A University of Missouri-Columbia (UM) veterinarian and his associates have developed a motion detection system for diagnosing and quantifying equine lameness and spinal ataxia (incoordination). Kevin Keegan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at UM, says the portable system should be useful to the equine practitioner in the field.

Keegan developed the system in partnership with P. Frank Pai, MS, PhD, a mechanical engineer at UM, and Yoshiharu Yonezawa, PhD, an electronics engineer at the Hiroshima Institute of Technology in Japan. The system uses three or four (depending on the case) small, lightweight, wireless electronic motion sensors, which do not affect the horse's movement. Keegan attaches acceleration sensors to the horse's head, pelvis, and along the dorsal midline, and angular velocity sensors to the hooves.

As the horse moves, sensors record the movement and relay data to a laptop computer. A program evaluates the patterns of vertical head and pelvic motion in correlation with foot movement to detect and quantify lameness or spinal ataxia. Keegan uses specially developed algorithms to make a diagnosis. Some lamenesses can be difficult to diagnose with the naked eye; the system can identify the lame limb, determine its severity, and tell when during the stride it is most troublesome.

This system will allow a practitioner to diagnose a horse in the field while trotting in hand, being ridden, or longeing, whereas video-based motion-capture technology (if adequate numbers of strides are evaluated) is restricted to a lab and is very expensive.

Keegan said the system recently detected a mild hind limb lameness that it attributed to primary back pain in the horse. The lameness was subtle and difficult to see, but veterinarians confirmed the diagnosis after using local anesthesia on the back.

A preliminary version of the system is in use at UM and will be tested worldwide. It will probably be more than a year before it is available for routine clinical use. It should be cost-effective for the practitioner with a significant lameness caseload.

Keegan and colleagues are working to develop a user-friendly interface for veterinarians.

About the Author

Amber Heintzberger

Amber Heintzberger is a journalist, photographer and award-winning author of Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse (Trafalgar Publishing, 2008). She lives in New York City.

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