COLUMBIA - In the equine veterinary industry, lameness in horses has been assessed subjectively for centuries, said Paul Schiltz, a veterinarian for Equine Medical Services in Columbia. Each vet has his or her own opinion about what's wrong with a horse - and they often disagree.
But Kevin Keegan, professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at MU, has a solution to this problem with the technology he has created that is going commercial in the next couple of weeks to months.
In the late 1990s, Keegan began working on the Lameness Locator with a simple goal: to develop an objective way of detecting lameness.
"Each practitioner says something different when observing, so we need a way to teach our students exactly what to look at," said Keegan, also director of the E. Paige Laurie Endowed Program in Equine Lameness at MU.
Through a lameness evaluation performed by multiple vets, he found, for example, that in looking at a horse's front legs, these vets agreed only 25 percent of the time.
Keegan then began observing horses on treadmills and putting markers on their bodies to record movements and transmit them to a computer. He attended MU engineering meetings and developed rules and equations to analyze the movements, pairing up with MU engineer professor P. Frank Pai, who has worked with airplane vibration evaluations.
The Lameness Locator is a spinoff of Pai's work with airplanes. The locator analyzes vibration damage to see where the horse's movement is off, Keegan said.
But the invention wasn't practical for other industry professionals. It was then that Keegan began collaborating with Yoshiharu Yonezawa, an electronics engineering professor from Japan, Keegan said.
Keegan and Yonezawa worked intensely on decreasing the size of the sensors and the number of other instruments and wires they put on the horses to record the movements, he said.
One of the first steps was to use fewer sensors. Their previous work showed they needed only four markers to determine the lameness: on the top of the head, the right front leg, the top of the pelvis and the right hind leg. A year ago, they stopped using the locator on the right hind leg because it was transmitting the same information received from the right front leg, Keegan said.
The equipment, now wireless, measures the acceleration of the head and pelvis and the angular velocity of the front leg. If they're sound, the data looks like a symmetrical sine wave, and if they're not, Keegan and Yonezawa measure the shape of the signal. A lame horse has a disruption in the shape, Keegan said. A frequency analysis, which pinpoints the location of the lameness, is performed.
With the Lameness Locator ready to go for a wider market, Keegan needed funding. He started a business called Equinosis and got a license. His company raised money from Angel Investors in Columbia, and production will begin in the coming months with 100 units this year for vets across the country, Keegan said. A price has not yet been set.
"I've been impressed," said Schiltz. "It's a new approach to a very old problem. Depending on the price, I don't know any lameness clinic that wouldn't want one."
Schiltz said it will benefit vets when they're observing subtle lameness that isn't visible by simply looking at the horses. He said that because lameness is a specialty in equine vets, another big advantage is that vets who don't look at lameness every day could have a way to evaluate the horses without relying solely on their experience. It would also be a great teaching tool, Schiltz said.
Tom DiSalvo, co-owner of the thoroughbred racehorse American Thunder, didn't know about the Lameness Locator before bringing his horse to the MU Equine Clinic from Illinois, and he is impressed.
"I think the system is great," said DiSalvo. "It helps Dr. Keegan focus on the problem and save time in diagnosing."
It will also help vets locate multiple problems that might have been overshadowed by an obvious lameness in another area, Schiltz said. All of the lameness will be shown at the same time, he said.
"It would be useful for any vet practice that deals with lameness, but the limiting factor will be the cost of the equipment," Schiltz said. "I think it's such an applicable program that I would be able to justify buying it even if it's not cheap."