Saskatoon Star Phoenix: U of S researchers, local company aim to save injured horses with special lift and harness

U of S biomedical engineering student Samantha Steinke is working with veterinary assistant professor Dr. Julia Montgomery and the Saskatoon-based firm RMD Engineering Inc. to develop and test a lift and harness to better support horses while injured limbs heal.

Samantha Steinke knows what it’s like to lose a horse to injury. Hers had to be put down after stepping on metal and cutting a tendon. It was a complicated injury with little chance of recovery after surgery.

“I was looking for anything to save him,” Steinke said.

Currently there’s nothing on the market that will adequately support a horse long-term while a limb heals, resulting in many horses dying when they might otherwise be saved, or complications that could otherwise be prevented.

Steinke is also a biomedical engineering student. Word of a project to develop a rehabilitation lift for injured horses popped up on her news feed. She jumped at the chance to take part.

Steinke is now working with a horse veterinarian at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Julia Montgomery, and the Saskatoon-based company RMD Engineering Inc. She joined the project in 2016.

Last year Steinke was awarded an 18-month master’s degree fellowship by Mitacs, a national not-for-profit agency that funds research with money from the federal and provincial governments and other partners. Mitacs and RMD are splitting the $45,000 cost of Steinke’s fellowship.

“It was actually initially RMD Engineering that approached us,” Montgomery said. “They developed a similar system for humans.” The company wondered if it could be adapted for horses, and made its pitch to the veterinary medical centre. Montgomery was there to hear it, “And basically immediately thought if we can get this to work this will make a really big difference to a lot of horses,” she said.

A horse normally carries 60 per cent of its weight on its front legs. When it injures a limb it shifts its weight to its uninjured legs, often leading to a painful foot injury that prompts the horse to shift weight back to the injured leg.

Support slings and rescue slings don’t help because they pick up the horse under the chest and abdomen, affecting its breathing and other bodily functions. Long-term use of slings can also create pressure sores.

For the past four years, Montgomery has worked with RMD on testing and fine-tuning the company’s Equine Assisted Rehabilitation Lift. It uses a computer-guided weight compensation system to slowly “load” the horse’s limbs during rehabilitation, and support the animal if it stumbles.

Steinke is working with RMD to build and test a harness to be used with the lift, paying particular attention to the load-bearing structures of a horse’s body. She wants to distribute weight over bones rather than muscle or organs, and also avoid restricting blood flow.

Horses have to be able to move around while they heal; otherwise they get other complications. The challenge is to keep them comfortable for those four to 12 weeks, Steinke said.

So far, the team has a first prototype of the harness. They are also working on a breastplate designed and built by RMD, that will help redistribute weight on the front of the horse. It has electronic sensors to detect pressure, heat and moisture levels, along with technology to make pressure-relieving load adjustments. Testing is to start this month and continue through the summer.

Source: Saskatoon Star Phoenix