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Technology Hacks for Hacking Out with Your Horse: Part 1

July 2018 by David Stang, PhD, Author, www.horseusermanual.com

Our horse world intersects another one, full of Amazon, Ebay, television and new-fangled things. In general, the new-fangled has hardly encountered our horse but, in this article, I have chosen some products that have qualities of ‘high technology’, and should bring some new benefit to horses and their riders. 

I have intermixed some tested ideas with some that I haven’t tested in this new two-part series. But, I haven’t included anything that seemed to me unlikely to work. In general, this article is about ‘bolt-on doodads’, stuff that could be adapted to serve our purposes. 

High tech in the horse trailer

Several years ago, I began using a video camera system in my trailer, with the wireless monitor in the cab of my truck. I quickly discovered the huge comfort such a system can provide. Whenever I’d brake suddenly, corner too fast or hit a pothole, I could check the monitor to see what effect my driving had on my precious cargo, including my mule, Freckles. 

I was surprised to learn neither horses nor mules seemed to wobble with driving that would get my wife shrieking. That was a comfort. And, it was comforting to be able to drive at high speed for hours, checking in on my friend whenever I wanted, without the need to pull over.

The camera systems I used were home security systems I acquired online. They weren’t designed for my intended use. I found the monitor was always wobbling, and always difficult to read in daylight. Two cameras facing rearward in the trailer were always reversed, so right was actually left. And, none of my systems lasted more than a year without dying. But, they revealed the importance of this technology, and their audio capabilities called attention to how noisy it is inside my trailer. 

Today, I have a new system that is rugged, feature-filled and inexpensive. I purchased a Yi Dome camera (about US$60 on Amazon; other brands are now even cheaper), which is small and easily attaches to a corner of the trailer ceiling or wall. 

The camera is powered by a USB cable running to a charger plugged into an outlet on an inverter connected to the house battery in the trailer (which converts 12V DC to 110V or 240V AC). The house battery, in turn, is charged whenever we are moving down the road. Up in the cab, an app for my phone allows me to zoom and pan the camera, and gives me two-way audio: I can talk to Freckles and, in return, listen to her grunts and sighs. 

Unlike the bulkier monitors of the old security systems I once used, the smart phone is easily positioned on the dash (Search ‘car cell phone mount’ on Amazon.com.au). It is nice to see ‘smart’ in products. The Yi Dome can figure out how it has been mounted and, if it is upside down, your picture will still be right side up. With its pan and zoom features, you only need one to cover your entire trailer.

Map your ride

If you go exploring, you can use a mapping app to track your route. An app like GAIA GPS (Gaiagps.com), Strava (Strava.com) or MotionX-GPS, which allows you to download maps before you leave home, plan a route and import trip data. On the trail, it will record your trip and show your route. 

At the end of your ride, you can export trip data, and send it to your email address or the app’s website, which will maintain a catalogue of your rides. I have not found an app that considers the possibility that I am on a horse, but the apps work just fine otherwise.

Some mapping apps are tailored to tracking workouts (consider Strava GPS from Strava.com), and some add training recommendations. To get my mule fit for shorter endurance rides, I told Endomondo (Endomondo.com) that I would be running a marathon and a summary of our previous rides, and Endomondo makes workout recommendations we can follow.

Tracking your runaway

Horses are supposed to stay between our legs when we are on the trail, but life doesn’t always work out. If you are a trail rider, you know about trail walking. Perhaps you’ve caught up with your horse back at the barn. But, if you have loaded your horse in the trailer and headed off for the mountains, your horse won’t be coming home on their own.

In my experience, horses always come back to the barn if that’s where your trip started. But, if the trip started at your trailer, there is no telling where they will think they should head when you get separated on the trail. 

Lost dogs are pretty common, and there are now many devices available to track them down. To find these products, search for ‘dog activity tracker’ with your browser or on Amazon.com.au. Most use a GPS positioning signal and draw a map on an application in your cell phone, so you can find your dog on the map and head towards them. Most dog activity trackers can be clipped to a collar, meaning they can be clipped to a halter or bridle, too.

Some contain other features of value, such as a battery that can be recharged with a USB connection, activity monitoring (for tracking your horse when they are loose in their pasture) and alerts if your horse wanders out of their pasture (a ‘safe zone’ you define). For many, you need a service plan that can cost US$10/month or so. 

There are some trackers with additional features you might crave. For instance, Wüf (Getwuf.com, which might still be in beta stage) offers two-way audio, so you can talk to your runaway and hope to calm him. (Practice this at home, before they run away, to ensure your voice is as calming as you imagine.)

You can spend up to US$200 for such a tracker, but if you’ve ever found yourself looking for your horse in the mountains, it will seem like money well spent. Of course, if your horse is lost in the mountains, your mobile signal might also be lost. The solution to this problem is to get an activity tracker with radio communication, such as Findster Duo+. 

Findster uses a collar/halter module that transmits a radio signal to a ‘guardian module’ you carry along with your cell phone, so it works anywhere (as long as you are within reach of its radio waves, about a 3-mile radius from your steed). It doesn’t run up your phone bill, and there is no monthly subscription charge. (If you think your horse might get more than 3 miles from you when they escape, then get two trackers - one with each technology. One of them should be able to locate them.) 

