New Device Gives Healing Horses a Lift

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

By Alison Williams

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Researchers and engineers in Saskatchewan hope a robotic lift system will help to improve the odds for horses recovering from limb fractures and other traumatic injuries.

The scientists, who are all from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), have teamed up with RMD Engineering, a local Saskatoon engineering and manufacturing company, to design and build the unique technology. The lift will help rehabilitate horses suffering from acute injuries and other musculoskeletal problems by providing mobility, weight distribution, and support. 

The team’s leader is Dr. Julia Montgomery, a large animal internal medicine specialist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). She and her colleagues are combining their expertise to find a solution for horses that sustain life-threatening injuries. 

Research team members include professors from the U of S College of Engineering, an equine biomechanics specialist from the College of Kinesiology, and Montgomery’s husband James, a board-certified veterinary radiologist. 

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

As part of their initial research work, WCVM scientists are examining how healthy horses like Mr. T tolerate hanging out for extended periods of time in the sling and prototype lift system. Photo: Christina Weese 

RMD Engineering owner Jim Boire says his company is built around the desire to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. He has been involved with many other innovations at the U of S including the WCVM’s bovine tilt table, a hydraulic device for lifting cows, and a large animal positioning system for the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.

“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.

Hundreds of horses are fatally injured and euthanized every year in North America due to racetrack injuries, and a large majority of these injuries are skeletal fractures. But even horses that are used for pleasure riding can break a leg. 

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

Members of the equine lift research team (L-R): Veterinary student Alison Williams and research assistant Louisa Belgrave stand beside one of the research horses, Mr. T, along with Drs. Julia and James Montgomery. Photo: Christina Weese 

After a horse undergoes surgery to fix a leg fracture, it’s normally confined to a stall 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 – as was the case with the famous racehorse, Barbaro.

The Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind fetlock while racing in the Preakness Stakes on May 20, 2006. Equine 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 the animals’ normal activity and support all of their weight on the thorax and abdomen. This leads to further problems because of compression on the lungs and development of pressure sores.

With the lift system, Montgomery says clinicians can reduce and redistribute the weight the horse is carrying dynamically. The system allows the animal to be mobile with its weight partially or fully supported by the lift.

“If we want to, we can allow the horse to move around so we don’t have these issues with muscle wasting,” says Montgomery. She adds that this function of the lift will also allow for more controlled rehabilitation of horses.

Leg fractures are one of the most common injuries that will benefit from this new technology, but the lift can also be used with equine patients suffering from other musculoskeletal and neurological problems.

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

The idea for the equine lift originated from a similar lift system that Saskatoon-based RMD Engineering designed to help people with multiple sclerosis. Photo: Christina Weese 

Montgomery and her research team have been conducting initial trials with the horse lift. First, they’re examining how three healthy horses tolerate hanging out for extended periods of time in the sling and prototype lift system. Next, they will use it with equine patients that have sustained limb fractures and would otherwise be euthanized. 

These trials will help them determine how the lift affects the horse’s behaviour and basic physiological parameters such as muscle enzymes and blood flow. They will also monitor the animals for pressure sores caused by the sling. 

The research team believes that the unique horse lift will decrease the pain of recovery for equine patients, shorten their recovery periods, and reduce complications. As a result, it will also help to decrease treatment costs and reduce emotional distress for both the owner and the horse.

“[The lift] really provides a novel and unique solution to a very frustrating problem that currently doesn’t have a solution,” says Montgomery. 

The L. David Dubé and Heather Ryan Veterinary Health and Research Fund has provided financial support for this research project.  

Alison Williams of Calgary, Alta., is a third-year veterinary student who was part of the WCVM’s Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2015. Alison’s story is part of a series of stories written by WCVM summer research students.  

The Barbaro Story

By Kathy Smith

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

Barbaro winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Photo: Horsephotos/NTRA

Barbaro captured the hearts of millions when, as an undefeated three-year-old, he won the Kentucky Derby by six-and-a-half lengths on May 6, 2006. Two weeks later, early in the running of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland, jockey Edgar Prado pulled up his mount after feeling that something wasn’t quite right. The horse had fractured three bones in his right hind leg, ending his racing career.

Barbaro in a full-body sling being lowered into a pool of water to wake him up following surgery to repair his damaged leg. The pool is used to prevent him from waking up disoriented and possibly re-injuring his leg. Photo: Sabrina Louise Pierce/University of Pennsylvania

Over the next eight months Barbaro was treated at the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania under chief surgeon Dr. Dean Richardson. He came through several surgeries including one which removed over 80 percent of his left hind hoof after a severe bout of laminitis. The world cheered him on, sending thousands of messages, gift baskets of carrots and treats, and over $1 million in donations to the Barbaro Fund. 

barbaro rehabilitation, barbaro treatment, equine rehabilitation, horse boken bone, broken leg horse, western college of veterinary medicine, wcvm

Jockey Edgar Prado visiting Barbaro in his stall on May 30, 2006. with Dr. Dean Richardson. Photo: Sabrina Louise Pierce/University of Pennsylvania

However, the complications proved too difficult for the courageous colt. Laminitis that had first developed in his left hind foot in July began to appear in his front hooves in late January. Although the broken bones in his right hind were healing well, due to a deep abscess in his right hind and the laminitis in his other feet, he was unable to bear weight on any of his legs. At this point, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson felt his pain was no longer manageable, and Barbaro lost his eight month battle when he was euthanized on January 29, 2007.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main Photo: The equine lift system allows a horse to be mobile with its weight partially or fully supported by the equipment. Photo: Christina Weese 

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