Massey University's Equine Clinic

December 2014

Diagnostic tools for horse health at Massey University's Equine Clinic

At Massey’s Equine Veterinary Clinic researchers are looking at ways to extend the duration of the competitive horse’s career by using a range of technology to help diagnose common horse problems.

The athletic career of a horse is relatively short. Chris Riley, Professor of Equine Clinical Studies at Massey University says that there’s a lot of wastage. He says the career length of horses can be positively influenced by the trainer and the age at which the horse starts competition. There are opportunities for animal health professionals to use some new technologies that can help with common problems in competitive horses.

The Equine Veterinary Clinic is a new teaching and research facility on the Massey campus in Palmerston North, opened in April 2014. The clinic has a really strong relationship with the industry, through both teaching and research.

Chris says equipment that is used in the clinic is part of providing leadership for the industry and the training of students, as well as offering research opportunities.

Across all equestrian disciplines, one of the most consistent and major reasons for the loss of animals is in relation to lameness and musculoskeletal injury.

Lameness is the most common medical problem in horses and has a high economic cost. It has traditionally been diagnosed and graded by a vet or trained observer by watching the horse in motion. This involves looking at the horse as it walks and trots and making a subjective grading of the severity of lameness via a scoring method.

The idea is that new, objective methods of lameness evaluation using technology from the automotive and aerospace industries may increase the sensitivity and accuracy for detection of lameness and may eliminate bias.

Chris says a group of vets may disagree about the location of lameness in a horse and how severe it is but the new technology allows a level of objective measurement. This technology allows vets to pinpoint in which limb or limbs the lameness is.   It is also a valuable teaching tool, helping horse owners and veterinary students to better understand lameness.

Veterinarians are now using accelerometers to pinpoint where the problem is (called an EquinosisÒ lameness locator). The small accelerometers are placed on the head, rump and fetlock of the horse using velcro and double sided tape. The lameness locator computerised system uses wireless technology to map the movement of horse. The rate and amount that each leg moves up and down is recorded. This information is sent wirelessly from the horse to the computer and is used to identify which leg has the problem; something that has previously been a bit of a challenge.

Sensors and accelerometers are commonly used in aerospace and auto industries for navigation and stabilisation of vehicles. These sensors measure acceleration or angular velocity and the devices gather data and wirelessly transmit that back to a computer.

Respiratory disorders in the throat region are a common problem in racehorses and are associated with poor performance. It’s common to investigate respiratory disorders using an endoscope when the horses are resting. For example, this is a common examination when looking at yearlings to determine their suitability of racing.

The problem with a resting endoscopic examination is that they can be limited and potentially inaccurate in the diagnosis of upper respiratory tract problems (URT) because they do not show the airway as it is meant to function during exercise.  Being able to look at the airway while horses move gives a true indication of how the airway is working. There are a few dynamic endoscopes in New Zealand now, but this is the only one in the lower North Island.

A wireless video endoscope is fitted to the horse along with a battery and a recording medium – in this case a laptop computer and a light source and a fluid system to keep the endoscope clear. These sit in a neoprene saddle bag either side of the horse’s withers (upper chest). The tube of the endoscope is inserted through the nose of the horse and plugged into the power source. There’s a console to watch the endoscope wirelessly in real time. The image shows the throat of the horse and offers a view of what’s happening with the horse as it is working. The horses are then put through their exercise regime at full speed and the endoscope relays its back to the recording device for later diagnosis. Most horses in New Zealand and international trials have accepted the endoscope without problem.

What’s different at Massey is researchers are using the dynamic endoscope to investigate basic function of the airway and changes relating to fitness that affect movement, as well as for the diagnosis of disease.

Research with this dynamic endoscope funded by the Equine Trust, is being run by Garth Fitch, a registered veterinarian and Senior Lecturer in Equine Surgery at Massey Uni.

Jaz Tanner is a well-known harness racing trainer in the area and also the holder of a master’s degree from Massey University.   She says the endoscope is a really valuable piece of technology because if you can find out what is wrong with the horse, it is a great way of making improvements.   She says being able to work the horse under real time conditions is the value of the technology.