Equestrian sports is about the search for perfect riding position, excellent communication between rider and horse, being asymmetrical and balancing the horse whilst riding. Unbeknownst to the naked eye there is so much difference between riders. Any imperfections between horse and rider and it can jeopardise the welfare of the horse.
Eindhoven based equitation science company IPOS Technology are helping to solve this dilemma by developing rein sensors to improve communication between rider and horse, by getting objective insights about rider performance as well as helping to monitor the welfare of horses. The further challenge that the company is helping to solve is identifying injuries in horses before it becomes serious.
We talked to IPOS Technology CEO Menke Steenbergen, a long-time advocate for equestrian technology. It was during her veterinary studies that she developed the idea for the rein sensor.
We started our conversation by talking about preventative healthcare for horses. Dating as far back as 2012, Steenbergen wrote about preventive healthcare using equine technology. She developed the idea that to better care for your horse a rider needs to understand and measure small signals so they could build information on a horses wellbeing, health and environment.
You have a background as a veterinarian and you coach dressage as well, what did you notice about the welfare and recovery of horses that gave you the idea of developing a sensor to be able to track rein pressure? What did you feel needed to occur based on your experience and observations?
Menke Steenbergen: “It started out by reading scientific publications by Hilary Clayton. She was one of the first researcher to actually start measuring rein pressure and I was really fascinated by the information. I went back to teaching horse riding and realised I didn’t know anything about it. The first problem that I questioned was how do we communicate something like feeling if we don’t know what feeling should be.”
How did you realise that there is such a big difference in rein pressure between skilled and novice riders?
MS: “I was still in college and I asked the university blacksmith for help with this ‘rein pressure device’ and they came up with a little box that I needed to tape around the neck of the horse that was connected to two sensors. I took a horse from the university rode it, testing my device and then I found out that I actually had two kilograms more in my right hand than in my left and I’m thinking ‘oh my god, I didn’t even know that’.”
One of the things that you’re helping to solve is putting a lot of objective evidence into coaching rather than guesswork.
MS: “I think as a sport we need to grow awareness at all levels because we actually don’t know. The foundation of this idea is actually from Australia, applying sports science to equestrian has been researched by Professor Paul McGreevy at the University of Sydney. Him and Dr Andrew McLean have been very influential to me, and they co-wrote a book called Equitation Science.
“Through scientific research we can help coaches to better understand what they’re actually teaching to riders. In that sense if they understand, the riders will understand and then the horse will also more easily understand because nowadays I think a lot of horses are very stressed for not knowing what is required of them. The result we hope to achieve is that horses get less stressed because we are clearer in our communication with them.”
It’s getting that clarity of communication and also tackling the challenge of greater welfare of horses. If everything is still guesswork based then welfare is still the most important challenge.
MS: “You can imagine if the horse doesn’t understand you will start pulling more because it doesn’t respond. Two things could happen, either you have a horse that acts out and it will kick you, start bucking and bolting and try to get rid of its rider. The other is that the horse shuts down, it will stop responding altogether and you will need even more force to get a response.
“In the Netherlands, research has shown that up to 40 to 50 percent of horses in training are a little bit injured. That’s really high but people just don’t notice this and that’s okay, I’ve done six years of study as a vet and I don’t even see it all the time. Even vets don’t agree on lameness. It means we’re in need for objective insights. The issue to tackle is trying to find these injuries earlier in order to prevent further escalation. We’ve calculated the economic effect of that would be if you could prevent injury, in the Netherlands it’s about 800 million euros in total is lost on injuries, that includes lost income and the loss in value of a horse, that’s only the Netherlands!”
What were the early prototypes of the sensors like?
MS: “I made a big mistake, the first sensors we built the data didn’t get stored centrally. I then changed the design and with my team we are building new sensors that communicate with your smartphone and all the data will be stored in a cloud so that anyone can do more analysis. For now it’s good that we get so much insight from one sensor but if we have this data we can benchmark more, for example, the level of riding or the level of competing over time.”
