Special Riders for Wild Horses

by Marco Roccetti and Gustavo Marfia

When the connection between the natural or animal world and technology represents advantages for mankind.

In a recent book of the fantastic-detective genre, published by Einaudi and entitled "Nane oca rivelato" by Giuliano Scabia, the protagonist asks Homer what is poetry. The answer is: "It is when words become horses". We feel free to hope that Scabia meant that the river of words and concepts that we produce daily (and that modern information and communication technology then enhances and transmits far away) are so much more poetic, and we feel this way a sense of relief and comfort for the bodies and the souls of those who will listen, as much as they are able to evoke the strength of a horse or the agility of a dog, the freshness of the shadow of a tree or the perfume of the sea waves. We like to be convinced by Scabia that reality is hidden, submerged, always, a fabulous essence in which a word trots like a horse and where horses speak to us with sorrow. Now, one of the issues relating to the current hyper-technologized society is whether modern technologies contribute, in the end, to widening a gap between the reality as it is perceived from the senses and the fabulous schemes that it hides. If I speak on the mobile phone with my partner, surely I stay in touch with her even when I am far away but maybe I am losing the possibility of an adventure in the strawberry garden of her lips. And so the question is: are modern technologies, designed to make the world that we see more manageable and efficient, getting us further away from its hidden and adventurous side, no less real?
We wrote the brief note that follows to tell the magazine's readers about an annecdote concerning the fact that not everything that is technological crystallizes the reality only in what we see, feel or touch, but there exist technologies that bring up on the surface those fabulous schemes of which it is made. We wrote it specifically for this magazine because we know that whoever reads it is used to seeing things differently, to feeling silence, to moving in stillness. We hope to be convincing, we hope to be useful.

Since we began by speaking about horses, let us go back to the subject to demonstrate that what is wilder and freer in the animal world often speak to us, that there are technologies which can help this dialog, this exchange. That household pets have regained in the course of centuries, and continue to do so, an important role in the life of many people is a known fact. Aside from the classic duties as guardian and company, studies of psychological characters have recently drawn attention on how the interaction with animals can improve the social abilities of some people.
Medical studies, moreover, have shown how a relationship with them can even influence positively various physiological values such as blood pressure and cardiac frequency.
For example, the use of horses as having an effect on human therapeutic pathologies was sensationally demonstrated during the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki when Danish athlete Lis Hartel, paralyzed in the legs following polio, won a silver medal in the dressage category. This experience inspired physicians and therapists who could see the potential in the use of horses in motor and psychological recovery of persons with disabilities. Today, in the US, the North American Riding for Handicapped Association has 30,000 special riders who are being helped by their relationship with horses. The potential in the relationship between horses and special riders has been exploited also in Italy, where for many years this subject is at the centre of the interest of various charitable organizations, public and private. In particular, we were very impressed

by the activities of a special unit of the Horse Regiment of Lancers of Montebello, commanded by Col. Gianfranco Fedele who for many years has made horses and instructors available to special riders. Recent results achieved by Lancieri and easily verifiable concern a young autistic girl who learned to communicate and entered University, and of a student who became part of the sports group for disabled people and won Italian championships.

If the subject is now about wild horses for special riders, technologists are asking themselves what could be done to improve this relationship. While it is true that for a while now sensory hardware has been an integral part of the equipment used for therapeutic purposes in the various phases of identification, monitoring and rehabilitation in psychological and physical pathologies in hospitals, the most recent evolution in algorithm software and wireless technological apparatus can make possible today the identification and quantification in real time, and outside of the health facility, of an anomalous condition, the probability of reporting in an immediate future a dangerous situation for the health of a person. So, the idea is that the possibility to see ahead of time possible problems and report them at a distance in real time can bring on significant improvements to complex treatments like hippotherapy during which the typical operations of monitoring, measuring and controling are done in complicated geographical contexts and outside of a health facility.
For that purpose, the Department of Information Science of the University of Bologna is undertaking a collaboration with the Horse Regiment of Lancers of Montebello based on the idea to improve the application of the hippotherapy practice intercepting data on posture and stability while riding and data on psychophysiological conditions (ex., stress) in order to allow a corrective intervention or assistance when necessary. Simply said, the goal is to obtain a process of hippotherapeutic optimization, able to take advantage at best the mathematic-postural models with relative algorithms and wireless sensors in order to gather and retransmit at a distance the first signals that demonstrate possible conditions of discomfort of the rider. This requires the implementation of techniques that allow the correlation of a large amount of information read by sensors like the level of anxiety or stress and the rider's eventual incorrect posture. The idea of the way the system can be implemented is shown in figure 1. One or more sensors can be installed on the rider's clothes and/or on the horse in order to transmit without wires information to a medical control centre.

The technician at the medical control centre (who does not have to be near the training field, but in a health facility) could in turn warn an instructor on the field to execute a corrective intervention. Just as an example, it is reported that blood pressure, which level is known to be influenced by a persistent state of stress could be considered an indicator of interest, but it is clear that parameters of interest and methods of reporting should be rigorously chosen according to the type of rider and his or her pathology, in agreement with the medical team. Generically speaking, it could be possible to imagine integrating in the system the use of sensors such as the cardiofrequencemeter, the blood pressure meter, the electric brain activity meter, etc. To record the data necessary for the system to calculate the possible abnormalities in the posture of the rider, we could think of using an accelerometer (which gives measures of acceleration) placed in adequate positions.
In conclusion, we state that the connection between the natural or animal world and technology represents advantages for mankind. The contact with an animal, the horse, which is known to be a symbol of freedom and wild spaces, requires however the use of technologies allowing this freedom and not interfering with these spaces, overcoming where possible the obligation of being confined in a clinical environment, even if one is submitted to therapeutic procedures however complex. After what we have told you, we ask you, readers, a question: are you still disposed to believe that all modern technologies, with the objective of resolving problems of efficiency, are truly and always instruments that take us away from the fabulous beauty of the reality around us? If your answer is yes, then: or we were not able to have our words galloping as fast as horses or you are the ones who cannot see differently!

Marco Roccetti has been for ten years a computer science professor at the Department of Information Science at the University of Bologna,

Gustavo Marfia, after his recent Ph.D. at UCLA, collaborates with the Department of Information Science at the University of Bologna.

Picture - Prof. Marco Roccetti

Picture - Gustavo Marfia, researcher

Picture - Horses and riders, horse riding and technology

Image - Figure: optimization of hippotherapy