Best hoof forward: load cells and equine research

Published On: September 13 2018


It’s a busy time for horse lovers, with the Burghley Horse Trials just ended and the Blenheim Palace Horse Trials about to start, and race horse owners preparing for the main part of the UK racing season from November onwards. So, we’ve taken a look at the role played by load cells in equine care and research.

First, weigh your horse

Horses need weighing just like any other animal to get an accurate measurement for feeding or treatments. Horse scales are simply a scaled up version of those you see in a vert’s waiting room, The horse simply stands on a platform, often with a non-slip surface such as plywood or rubber, and the load cells positioned in the scales do the rest.

Often the platform is simply a strong surface laid over load bars, a pair of metal weigh beams which can then be used under almost any platform, crate or crush to weigh a variety of livestock. As one manufacturer explains:

“Regal Farms in Cambridge New Zealand uses (our) Horse Scale to weigh their horses before and after the race to determine their optimum weight. A horse scale is also used to maintain the well being of the animals to monitor the weight that was lost or gained.”

The latest generation of portable equine scales offer battery powered use, with rechargeable packs, so the scales don’t need to be close to a power source. Wireless load cells can also be used to relay the data to a receiver and into software for analysis and accurate record keeping.


Tackling horse obesity

Weighing a horse is also an important part of the prevention of obesity. According to an article in “On the Hoof”, laminitis is a painful condition associated with overweight ponies and horses. As today’s ponies and horses tend to work less than in the past, they burn less calories. However, they also consume more calories due to improved feeding:

“Modern grassland has now changed to include high quality species with high yields and nutritional value. Such good quality pastures provide too many calories for horses and ponies evolutionarily adapted to grazing on poorer forages and which, therefore, readily gain weight.”

Accurate weighing ensures owners can manage weight loss programs and prevent overfeeding in the future.


Girth tension testing

One of the first things you learn as a young rider is how to put a saddle on your horse, and how to tighten the girth. The girth is a wide webbing strap with a buckle and holes like a belt) that passes around the horse’s body and holds the saddle in place. Too loose, and the saddle can swivel round, depositing the rider on the ground. Too tight and the horse will be in considerable discomfort. A girth is tightened by hand whilst the horse is at rest to what is known as the ‘intended tension’, but it’s an inaccurate science, mainly done by a combination of feel and experience.

In a paper for Comparative Exercise Physiology, researchers used inline load cells to continuously measure girth tensions on horses doing controlled exercise at a walk, trot and canter. They measured the difference between intended tension and actual tension, revealing a much wider range of tensions than anticipated.

“Girth tension is a relatively new area of research, and as there are many opportunities for further research, a better understanding of the impact the girth has on the horse could help to improve performance and welfare.”


Reining in

A similar situation occurs in terms of the correct tension required on a horse’s reins. These are leather straps held by the rider connected to the bridle which fits over the horse’s head, and often connected directly to the bit placed in the horse’s mouth. A team at the University of Sydney noted that many riders use excessive tension on the reins when riding. The team used reins containing embedded load cells to measure the rein tension employed when commanding the horse in certain movements, such as a left or right turn, or coming to a halt. The team’s research revealed that:

“A range of tensions required for horses to elicit specific movements emerged … In the interests of horse welfare and effective training regimes, a concerted effort to reduce the rein tensions should be made. Having an objective measure such as rein tension will facilitate this process.”


Hoof blocks and lameness diagnosis

Lameness is an issue that can affect any horse, at any level of activity, and a can comes in several different forms. The traditional hoof block is used simply to rest a horse’s hoof on while an x-ray is taken, to try and determine the cause of the lameness. Researchers at the California Polytechnic State University wondered if this rather basic block could be improved on by measuring other data, such as bone density:

“The data gathered from this block over time can be used to build a database to diagnose specific lameness in horses based on their stance … Another benefit of this tool will be that once lameness is identified and treatment is administered, the block can track changes in the horse’s stance over the life of the treatment and rehabilitation process.”

It’s reassuring to see that the R&D process did have its issues (see page 9 of their paper) but that accurate calibration seems to be the solution!


Straight from the horse’s mouth

If you have an equine, veterinary or livestock research project and need expert advice on the use of load cells, call us. We’ve helped students, researchers and engineers across the UK and beyond devise, design and build load cell systems for a wide variety of research projects, PhD thesis and ongoing R&D. Call us with your challenges – we’re happy to help.