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New robotic horse for arthritis

A team of student engineers from William Marsh Rice University, a private research university located in Houston, Texas, has developed a robotic horse that may help patients with arthritis. Based on the premise of hippotherapy, also known as equine-assisted therapy, the horse simulator is a robotic horse that can be ridden indoors anytime.

Hippotherapy relies on horses to improve the symptoms of patients with neurological or physical illnesses like autism, cerebral palsy, and arthritis. The rhythmic, swinging motion passes through the entire body and is thought to enhance balance, coordination and motor development. This form of treatment is prohibitive because of its cost and accessibility. Physical therapy sessions with a horse can cost upwards of $150 an hour.

The team who developed the robotic horse

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The horse simulator prototype is built with $1,200 in parts, can hold patients weighing up to 250 pounds, and offers more control than a mechanical bull or kiddie mechanical horse rides. It is programmed with three motors that operate independently to simulate a variety of gentle gaits.

In an interview with Rice University, Brett Berger, mechanical engineer major student involved in the project, said: “We can control the voltage and current output. That lets us run a complicated control program for different motions. In the ride outside a grocery store, you put a quarter in and it moves back and forth a little bit. But in our device, we can control the speed, the intensity and the type of gait, all routed through a micro controller.”

Rice engineering lecturer Matthew Elliott is the adviser on the project. Berger added: “We designed it statistically to hold much more than 250 pounds, and it won’t break until it goes up to 1,000-plus pounds. But at 250 pounds, the motor stalls. It’s just going to stop moving. The machine won’t continue, but it won’t break down.” Patients can also adjust the saddle height of the robotic horse.

The team hopes that a future team will further develop the simulator so that riding on the horse would be like a real horse walking through different kinds of obstacles and terrain.