Horse sense

2 min read

Engineers from Cambridge Design Partnership spin-off GMax are developing a performance-measuring sensor system for horses that could bring success to equestrians the world over.

The system will be built into a sleeve that slides over a horse’s girth, providing real-time information about essential physical, physiological, and environmental information that is then transmitted wirelessly to a PDA, laptop or to the internet via mobile phone. The rider can then receive feedback to help control the horse’s progress via a wrist-worn device.

Immediate access to such information — which can also include the horse’s gait, temperature and breathing — allows training to be optimised when horse, trainer, vet and rider are in separate locations.

Will Bradley, a project leader at Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP) said the idea for the technology came after a meeting with leading endurance rider Dominique Freeman, who was working for one of CDP’s biggest medical devices clients.

California-based Freeman, who represents Great Britain, suggested that her performance could be improved if she had ’some sort of dashboard’ for her horse.

CDP’s specialities include medical monitoring and GPS. ’We got to thinking that we could combine technologies that we were already familiar with,’ said Bradley. ’After initial research, it became clear that other efforts in this area were not fully engineered or usable.’

Bradley explained that making a sensor to measure the performance of a horse presents a two-pronged challenge. ’Equestrians are quite conservative and technophobic,’ he said. ’So the product has to be simple to use in a demanding environment which is very dirty. Also, the horse might damage it and there may not be a power source in the stables.’

Bradley and his colleagues made a prototype and delivered it to Freeman for use with her endurance horse, Roger HCF. The device was used in training and endurance racing to monitor metabolic parameters, ambient environmental conditions and to gauge speed and elevation in Roger’s first international endurance competition of 160km (around 100 miles).

Electrolyte and carbohydrate loading regimens were then optimised for heat and humidity on a mountainous course.

’It [the prototype] was a bit of a lash-up but it worked very well and she brought the horse back in what is called in endurance racing “Best Conditioned” (passing all the course’s checkpoints to the satisfaction of a vet)’ said Freeman. She believes the device helped her do that.

’This is a particularly important innovation as I am based in North America, the vet/trainer and horse in South America and the selectors and Chef D’Equipe in Europe,’ said Freeman. ’This technology allows data-driven decision making for training, performance assessment and competition, and is a key component for success when working with a distributed team.’

Following Freeman’s success, the Cambridge team set about designing a similar device for other equestrians.

The use of sensors to measure the performance of athletes is well established and Bradley said there is some similarity between the electronics and software used in this field and that being developed for horses. He added that some enterprising equestrians have even tried to modify such equipment so they can use it to train their horses.

’Athletes are compliant and prepared to wear a number of devices to help track their progress,’ said Bradley. ’This can include a chest-worn heart rate monitor or a GPS receiver worn on the arm. However, our sensor has to be a single piece that can be fitted to the horse.’

He explained that the heart rate monitor needs to be in contact with the horse’s body but for the best reception in radio transmission there needs to be a clear view of the sky. Similarly, the sensor has to be robust enough to withstand its session on a horse and take readings that emanate from beneath skin and hair.

The finished sensor, expected to weigh about nine ounces (250g) and powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, has yet to be given a trade name.

However, a patent has been applied for and a number of racing organisations from around the world have expressed interest in the device which is expected to be available by the end of the year.

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