Predictive Maintenance for Horses

Widely accepted as a means of detecting potential equipment failure in the industrial sector, as well as being an effective method of identifying water leaks in the plumbing industry, thermography is finding a place in the equine field to keep sport horses in peak condition.

Peter Geldenhuis, a qualified thermographer trained in Equine thermography by Dr Donna Harper (DMV) with years of experience in interpreting heat patterns detected by his highly specialised infrared camera equipment, recently invited EquineSA to watch him in action.“The camera is able to detect minute differences in temperature through a network of tiny thermometers which translate this data into visual form,” Peter explains. In this way, it is possible to see hot or cold zones in the animal which may be used by a veterinarian to pinpoint problems.

The device, which looks a bit like a digital camera on steroids, provides an instant image of the heat profile of the horse, highlighting variations in temperature. “What we’re looking for is conformity from one area to the next,” he continues. “For example, all hooves should have the same heat pattern. A variation would indicate an area of interest.” He gives us an example in which an infrared image was able to show a hoof abscess before even a farrier was able to feel heat.

External factors

Although the image initially appears simple to interpret, Peter quickly points out that readings can be influenced by a variety of external factors. “Ideally I prefer to work in an enclosed area at a constant temperature,” he says. “The horse should not be standing in the sun and I advise owners not to groom prior to imaging, since increased circulation can affect the reading.” The camera is so sensitive that it can pick up temperatures in the tiniest increments, to the degree that a slight breeze blowing across a horse’s back can show a fluctuating wave of coolness.

“It takes a while to learn to recognise the real measurements from the external ones,” Peter smiles, adding that equipment also needs to be sufficiently sophisticated. Although low budget cameras are readily available, his own sports a price tag to match that of a luxury car. “Thermography is a highly technical field and one can’t simply buy a camera and expect to read the images immediately.” He proves this during demonstrations when onlookers consistently misinterpret images, mistaking red zones for hot spots, when in fact they’re simply reflected heat from nearby sources.

Vet assistant

Peter emphasises that his work cannot replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian. “I provide additional data for a vet to work with when making a diagnosis,” he says. “Unlike an x-ray, the camera won’t show bone related problems unless there’s heat involved, such as a fracture. However x-rays don’t pick up temperature issues, so together they provide a better picture of what’s happening.”

Dr Anne Biccard, whose horses at Watermark Stud were scanned for part of the demonstration, agrees with this assessment. “I believe that it would be a useful additional tool to assist a veterinarian in making a diagnosis,” she says. Peter adds, that since horses can often mask pain by compensating with other parts of their bodies, riders may not notice a problem until it’s been around for some time, and often will assume that it lies in the area that’s been doing the compensating.

Acting up

In many instances, horse behaviour will be the first sign of a problem, with this proving to be difficult to interpret too. At another venue, a highly strung thoroughbred presented a distinct heat pattern over its withers. It later transpired this was due to an ill-fitting saddle. “I’d had the saddle fitted to him quite recently, so it never occurred to me that this was the problem in spite of the fact that he’d picked up condition since then,” his owner admits. “I assumed it was due to an increase in food and would’ve tried to ride him through the problem till he settled. No doubt I would’ve done real damage if we hadn’t picked it up!”

While the technology comes at a price that makes it prohibitive for occasional visits, there is tremendous scope for its use as part of on-going maintenance in competitive yards such as showjumping, dressage or racing stables. Peter adds that he’s putting together a maintenance package for clients who would like him to visit on a monthly basis. There is also tremendous value to be had at long-duration shows, such as endurance rides or eventing, where riders may choose to scan their horses between courses to get an immediate indication of any soundness issues.

Peter Geldenhuis, Mobile 0434 487 886,