System Pinpoints Equine Lameness

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Dr. Keith Keegan, co-inventor and founder of Equinosis, checks the alignment of the Lameness Locator sensors.
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A black stallion moves through a field.
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Staff members place a horse's headpiece in preparation for testing the Lameness Locator.

Columbia, Missouri — The most common ailment to affect a
horse is lameness. A University
of Missouri equine veterinarian
has developed a system to effectively assess this problem using motion
detection. This system has been referred to as “Lameness Locator.”

Kevin Keegan, a
professor of equine surgery in the College
of Veterinary Medicine at
MU, has been tracking horse movement related to equine lameness for years.
Because equine lameness may begin subtly and can range from a simple mild
problem affecting a single limb to a more complicated one affecting multiple
limbs, veterinarians and horse owners know that early detection is the key to
successful outcomes. The problem, Keegan says, is that detection still relies
on simple visual observation with the naked eye.

“We’ve been
developing objective methods of lameness detection and evaluation since the
early 1990s as an aid to subjective evaluations,” Keegan says. “We started with
treadmills and high speed cameras, and those worked pretty well, but they
weren’t really practical due to high cost and they cannot be used in the field.
Plus, horses do not move on a treadmill like they do on regular ground. In some
cases with mild lameness, or in cases with multiple limb lameness, even experts
looking at the same horse may disagree on whether lameness is present or on its
severity. An objective method would be helpful to take some guesswork out of
the evaluation.”

Working with
Frank Pai, a professor in mechanical engineering at MU, and Yoshiharu Yonezawa
at the Hiroshima Institute of Technology in Japan, the team developed an
inertial sensor system, now in commercial use, which places small sensors on
the horse’s head, right front limb and croup, near the tail. The sensors
monitor and record the horse’s torso movement while the horse is trotting. The
recorded information is compared against data bases recorded from the movement
of healthy horses and other lame horses. These comparisons can help equine
veterinarians improve and streamline their evaluation in a way they’ve never
been able to do before.

“There are two
reasons why the Lameness Locator is better than the naked eye,” Keegan says.
“It samples motion at a higher frequency beyond the capability of the human eye
and it removes the bias that frequently accompanies subjective evaluation.”

The product has
drawn attention from outside the veterinary world; the National Science Foundation
(NSF) has awarded a two-year Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase II
Grant of $500,000 for further research and development of the current
technology. The grant was awarded to Equinosis, a faculty start-up with license
from the University
of Missouri to develop
and commercialize the product, after successful completion of a Phase I study that
was instrumental in developing the prototype. Equinosis has subcontracted to
the University of
Missouri to complete some
of the additional research. In this second NSF grant, the goals include
expanding analysis to other gaits in horses, like the foxtrot, pace and canter,
improving existing analysis sensitivity, developing a parallel device for
horses that measures incoordination from neurological disease, improving sensor
design, expanding analysis to type lameness based on diagnosis, developing sensors
and expanding analysis to detect and evaluate lameness in dogs, and porting
existing analysis to run efficiently on smaller computing platforms such as
cell phones or iPads.

“Our biggest
challenge now is to introduce this to veterinarians, train them on the proper
usage and interpretation of the data, and show them that it really works,”
Keegan says. More technical information can be found at the Equinosis website.