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Stewie the robot offers horseback therapy without the stable fee

Rice University students' hippotherapy device could help patients recover movement, balance

Dogs may be man’s best friend but, for many people with special needs, happiness is found on horseback. It’s thought that the rhythmic, rocking motion can stimulate good posture, confidence, comfort, and other therapeutic benefits for people who suffer from physical and mental disabilities. The problem is, horses are expensive and can be hard to come by, especially for people living in the city.

But a team of undergraduates from Rice University have developed a robotic horse to offer therapies for patients with no easy access to a stable. Expanding on a similar device previously developed by Rice engineers, the robot, Stewie, is designed to provide a cost-effective alternative to the living creature.

Hippotherapy is a technique commonly used by therapists working with children with disabilities. Patients ride, while the therapist walks alongside, often engaging the patient in speech and visual exercises along the way. But these sessions can be expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars.

“Our project is exciting because we are able to re-create multiple different horse gaits with the switch of a button,” Matt O’Gorman, a Rice undergraduate researcher who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “Unlike a mechanical bull or a toy horse outside a supermarket, we accurately match the motion of horses that are used in hippotherapy, which can thus provide much more effective results. Furthermore, our design is fully open-source and easily constructed with minimal machining, for a significantly cheaper price than other devices on the market.”

Stewie takes inspiration from the Stewart platform, a robotic concept that allows machines to move with six degrees of freedom. The Rice team powered their robot using Arduino and six motors for its six legs, enabling Stewie to move with the rhythmic, rocking motions of a real horse.

“The motion of the horse generates motion in the rider that similarly matches a human’s walking motion, so it’s able to provide rehabilitative benefits in walking and generating core muscle strength,” O’Gorman said. “Additionally, the motion relaxes the rider, allowing it to be paired with other therapies. Therapists have found that patients are more effective in speech and similar therapies after being paired with hippotherapy.”

The robot’s biggest benefits boil down to cost and convenience. Parts for Stewie cost around $3,500, while the team said patients can spend upwards of $5,000 on hippotherapy sessions with a real horse. Plus, Stewie’s food and lodging fees are nominal.

“This means he can be used within the city, or an already existing therapeutic center, without necessitating long commutes,” O’Gorman said. “There are some disadvantages as well, notably that Stewie … isn’t a live animal! While the main benefit of hippotherapy is physical, there is some mental component as well, which is why we made Stewie stuffed like a horse to mimic this as best as we could.”

The researchers admit Stewie isn’t as effective as the real thing and, since they’re all graduating, don’t plan on refining the robot much further. But they’ve left the project open-source and encourage anyone who’s inspired to develop the project further.

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