Pictured Above: The equine lift holds the potential to help horses recover more easily from injuries. Photo: Christina Weese

Researchers at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) have teamed with engineers to design and build a robotic lift system to help rehabilitate horses suffering from acute injuries and other musculoskeletal problems.

Veterinarians regularly use slings to help support injured horses, but those 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.

The lift system that was designed with RMD Engineering 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, says Julia Montgomery, a large animal internal medicine specialist at the WCVM.

“If we want to,” she says, “we can allow the horse to move around so we don’t have these issues with muscle wasting.”

Montgomery adds the lift also allows for more controlled rehabilitation of horses.

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 University of Saskatchewan 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,” Boire says. “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,” Boire says. “We really push hard to make it a team, we run things as projects and everybody has their role.”

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 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 behavior 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 horse.

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