If we could just get “inside” a horse—and his rider, too—we might gain a better understanding of the horse-human relationship. Researchers recently made sympathovagal monitoring (“emotion” monitoring) possible by attaching devices to horses and humans that record heart and respiration rates.
But Italian researchers have developed a way to gather that same information without having to strap hard, bulky devices to moving beings. Their new wearable monitoring system has the sensitive electrodes woven right into the thread of the material itself, making emotion-tracking more practical—and accessible.
In other words, you might soon be able to monitor your horses’ physiological emotional responses and compare them with your own.
“This kind of system (and related studies) aims at improving the quality of the relationship between human and horse, even more when there is an interaction, and to do this, we need to better understand horses using measurable information that the horse feels but cannot express,” said Antonio Lanata, PhD, of the E. Piaggio Research Center and the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Pisa.
In their study, Lanata and his fellow researchers tested a “smart” T-shirt for humans and a “smart” girthlike belt for horses made of special knit material with electrode-pumped yarn. The electrodes themselves are particular for this kind of moving-body monitoring and are not only tiny but also “sweat-producing” to improve reading accuracy.
“(The) electrodes are made of a special multilayer structure of textile material that increases the amount of sweat and reduces the rate of evaporation, reaching very rapidly an electrochemical equilibrium between skin and electrode,” the researchers reported. “This means that the signal quality is remarkably improved and kept as constant as possible.”
The team transferred data from these garments remotely to portable electronic device for analysis. They said they found that both the T-shirt and the girth belt appeared robust and comfortable and did not restrict movement. Furthermore, the shirt and belt placed the sensors automatically in the right positions to properly monitor cardiac and respiratory activity.
Compared to classic equine monitoring equipment, the data obtained from the wearable device was more precise in the seven working horses in their study, Lanata said. And “artifacts”—unwanted data that gets picked up, often from hair movement, and distorts readings—were essentially nonexistent.
“We now have a unique platform that transmits data on a remote portable system that could be a tablet or a smartphone,” he said. “It is reasonable, with the right boundary conditions, to think that in the near future we could have stress monitoring systems for horses based on the processing of sympathovagal information coming from the heart. Heart rate and, more precisely, heart rate variability give us valuable autonomic nervous system information.”
By “boundary conditions,” Lanata means it’s important to take the full situation into context when evaluating data from the sympathovagal system, as horses (and humans) can react to a variety of sources of stress at the same time. It could lead to confusion if people are trying to determine a horse’s reaction to a single stressor—a rider’s cue, for example.
Together, the T-shirt and girth belt provide important readings that allow researchers (and perhaps, later, industry professionals and riders) to see how the horse and rider become an “emotional couple.” Previous study results have suggested that some horses and their riders begin to synchronize their sympathovagal physiology, and the “smart garments” could make those evaluations easier and more common in practical settings, outside laboratories.
“Maybe by studying this ‘coupling’ phenomenon, we could ascertain the real-time relationship between a horse and rider and therefore recognize, through veritable measurements, both right and erroneous behaviors,” Lanata said. “This would be very relevant in horse and rider training, making it possible to make immediate adjustments in positions and behavior to achieve better results, saving time that could never be recovered.”
Currently existing as a prototype only, the wearable devices could soon be available on the commercial market through a company working with the University of Pisa, he added.
The study, “A Wearable System for the Evaluation of the Human-Horse Interaction: A Preliminary Study,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Electronics.