By Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA
Whether you’ve got a mare close to foaling, horses on the road, one with a history of health issues such as colic, or just a horse you’re concerned about, the latest wave of tech gadgets offer not only peace of mind but also practical solutions.
In this rapidly developing digital landscape, wearable horse monitoring systems run the gamut from ”just the basics” to state-of-the-art high tech. Systems vary from devices that clip into blankets to smart halters and boots with integrated electronics, interfacing directly with a smartphone, tablet, or PC.
Among points to consider when selecting a device:
- What are your monitoring and alert needs?
- Does the sensor connect with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or cellular networks?
- Does data upload to the cloud?
- Is there an annual fee?
- How often and for how long do the device’s batteries need recharging and/or replacing?
- Are alerts issued to just you, or can you add other individuals on your horse’s care team?
- Does the system offer monitoring solutions that suit your individual needs?
The devices on the market are designed to address different needs and budgets; sensors from various manufacturers might detect:
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Recumbency (lying down)
- Moisture levels on the skin
- GPS location
- Weather forecast
- Ambient temperature
Some systems offer barebones data to sync to the sensor when within range, while others both analyze data in real-time and adapt algorithms to your horse. By aggregating data over time, the system establishes a baseline of normal behaviors and vital signs for your horse so it can issue alerts when values are outside your horse’s normal range; alerts notify you about deviations from typical behaviors and physiological metrics. Some providers further detail your horse’s data in easy-to-interpret graphs and scales.
“Owners now have the ability to purchase a product to really elevate their care,” says Jessica Summerford, director of marketing at Protequus LLC, the maker of NIGHTWATCH Smart Halter, recognized by Forbes for its cutting-edge developments in this field. “When choosing a monitoring system, there are a lot of different options out there. It’s important to remember the problem you are trying to solve and weigh your priorities, such as if you’re focused on performance outcomes or on health outcomes. Speaking for us in particular, we are trying to get ahead of the problem versus only having insight into an existing problem.”
Summerford stresses the long-term benefits of early detection and intervention. “As prey animals, horses display stoicism, meaning they are very good at hiding inward signs of distress,” she explains. “Data provide objectivity beyond subjective behavioral observation.”
Budget is also a consideration, notes Summerford. “Systems start below $1,000 and go on upward of $3,000. Ask yourself what information is important to you as an owner: Is heart rate enough, or do you need to know more about cardiac function, such as heart rate variability and ECG (electrocardiogram)? It all comes back to the question of what problem you are trying to solve.”
While still a developing field, health monitoring technology has established its place in the barn, furthering our equine companions’ welfare. Improvements Summerford sees on the horizon for the entire field include better battery options, including harnessing kinetic energy from the movement of the horse; greater connectivity as cellular networks expand; data integration, such as interfacing with veterinary practices; tighter security against potential data breaches; and artificial intelligence and machine learning developments to filter out data “noise.”
“While there is a lot of really great technology out there, we are scratching the surface of what we can do,” she says. “Technology has just arrived in the horse industry as a portable, health-focused outcome. It’s really exciting to see how all these minds can come together and benefit horses in general. Also, having all this data provides analytics to continue to benefit horses for the future.”