People with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and spinal cord injuries often have problems with balance and movement. We’ve written about work with wearable sensors to help with posture and movement at the Smart Health Institute at San Diego State. Scientists at the NIH Clinical Center Rehabilitation Medicine Department created a robotic exoskeleton that treats crouch gait in children with cerebral palsy.

Six mechanical engineering students at Rice University designed a robotic horse to help patients improve movement and balance. The project is based on hippotherapy, using rhythmic, three-dimensional equine movement to manipulate patients’ lower limbs. The horse also provides a platform for balance therapy. According to the American Hippotherapy Association, patients on horseback engage their sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems in purposeful exercise with functional outcomes. Hippotherapy usually takes place with patients on horseback, accompanied by one to three attendants: one guiding the horse and the other two supporting or spotting the patient. The Rice project, called “Stewie,” builds on the Stewart platform which is a robotic concept from the 1950s. Six motors attached to the robot horse’s aluminum legs move the saddle six ways: latitude, longitude, vertical, pitch, roll, and yaw. The students captured the movements of real equine therapy horses with a smartphone accelerometer and incorporated that data into the robot’s program code. Therapists can set the exercise time and otherwise manage patient sessions on the robotic horse with a small control panel built into the back of the robot.

Hippotherapy is controversial and isn’t accepted universally as a valid therapy for neuromotor problems. Based on their design entry, however, the Rice engineering team won $3,000 from the National Science Foundation by making it to the finals at the World Congress of Biomechanics this summer. The students plan to post Stewie’s open-source schematics and code for free use by anyone who wants to build on their design.