Heikki Handroos, professor of mechanical engineering at Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology, described the Horzim project at an online meeting of the Saddle Research Trust on 15 December 2021. He believes the technology has a wide range of potential applications in the equine world, including hippotherapy for children with physical or mental disabilities, helping dressage riders to learn new sequences and in the entertainment industry to allow people to experience the thrill of racing.
From fairground carousels onwards, attempts to use technology to replicate the actions of a horse are nothing new, but according to equine experts no machine has yet come close to matching the range and subtlety of movements seen in the live animal.
The Horzim project
For the two-year project funded by the national government agency Business Finland, Heikki assembled a multidisciplinary team of mechanical and electrical engineers, experts in both human and equine anatomy, and researchers with other biomedical specialisms such as physiotherapists. Meanwhile, marketing experts from the nearby LAB University of Applied Science were recruited to assess the potential demand for a device that could accurately simulate equine motion.
The team recorded and analysed the movements of horses kept for dressage and showjumping competitions at a local livery yard. Sensors were placed in the back of the saddle and in a backpack worn by the rider. Identical movements were then programmed into the simulator.
Tested by experienced riders, the robotic horse produced an accurate simulation of a horse’s movement during different gait patterns – walking, trotting and both a collected and extended canter. The owner of the stables noted “I could tell that my horse was in a lazy mood when I was riding on the simulator.” Another rider commented that when she briefly closed her eyes, she could forget that she wasn’t sitting on a real horse.
Tested by experienced riders, the robotic horse produced an accurate simulation of a horse’s movement during different gait patterns – walking, trotting and both a collected and extended canter
Funding for the work ran from 2019 to 2021, but like much research, progress was interrupted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Heikki’s team has secured further funding from the European Union to improve on the currently available technology. One of the main weaknesses of the machine was the absence of movement in its head and neck. But those issues have now been resolved and the team has submitted further patent applications for the improved design.
The team is also working on other aspects of the rider’s experience such as the movements of the horse when jumping and landing. They also want to make the technology more interactive so that the movements of the robotic horse respond to those of the rider – this involves projects to integrate information from sensors attached to the rider’s legs and others that measure the tension in the reins or the effects of using a riding crop.
How will this technology be used?
The university has licensed its intellectual property to a start-up company Flowgait which will aim to commercialise the technology worldwide. The team reckons that the first customers for the simulators are likely to be other equine research institutions and some of the larger private riding schools.
Project manager Alexander Matrosov believes that the simulator will be particularly useful in getting new riders used to the feeling of sitting on a “horse”, albeit one made of metal and glass fibre, and this will provide significant safety benefits. “There is a much higher likelihood of an inexperienced rider with no practical training being seriously injured in a fall, compared with a more experienced rider who has been able to practise on a simulator,” he said.
Project manager Alexander Matrosov believes that the simulator will be particularly useful in getting new riders used to the feeling of sitting on a “horse” … and this will provide significant safety benefits
The same sensor technology used in programming the movements of the robot will also be useful in monitoring the progress of individual students as they become more accomplished riders and can later be used to teach technical skills to those competing in showjumping and dressage events, he explained.
The team also highlights the potential benefits of the simulator technology for the welfare of the horses. Unlike the animals that they are intended to represent, the simulators will not become tired or bored and will be able to carry on exercising without risking mistakes that might be injurious to the horse or its rider.
Heikki is enthusiastic about the potential value of the technology in opening up opportunities for more people to enjoy the benefits of equestrian exercise. This includes larger adults that would be unsuitable to be carried by all but the most robust of pleasure riding ponies, and those who are allergic to the touch of a live animal.
Hippotherapy is another potential application of the technology, given the established benefits of riding for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy
Hippotherapy is another potential application of the technology, given the established benefits of riding for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy. In this situation, Heikki acknowledges that for this application, there may be a need to replace the current rigid fibreglass surface of the simulator with something softer and more life-like.
He says the timescale of plans for commercialising the technology are likely to be shaped by how successful the company will be in raising money from potential investors. But if the technology continues to become ever more sophisticated, it would be foolish to bet against it emerging as a form of entertainment in virtual horseracing games.