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Something For Drew: Equine Therapeutic Devices Bringing Technology to Help Former Student Take Big Steps to Recovery

Friday, August 30, 2013
Female stands looking on as male touches device
Satisfying Project: Melissa Montgomery smiles while watching former Rose-Hulman student Drew Christy ride the iHorse Simulator. (Photos by Chris Minnick)

Rose-Hulman students have completed hundreds of senior-year capstone design projects to exhibit problem-solving skills required for the innovative workplace. But few, if any, have had the personal touch of the equine therapeutic devices produced by three biomedical engineering teams last spring.

After all, Drew Christy was once one of them.

Christy experienced a traumatic brain injury in a February 2008 automobile accident while returning home after completing the winter term final exams for his sophomore year as a biomedical engineering student at Rose-Hulman. He was in a coma for five months, hospitalized for another four months, and given a 1 percent survival rate by physicians.

"He's a 1-percenter," says Drew's devoted mother, Debbi. "I told the doctors 'You don't know Drew. He's a survivor'."

Remarkably, by May 2012, Drew began physical therapy at the Hope Haven Horse Farm, Inc. in Coatesville, a small town in Hendricks County, Indiana. And, Debbi reached out to Rose-Hulman Biomedical Engineering Professor Renee Rogge, PhD, to see if students would like to assist with brain injury research by creating assistive devices for Hope Haven's nearly 40 clients.

"Dr. Rogge said, 'I'd been wondering when you were going to call,'" recalls Debbi.

Two females and one male stand in picture. Two of the individuals have their arms held up.

Making Adjustments: Biomedical engineering students (from left) Tanya Colonna and Creasy Clauser explain the concepts that went into designing their senior-year biomedical engineering project for the Hope Haven Farms Inc.

A year later, Drew was giving a thumb's up signal to show his delight while riding the iHorse Simulator, a high-tech version of a horse's torso developed by 2013 graduates Melissa Montgomery, Nicole Richardson, and Jacki Simon. The device features a series of eight wooden ribs, bicycle chains, wheels, and shafts that work in tandem to replicate the four-beated movement of horse riding. It provides a new, innovative approach to help patients recover from devastating injuries or other physical challenges.

"This is the closest thing to mimicking the horse's gait available," says Christina Menke, founder and executive director of Hope Haven, a non-profit equine therapy organization. "Therapeutic riding has been around since the 1990s, but these may be the first devices that incorporate technology that assist us in getting measurable outcomes for the clients we serve."

The iHorse Simulator's movements help simulate the hip motion and core muscle activity experienced when a person rides a horse. Without the device, Horse Haven clients needed a 15-minute horse riding warm-up to relax their leg muscles and relieve hip spasms, leaving less time for each therapeutic session.

For Drew, the iHorse has encouraged his recovery to the point that he has started intensive physical therapy in Indianapolis, with the hope of someday walking again. The former Rose-Hulman football player has started performing many tasks without assistance. During a family vacation, Debbi and her husband, Mark, met a man who had successfully recovered from brain injuries similar to that Drew experienced.

Close-up of individual holding device up to her eyes
Project Close Up: Tanya Colonna showcases features on The Stable-izer, one of three projects completed by senior biomedical engineering students during the 2012-13 school year.

"Every day is a blessing by having Drew in our life," says Mark. "We continue to take things a day at a time. He has come so far (in his recovery) and we can see the steps he has made. They might seem small to some, but they're big for us."

A second device developed by Rose-Hulman students--a therapeutic saddle--provides back, hand, and leg support for clients while riding a horse, extending the length of riding sessions and providing the rider more independence. Previously, several "side walkers" were required to help hold the rider in place throughout each session. It was designed by Michael Boyer, Peter Moorman, and Candice Sandberg.

Another device, the Stable-izer resembles sunglasses with an electronic system that detects when the client begins to lean from a straight vertical riding position in the saddle. It sounds an alert when assistance is required. Developing the device were Creasy Clauser, Tanya Colonna, and Alex Schwier.

Helping Drew and other Hope Haven clients was a gratifying experience for the students and faculty mentors.

"Initially, just the 'wow' factor of 'let's make a horse' attracted me to the project. But then when we met [Drew] and some of the other people who might be using it, it became a lot more about really helping people," states Montgomery, who estimated her team worked more than 1,500 hours on the project during the school year. "At the end of the project, it was an extremely powerful moment to watch him enjoy something that had been constructed by our team."

Sandberg adds, "It's exciting to see the application put to use. We're going to be able to help so many people."

These new technologies offer opportunities to assist persons throughout the world, according to Menke.

Female stands reaching for object
Showing Off Features: Candice Sandberg reveals how her team's Therapeutic Saddle project can be adjusted to fit the needs of different riders.

"We'll be helping 30 to 40 of our clients with the devices, but long-term, we're hoping this changes the entire therapeutic riding industry by bringing in technology that provides statistical data to measure outcomes," she says. "We don't want to stop here, we want to take this to an international level."

This fact brings a sense of satisfaction to Debbi, who has been delighted to have Drew reacquainted with Rose-Hulman and its students.

"Drew's focus was research. That's where his heart was. He loves being around the students." states the proud mother. "This is a way Drew can help other people. We're not going to waste this energy, and we're not going to waste this injury."