Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Biometrics Revolution 

Real Time Data for Horses 

By Pam Gleason

"How do you feel today." 

Doctors might ask this question of their patients and expect a meaningful answer. For equine veterinarians, however, it is often not so simple. Horses may tell you that something is bothering them by pointing at their sides if they have colic, or limping if they are lame. Some may have distinct facial expressions and grimaces, or pin their ears, or just look “NQR” (Not Quite Right.) 

But all horses are not equally expressive. Some can best be described as stoic: they may have something seriously wrong with them, but look as though everything were A-O.K. Since they are prey animals, stoicism in horses likely has an evolutionary benefit. Any animal in a herd that shows a predator that he is weak might be singled out to become the next main course. Acting as if everything is normal, even when it is not, might be a pretty smart thing for a horse to do.

WetCheq gives a real time picture of what is going on inside a horse.

Today, stoic horses present some problems when they do have serious ailments because their owners or veterinarians might overlook problems until it is too late. One way to assess a horse’s inner state is to keep a close eye on his vital signs, including his pulse and respiration rate, as well as his body temperature. If you know a horse’s baseline, and his heart rate is suddenly much faster than normal, you know that there is something wrong. 

Checking a horse’s vital signs is a good way to tell what is going on inside a horse, but heart and respiration rate don’t tell the whole story. Monitoring blood pressure is also important, particularly when a horse has to have surgery. When a horse is anesthetized in the clinic he normally has a catheter inserted into an artery to monitor his blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, which makes it possible to put him under relatively safely. An arterial catheter hooked up to monitoring equipment gives the veterinarian a pretty clear picture of how a horse is doing. 

When a horse comes out of anesthesia, however, it is not practical to continue to use an arterial catheter since the horse is likely to pull it out. Nor can an arterial catheter be used successfully when surgery has to be performed in the field rather than in the clinic, or on a horse that has an ailment like colic and needs to be kept under close watch. At most veterinary clinics, monitoring a horse’s vital signs requires someone to come in at regular intervals to check them. Although this certainly works, it has some drawbacks: it is labor intensive and decidedly low tech. In addition, it is possible for a patient to have a dramatic change in his condition before anyone notices. 

How can equine veterinary care move into the 21st century? Sharon Caswell, the founder and CEO of PonyUp Technologies based in Benbrook, Texas, has an answer. Her company has invented VetCheq, a noninvasive wearable device for horses that continuously monitors their full cardiac function including heart rate and blood pressure, along with their respiration rate. Users can buy an add-on tail wrap that also monitors body temperature. The VetCheq device, a small waterproof box, is attached to the horse’s leg in a wrap that looks like a competition boot. It gathers data, which it streams, via Bluetooth, to a computer or a tablet. The computer then uploads the information to the cloud so that veterinarians or horse owners can access real-time data on their horse’s condition from anywhere. Alarms can be set to alert users if a particular threshold is crossed, and the data can be stored and analyzed to discover the relationship between particular patterns of biometric data and a horse’s outward condition. 

Sharon Caswell, a lifelong horse owner and an engineer, says she first had the idea for VetCheq almost a decade ago when a little girl in Benbrook died as the result of a riding accident after her horse suddenly bolted.

In surgery: a boot instead of an arterial catheter.

“When I read about the accident, I thought with all the technology with have, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have something that could give us a better idea of what is going on inside of our horses?” she says. That idea led her to Empirical Technologies in Charlottesville, Va., a company that had invented a wearable device for soldiers in combat situations that keeps track of their vital signs and sends them to a remote computer.

“I called the company up and told them that I was interested in using something similar for horses,” Sharon continues. “And I lucked out: usually when you make that kind of call, they don’t want to talk to you. But it turned out that the owner of the company also has horses and was very interested in talking about the idea.”  Sharon made a deal to license the technology, and VetCheq was born.

VetCheq is in now service at private clinics and in veterinary schools in several states while the algorithms it uses are being tweaked to make it more accurate in various different settings. It is already 95% accurate when used as a replacement for an arterial catheter in horses undergoing surgery. The next use for VetCheq is on standing horses that are recovering from surgery or have been admitted to the vet clinic for some other reason. 

Performance Equine Veterinary Services in Aiken is at the forefront of this technology. This January they started a project with PonyUp to gather data on horses in their clinic. This data is being sent to Texas A&M Veterinary School of Medicine, which will update the VetCheq algorithms for standing horses under a grant from the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Texas A&M will then validate the data in their clinic. The practitioners and staff of PEVS are excited about VetCheq’s capabilities. 

“I think it holds a lot of promise for colics, because when horses are in distress, their heart rate goes up,” says Kelly McKinnell, an account executive at PEVS who is leading the VetCheq project there. “If you have a really stoic horse that does not show many outward signs of discomfort, this is going to let you know; it won’t lie to you the way a horse might.

“We really want to use it on every horse that we see because it will tell us what is going on inside the horse,” she continues. “We can collect the data and be able to compare it from horse to horse and see what patterns there are. Then we can go back and say, for instance, every horse that had a bad colic had this pattern, and know in advance when a horse might be headed for trouble. There are endless applications that we are excited to use it for, including any intensive care horse that needs to be monitored. With a stoic horse, you can’t tell what is going on unless you are in there with your stethoscope getting their heart rate every five minutes. This device will make it possible to know the moment there is a problem.” 

Sharon Caswell hopes that VetCheq will also be used on competition horses to help trainers monitor their fitness. It might also be used at FEI events and at racetracks to assess recovery times. Another use is for owners and trainers to be able to monitor their horses remotely. 

“There are people with very valuable horses that might come out of quarantine, or that are being shipped and they can’t sleep at night worrying about their horse getting sick,” she says. “This can give them peace of mind since it will notify them immediately if any kind of trend starts to show up – elevated heart rate, respiration rate – they will be able to intervene immediately.” 

In the future, VetCheq’s information will be available as a smartphone app. There are also other uses for the technology down the line, such as wearable devices for horses that are being exercised. Sharon says that she is excited about the technology’s potential and about her company’s future. 

“The two great passions of my life are technology and horses,” she says. “I never thought there would be a way to put them together.  I feel really, really fortunate that I have been able to do this.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.