Today a broken leg isn’t always the immediate death sentence for a horse that it once was. Yet it remains one of the injuries horse owners dread most because even if the fracture itself is fixed, complications abound during recovery. That includes supporting-limb laminitis, which claimed the life of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after successful repair of a shattered fetlock.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine are working to put the odds in the horse’s favor. They’ve teamed with RMD Engineering of Saskatoon on the development and testing of a unique robotic lift system that would take the place of a traditional sling.
Like a sling, the lift supports a horse during recovery from a broken limb or other musculoskeletal or neurologic problem. However, the lift is designed to overcome the drawbacks inherent in slings—specifically, limitations to mobility, compression of the lungs and development of pressure sores.
Using a computerized control system, the amount of weight the horse is carrying can be distributed and adjusted. The user can tell the lift how much weight the horse should carry on its front end and how much on its hind end. During early stages of recovery, a horse may be fully supported by the lift. But as recovery progresses, the amount of support can be gradually reduced. The system can also be set to allow the horse to move, which reduces muscle wasting.
The lift is currently undergoing prototype testing with healthy horses. During this trial, researchers are evaluating the horses’ behavior, physiological parameters and development of pressure sores. During the next phase, it will be tested on horses who would otherwise have been euthanized due to limb fractures.
Researchers believe the lift will reduce pain and complications and potentially shorten recovery, which in turn could decrease the expense of treatment and stress on the horse (and owner).
“I’m very excited about it,” says team leader Dr. Julia Montgomery, a large- animal internal medicine specialist at WCVM. “This will make a big difference to a lot of horses and will give a chance to a lot of horses that before didn’t have a chance.”
—Sushil Dulai Wenholz
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.