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Can a FitBit Track a Horse’s Activity?

If you’re wondering how much activity your horse is getting when you’re not with him, why not strap on a simple FitBit? According to U.S. researchers, the human-oriented device could offer a useful alternative to more expensive options designed specifically for horses, and still provide satisfactory results.

Attached to boots on a front and back leg, a FitBit Zip gives good, relative estimates of horses’ movement in a stall or in-hand, and would probably work well in a paddock as well.

It also appears to be safe for both the horse and the device, said Valerie Moorman, DVM, PhD, DACVS-LA, Clinical Associate Professor of Large Animal Surgery and Lameness at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Athens.

“We chose to look at the Fitbit device because it is widely available and inexpensive,” Moorman said. “It is also very easy to use, and the data can be accessed easily using its smart phone app.

The specific Fitbit device that we used (FitBit Zip) also had an easy attachment method and could be securely attached to a boot on the horse.”

Moorman and her fellow researchers ran several tests on a small group of Quarter Horses, trying out the FitBit in different locations on each horse in a stall for 24 hours.

At first they used five FitBits per horse: one each at a hindlimb, forelimb, the withers, the poll, and chest—attached using safe, soft elastic bands or leg boots. But the device slipped around on the withers and chest, Moorman said, and the one at the poll recorded head movements as steps.

They then tried with just two—one at each left leg—and found the results much more consistent with what they were seeing on the recorded videos of the horses during those 24 hours.

Afterwards, they equipped the horses with two FitBit Zips (one on each leg) and recorded them as they were walked and trotted in hand. Although they had set the stride length for the average length of a Quarter Horse stride (about 60 cm), the FitBit grossly overcounted the horses’ steps.

That might be because horses don’t move their legs the same way humans do—and also, the FitBit is designed to be worn on people’s hips, not their legs. Adjusting stride length helped, Moorman said. But it still ended up counting steps at about double what they really were.

Even so, while it doesn’t provide as exact a representation of the horse’s activity as equine-specific equipment might, the FitBit does allow people to have a general idea of how much their horses are moving, she said.

Meanwhile, the device caused no safety issues for the horses in their study in the way they attached it, as described in their study. And, the FitBits themselves incurred no damage—even those that were slipping on the withers and chest.

“Based on what we learned from stalled horses, we know the devices are robust and not likely to be damaged,” Moorman said.

While the ultimate goal would be to monitor free-roaming horses in a paddock, stall monitoring with a FitBit would also be useful for situations like colic and foaling, she said.

However, because the FitBit requires a direct Bluetooth connection, it means people would only get information about a horse’s activity once they can get close enough to the horse for the device to upload information to the mobile app.

In order to get real-time data, people would have to stay close-by or have a second mobile device that they leave near the stall.

The researchers don’t plan to stop there, however, according to Moorman. “The next step would be to examine activity of horses in paddock or pasture turn-out,” she said.

“Using the devices during training could also be very useful, especially when we want to be able to quantitate how much of a particular activity a horse is performing. This could be very helpful for rehabilitation or conditioning.”

The article titled: ‘Evaluation of a Commercial Activity Monitor for Determining Step Counts in Horses’ by Kyle E. Kline, and Valerie J. Moorman, is published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. The abstract can be read here.

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

1 COMMENT

  1. So I searched the full paper and it’s either unavailable or paywalled, I can’t tell. But this is fascinating,
    what stride length setting did they use that worked?
    What data did they collect?
    Some Fitbit devices send data to mobile devices despite long distance, is this an option?
    What are the implications for those wishing to monitor horses off site, ie those agisting?

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