Advances and Challenges in Equitation Science Technology
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA • Dec 27, 2012 • Article #31119
Photo: Courtesy BPLC Unit, INRA-ENVA France
Twenty-first century technology brings us into the once-science fiction world described by fantasy writers in the 1950s. We've got retina screens, hybrid vehicles, and a million different apps (not short for "Appaloosas," in this case). We can video chat with people on the other side of the planet in real time, and we can carry 50,000 photographs of our horses on a key ring in our pocket. And, what could be most exciting for riders, is that via advanced technology we can now measure equitation science variables, such as limb forces and equine symmetry, more minutely, accurately, and thoroughly than ever before--as long as we know how to use that technology properly.
According to equitation scientist Lars Roepstorff, DVM, PhD, professor of equine functional anatomy at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and scientific veterinary advisor to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the future of equitation science technology is exciting and enormous, so long as researchers understand how to use and benefit from it. A variety of new technologies can now measure specific factors that influence the equine athlete, including software to measure horse and rider asymmetry, high-speed cameras and force plates to aid in equine movement analysis, and more.
"It's not as simple as just going and buying your measuring equipment; actually, you have to know what's behind it," Roepstorff said, addressing an audience full of equitation scientists at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20, 2012, in Edinburgh, Scotland. "The fact is that the (researchers) using the different kinds of measuring instruments are not always up-to-date on their optimal use. Scientists have got to ask a lot of questions (about their technology equipment)."
High-tech equipment is typically outfitted with a wide variety of settings, including resolution, frequency, scale, calibration, and many others. If not managed by well-trained scientists, these variable can potentially lead to inaccurate results, Roepstorff said. Validation is also critical. "You need to know what this (data) really is," he said. "Just because you buy a measurement tool doesn't mean it's validated. You must actually validate it in your application to be sure that you're making the right measurements."
Choosing the right sensor setting for the specific research at hand is also vital, Roepstorff said. Different sensor settings will be sensitive to different forces; different movements and parts of the horse will therefore require different sensor settings.
Meanwhile, the selected sensor, with its associated analog-to-digital (A/D) converter, must be able to capture the range of the analog (the "real world event") signal. And it has to capture it at as high a rate as necessary. "Let's say you want to measure dynamics--which is about how quick a response is," Roepstorff said. "You need to know if the sensor can respond quickly enough to measure what exactly you want to measure. But it also has to correspond to the A/D converter and its resolution. So what is the smallest difference that these two can do?"
In light of these issues, however, riders and owners can still be reassured that the information they learn from equitation scientists is reliable because high-tech experts like Roepstorff challenge it. "When I sit here and listen to (fellow equitation scientists)," he said, "I want to know, 'How did you calibrate that? How did you do any offset adjustments and things like that?' I'm sure you've done it, but I want to know because I start thinking about what's (essentially) true."
Informed use of technology is helping researchers better understand equine movement with accurate, fine details, Roepstorff said. His team has recently set up a research center in Sweden with 60 high-speed motion-capture ("mo-cap") cameras filming horses in action wearing numerous sensors in very specific places on the body. The set-up in itself is "amazing," he said, and so are the results. Precise, moving, high-definition 3-D images on the computer screen allow researchers to not only see what's going on, but also measure endless lengths, angles, and forces. (See a video of this technology in action online.)
"The challenge is really how to extract more from the information because there is a huge amount of information in these sensors," Roepstorff said.
And so as our everyday technology advances, as we see more and more impressive cars, computers, and phones, expect to see major advances in the scientific understanding of equitation as well.