thorax and abdomen. Veterinarians say 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.
“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.
The lift can also be used with equine patients suffering from neurological problems.
Montgomery and her team have been conducting initial trials on three healthy horses to see how they tolerate hanging out for extended periods of time in the sling and prototype system. The researchers will then use it on horses with limb fractures that would otherwise be euthanized.
The trials will help them find out how the lift affects horse behavior and physiological parameters such as muscle enzymes and blood flow.
The team says its goal is that 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.