Aside from rein pressure what other things could be measured with sensors on a horse?
MS: “We certainly could develop better training schedules by calculating the intensity of training. For example, if you’re spending more time in a canter than a trot the training will be more intense and then if you do a lot of walks in-between it will be less intense. Then we could compare the average training intensity of your horse with your previous weeks training. If it’s a young horse it can be really intense for them to do only five minutes of cantering.”
Do you think that equestrian has been slower or about on par in its uptake on technology and collating data as other sports?
MS: “I think all sports are slow in adopting technology. That’s what I’ve learned from the Sports Analytics World Series. I was amazed everything new, even beneficial technology takes time to adapt to.”
A lot of competing organisations or associations can halt the uptake of new technologies. I was wondering if that is also a problem to solve in equestrian?
MS: “When we started five years ago the lack of initiative wasn’t really surprising. I think that’s also because the horse riding industry is a niche market and it’s very closed off. It’s not very well connected to other sports.
“Another problem is that too many elite people stick together, they have the biggest voices, they all agree with each other which tends to confirm each other’s ideas. This is very bad for innovation. It’s the same issue with veterinarians, they use language nobody else understands so it’s very excluding, and it’s the same in horse riding.
“So what I did as I actually moved away from Utrecht University for vet sciences and I moved to Eindhoven to get into the technology network. Moving to Eindhoven confirmed to me that I’m on the right track. If I was with equestrian people all the time they world say I’m crazy. They did that for five years and only now they’ve finally started accepting a little bit of what I do, saying you might be onto something but five years ago they would say that ‘silly girl with that rein tension thing!’”
It can be a challenge getting people to try new platforms or ideas to help them work efficiently.
Has there been elite riders that have supported your idea and thinks that it can make a difference?
MS: “In dressage you have the ‘Academy Bartels‘ and they have been into scientific research and development of the rein sensors from day one. They set up a global dressage forum where people from across the world attended to discuss dressage issues such as equine welfare, innovation and they were one of the first to call me when I had my very old sensors while I was still in college, and yet they were so interested and forgiving with all the early technology errors and prototypes.”
When you found people who were receptive to it how did you go from there?
MS: “Then the quest for money began. We had a pre-seed investor put in about 100,000 (US dollars) and we’ve just recently done a second round to develop the sensor with an app and cloud platform. It took me a long time to convince investors that horse riding is ready. I think that was the main issue. They do believe in me or in the idea but you need a client list ready and waiting.”
There’s a market of people that have disposable money and retailers are already working off higher margins for horse related products. What type of customers could go for your sensors?
MS: “I think for this sport you need to go top down. So we start with the elite then go down to the riding schools and for the Netherlands you’re looking at about 40,000 competitive riders.”
Could injury prevention be in the product roadmap? Even before injuries occur, so it becomes predictive.
MS: “That would save so much waste in horses because if a horse gets injured you’re done, the rehabilitation takes a lot of time and if you are competing at a high level that horse will always be at risk. But it doesn’t need to be, you need to take earlier action to prevent any injury occurring or worsening.”
What other potential aspects of horse riding or equestrian could IPOS solve?
MS: “There’s a lot of big equine research institutes and many of them are using the beta version of the rein sensor pressure measurements.
“Another area that I haven’t touched yet is the racing industry. We don’t have that in Holland so I’m not really exposed to it but you can imagine that we could find injuries, which is the biggest problem for racers, before the vet can see it.
“I’m not only finding front leg lameness I’m also finding hind leg lameness as well.”
How many people are in your technical team?
MS: “We have a chief technology officer, a hardware developer, a cloud developer and a mobile application developer. I found it was really important to have software developers in the company. I can imagine once we get this data we’re going to think up new tools, new algorithms, we may want to analyse our data more deeply and to meet these challenges we will need programmers. If you asked me next year I would probably have new features already figured out as things can change quickly.
“The international potential is huge because there’s no other company doing it at the moment at the level that we are.
“Now our priority is to go from beta testing to launching the first commercial version of the sensors. From there our goal is to scale internationally.”