Findster comes with some other features you might like, such as tracking multiple horses with a single cell phone app, recording miles/minutes/steps for each of your rides, and tracking that is probably closer to real-time than an app that uses cell towers and servers in the cloud. With a sluggish app and a sprightly horse, your tracker might be telling you where your horse was, not where they are. Findster is available from getfindster.com for about US$150.

If you are considering using a cell signal to find your steed, consider giving them your old phone, charging it, and placing it in a saddle bag. Then, if you are separated, you can use an app like Find My iPhone to locate them. (Make sure this option is turned on and test this first before heading out on the trail.)

Finding your runaway

Every time my mule runs off, it seems someone gets to her first. So far, these have been friendly folks. But, they haven’t always known who she belongs to. I added a little nametag to her halter, with her name and my phone number. I had mine done by a tack shop, who likely ordered it from Amazon. Go direct, and get a custom engraved circle key chain/key ring. You can get a ‘custom engraved circle key chain’ from Innovative Surface Art through Amazon for around US$10, with up to five lines engraved on the front and five on the back. You might include your name, your home phone, your cell phone and add something along the lines of ‘Reward if found!’. 

I’ve bought three of these, engraved on both sides. On one side, I wrote “PleaseCall/my name/my phone/my phone#2/Reward!”; on the other, I wrote “Freckles/I am lost and/scared. Please/help me. Call/David”. Why three name tags? I can attach them to different halters, or one to a halter and one to her britchin, in case she gets separated from some of her clothes.

Microchips

If your horse is lost then found, a microchip might provide a means of proving a lost horse is yours. The injectable microchip contains a unique serial number which is registered with HomeAgain.com, MicrochipIDEquine.com, or some other service, so a veterinarian can scan and find the serial number, then call the service to get contact information. 

In times of natural disaster, such as a flood, horses can turn up anywhere. Rescue workers will include volunteer veterinarians who have chip scanners, and your horse can be one of the “lucky” ones. If you choose to get a microchip, you will learn there are “old” chips that have a 9 or 10 character microchip number and are read at 125 KHz, and “new” chips that have a 15 character number read at 124 KHz. 

Old and new “universal” scanners can read both, but some veterinarians only have old scanners. So, if you choose to chip, you might want to install both old and new chips. The procedure usually costs less than US$50.

Instrumentation

Your horse is the perfect off-road vehicle. Less perfect vehicles, such as SUVs and dirt bikes, come with gauges that tell you your speed, distance, location, time of day, and so on. Why doesn’t your horse have such instrumentation?

Speed, distance, mapping. Some instrumentation is possible today, with off-the-shelf products. For instance, you can start with MotionX-GPS for your iPhone. MotionX-GPS has become my favorite track recording application for a number of reasons. Its screen is easy to read, even when I’m jouncing along. A very small lady stuffed in my cell phone actually talks, telling me my recent average speed (in mph), my total distance (in miles and fractions) and my time to do a mile (in minutes and seconds). 

If I get lost, I can look at the map and follow my track back, with directions up to guide me through the turns. If I will be riding in the mountains, where it can’t download map overlays, I can cache maps for offline access. A single click will send the .gpx file to me as an email, along with some track summary statistics. There are many sophisticated functions I’ve not had a need to use, such as visualising my progress and ETA while navigating.

I have only explored a fraction of what this fabulous app offers, in large part because it was so easy for me to figure out what I wanted it to do. The layout of screens and size of buttons suits it well for an old man with poor vision who is bouncing down the trail. It is easy to start recording a track, easy to pause and resume, and easy to save and email a track. 

Heart rate monitoring 

For more instrumentation, add a Wahoo TICKR FIT heart rate armband for iPhone or Android (about US$80). This uses optical heart rate technology. You can place it against your horse nearly anywhere and see the heart rate in MotionX-GPS on your cell phone. 

You can experiment with mounting (see attachment sidebar), but it can also be simply held against their neck or armpit if you want a quick read at a vet check. It is rechargeable, waterproof, and probably more useful than a stethoscope to us amateurs. It provides heart rate and calorie burn data.

Beyond BPM

Maybe we can go beyond heart rate measurement. For instance, the Kardia Mobile device might be slipped into a pocket of an elastic band around your horse’s chest to transmit their EKG/ECG wirelessly to your cell phone. If you see any anomaly, you can press record, add an audio message, and send this bundle of info on to your veterinarian by email. About US$100 on Amazon.com.au.

Or, look into blood pressure measurement using a cuff that transmits via bluetooth to your smart phone. With such a device, such as the Omron 10 for about US$55, you’ll see systole, diastole and pulse.

Or, go farther with Biostrap. Two position sensors include gyroscopes and accelerometers, and a pulse oximeter, offering sensing of orientation, velocity, and position of hands and legs. You should be able to track how many steps your horse has taken at each gait in a ride, how consistent their stride was, how many calories they burned, and so on. To attach to your horse while riding, see attachment sidebar.

The app will provide summaries by day, week, month and year. On a human, it automatically classifies running, walking, swimming, elliptical, rowing, stairmaster and biking. However, you can train it to recognise over 100 additional exercises. Designed for humans, the wrist device tracks heart rate variability, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate. The shoe pod tracks exercises. The set costs US$250. To attach to your horse while riding, see attachment sidebar.