Newswise — 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.

“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 (U of S).

The researchers teamed up with Saskatoon’s RMD Engineering to design and build the lift. It is designed to help rehabilitate horses suffering from injuries and other musculoskeletal problems by providing mobility, weight distribution and support.

Research team members include engineering experts, an equine biomechanics specialist and a veterinary radiologist.

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

After a horse undergoes surgery to fix a broken leg, it’s normally confined to a stall and given pain medication. However, due to a horse’s heavy weight and its strong flight response, recovery 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 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 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.

Montgomery said the new lift system allows clinicians to dynamically reduce and redistribute the weight the horse is carrying. This allows the animal to be mobile with its weight partially or fully supported.

“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.

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.

Montgomery and her team have been conducting initial trials with the lift on three healthy horses to see how they tolerate hanging out for extended periods of time in the sling and prototype system. Next, they will use it with horses with limb fractures that would otherwise be euthanized.

These trials will help them find out how the lift affects horse behaviour and physiological parameters such as muscle enzymes and blood flow.

If all goes as planned, the team hopes 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.