few years ago on a warm, summer afternoon I received the kind of call that every owner dreads. On the other end of the line was my barn manager, Gail, and her voice was clipped. “I think there’s something wrong with Tango,” she said.
Immediately, the full litany of code-red horse alerts began scrolling through my brain. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is he colicking? Is he bleeding? Is he lame?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Gail said, hesitatingly. “I know this is going to sound strange, but… the birds haven’t touched his manure all morning.”
Birds? I sighed with relief. Like many old barns, Gail’s hillside stable where I kept my 20-something-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred retiree, Tango, had its own colony of resident sparrows. They were always flitting around the arena and pecking in the horses’ stalls, mostly unobtrusively. Birds will be birds, I thought. It was summer, after all; maybe they had a pool party to get to.
I was wrong.
The birds’ change in routine had prompted Gail to give Tango a second look. His eyes and coat looked duller than usual. She touched his neck and it felt warm — warmer than it should, even in the heat of a July day. She took his temperature, and, bingo: he was running a low-grade fever, and it wouldn’t stay low for long.
When the vet came later that afternoon, he diagnosed Tango with lymphangitis, a condition he’d suffered from in the past which required three scary days of round-the-clock nursing and medication to bring down his sky-high, 104-degree temperature, and, shortly thereafter, a hind leg so swollen he could barely walk out of his stall. But none of those symptoms were present when Gail made the call.
Bird behavior is the kind of sign that only an experienced and highly attuned horseman would notice, and it’s why, for the 10-plus years Tango lived a happy (and mostly healthy) life with Gail, I was endlessly grateful. But for those of us who manage horses on our own, or in conjunction with our trainers, there are 100 ways in any given day to make the wrong call — or to miss minor signs that could eventually become a matter of life or death.
In recent years, however, a wave of new technologies are promising to change all that, taking some of the guesswork out of day-to-day horse management as well as illness and injury diagnosis when there’s a problem. Infrared thermometers take the external temperature of legs, indicating pockets of heat or swelling that fingertips might miss. Smart halters can give breeders the tip-off that their mare is about to foal or text you when something just isn’t right — say, because your horse is cast or colicking. Heart rate monitors can help riders prevent injury and improve the cardiovascular health of their sport horses in training. There are even blanket sensors to help owners make the right call about layering when the seasons change.
With so many new products on the market, it’s easy to scratch your head and wonder, what’s real and what’s hype? If you’re already asking the question, that’s a good first step.
“The practical advice on technology is, number one, to be a careful consumer, and number two, [to realize that] it’s not going to replace touch, feel, and knowledge. It can enhance it, but it can also be detrimental, and that’s the challenging part,” says Dr. Richard Markell, a sport horse veterinarian who has been an official U.S. Team veterinarian at multiple FEI World Cup Finals and two Olympic Games.
“There was a professor when I first got out of veterinary school [and] he used to use a saying that is as true today as it was back then, which is, ‘Remember, you ride the horse, not the X-rays.’
“Even with all this technology, with artificial intelligence, with machine learning — which is, without question, the future of both human and veterinary medicine — we need to be careful. [The idea is that] we don’t, as doctors and horse people, start to lose our intuition, our touch, and our feel. Because we can’t ride the X-rays, we ride the horse.”
In his 30 years of practice, Dr. Markell has encountered many of the new products making headlines on the market today, among them smart halters and other sensors, which monitor fluctuations in your horse’s baseline and use artificial intelligence to determine what’s normal and what’s not. “[It’s the same idea] as these new [home security] alarm systems, which are able to determine the difference between your dog and an intruder,” Dr. Markell explains.
“We’re not quite there with the halters yet, and you’re still going to get some false readings. But that type of machine learning and big-data collection will continue to improve, and I think it’s really valuable. You’re going to be able to use these halters to determine if your horse is drinking enough and what their eating habits and patterns are. It’s possible that you could even determine dental disease with a smart halter, if a horse is chewing on one side more than the other.”
Another system that Dr. Markell feels is still in the development stage is motion and gait analysis, which utilizes multiple cameras in conjunction with biomechanics technology to analyze a horse’s performance, diagnosis lameness, and predict future pathologies. “I don’t think I’m overly optimistic to say that significant improvements in the next five years will revolutionize some of our lameness diagnosis — I think some of our technology is going that quickly,” he says. “[But] I do not believe we’re there yet.”
Good Horse Sense
There are other devices, however, that Dr. Markell says can offer immediate value to equestrians, and heart rate monitors — which have long been embraced by top professionals across disciplines as a conditioning, injury monitoring, and peak performance tool — are one of them. “I think heart rate monitors are great — they are accurate, and they do work. I think they can be an important part of fitness,” he says.
Yet even when the technology does do its job, Dr. Markell notes, it’s important to share one cautionary tale.
“I had a very good amateur rider that was very focused on fitness [both for herself and her horse]. And yet, her horse was having a problem, and she was reading her heart rate monitor, and the reason she was getting abnormal readings was because there was a lameness going on. So the heart rate was elevated because of pain, prior to fitness elevation. That connection wasn’t made until the horse truly had an injury,” Dr. Markell explains.
“If [she was] paying attention and reading the monitor well, she could have used her horsemanship, and said, ‘Hey look, I’m getting an elevated heart rate prior to when I have been in my [horse’s baseline] patterns. Maybe something is wrong with my horse?’ That would have been an awesome use of that technology.
“Unfortunately, what she thought was, I’m not working him hard enough, and she went and worked him harder. She was reading the technology, not the horse, and it was making the injury worse.”
Similarly, Dr. Markell says, using an infrared thermometer to diagnosis heat and swelling in the legs can be a helpful diagnostic tool, but it’s just that — a tool. What’s important is the way the information provided is interpreted by the person using it. “Thermography will tell you if there are surface temperature changes, but it doesn’t tell you why. The surface temperature change may be because you had a wrap on the leg,” Dr. Markell jokes (but seriously).
The bottom line: technology is here to stay, but so is good horsemanship, and the two are not mutually exclusive. For every smart sensor that tips an owner off to a problem in the dead of night, there may be 10 small signs that the astute horseman could have noticed before she left the barn that evening: a restless horse, untouched hay, even the resident sparrows, avoiding their usual manure pile.
“[This is] a great conversation that we need to be continuing to have — [but] none of these technologies are ever going to replace touch, feel, intuition, and common sense,” Dr. Markell says.
“[We] still need to do Pony Club — that’s still where we need to start. And if you add technology on to horsemanship, we’re going to move leaps and bounds in early diagnosis and in disease prevention. That’s really where we’re going, but it’s not in absence of it.”
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Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.