Chalmers investment in equestrian sports technology has proven to be successful. The world of sport is always looking for new ideas and serves well as a testing arena for developing new technical solutions and materials. This research field is also giving Chalmers students the opportunity to combine leisure interests with studies.
“The Chalmers fence is something the students work with in addition to their own studies, it is an opportunity to participate in a project that really makes a mark outside campus,” says Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson, Vice President of Education and Lifelong Learning at Chalmers University of Technology.
From idea to crowded arena
The Chalmers fence is a "smart showjumping fence" and every year a new technical solution is created to measure another kinematic aspect of the jumps. The results are presented to the large audience in Scandinavium on the jumbotron during the ongoing competition at the Gothenburg Horse Show.
“I really want to point out that this project is the result of many enthusiasts' ideas and struggles. Many people at Chalmers have been involved over the years, not least horse-interested students,” says Magnus Karlsteen, adding that it is not only equestrian people involved in the projects. Many do it for the technical challenge and the community around it, says Magnus Karlsteen, who is responsible for the Chalmers Fence and Chalmers Equestrian sports projects.
Magnus Karlsteen went to riding school for one summer as a 6-year-old, but he "has hardly ever seen a horse since then". Nevertheless, Chalmers’ research into equestrian sports has attracted considerable attention in the equestrian world, which is much larger than most people can imagine. According to the Swedish Equestrian Federation, half a million Swedes are involved in the sport and it is Sweden's third largest youth sport (for 7–25-year olds). There is a significant equestrian sports industry with everything from suppliers of horse feed and veterinarians to product developers and trainers.
Chalmers often organises public seminars, where different stakeholders are invited to share the latest in different research areas. When the first meeting regarding equestrian sports was organised in 2012, it turned out that the demand for research within the field was enormous.
“At a certain equestrian technology meeting we received several hundred interested people. The interest was almost as great as when the Nobel laureates visits campus,” says Magnus Karlsteen.
A few years later, in 2015, Chalmers met representatives from Gothenburg Horse Show for the first time and the Chalmers fence, which was originally initiated by the former Vice President Maria Knutson-Wedel, began to grow from idea to reality.
“The collaboration with Chalmers is part of Gothenburg Horse Show's work to support development. Equestrian sport has been given new scientific information which supports our work on horse training and competition”, says Tomas Torgersen, director for the Gothenburg Horse Show.
Opportunity to combine interests with studies
Although the investment has only been going for five years, there are already examples of horse-interested Chalmers students who have gained interest in the engineering profession after seeing the Chalmers fence and visiting Chalmers’ booth during the competition in Scandinavium.
Chalmers student Anna Skötte, project manager for the fence group 2020, is interested in both horses and technology and thinks that the Chalmers fence shows how well it works to combine these two interests.
“The days we spent in Scandinavium were extremely exciting, even though they also were very busy. The most fun thing was that everyone involved and even the audience experienced the fence measurements as interesting and successful! Also, the fact that I got to know so many different people both from Chalmers and the outside world has been very valuable,” says Anna Skötte.
"We forgot that horses have tails”
Technical problems and time issues are a part of the everyday life of an engineer, something that the Chalmers students who have been involved in the Chalmers fence have gained practical experience of.
Magnus Karlsteen talks about one of the most memorable incidents over the years. During a test run a few days before the show, the participating horse had an unusually long tail. The fence had been jumped before and everything had worked well, but now the technology caught the lowest point of the tail, instead of the hooves, as the measuring point over the fence. In the computer, it looked like every bar was falling down, when in reality it was only hairs from the tail that rubbed the bars.
“It was eventually solved by having students manually reviewing each point of the kinematics before the results were posted on the jumbotron in the arena. It is an example of what a good training in problem-solving the project gives the students – they get an invaluable experience of real working life,” says Magnus Karlsteen.
Old truths questioned through new knowledge
The Chalmers fence has questioned a long-lived myth in the world of equestrian sport. The old truth says that the horse's takeoff point is as far ahead of the fence as the fence is high. But when the students' results of the Chalmers fence in 2017 were analysed by Chalmers researcher Kristina Wärmefjord, it was confirmed that the horses jump off considerably further away than that. There is even a formula for this, which reads "1.3x obstacle height + 0.2". The measurements showed that on a 1.50 fence, the horse's hooves are on average 2.15 meters from the fence in the take-off.
The results from Gothenburg Horse Show have over the years also confirmed knowledge that previously was mostly based on the riders' gut feeling, for example that more experienced horses and riders manage to maintain a more even rhythm and speed – before, over and after the fence. In classes with young riders or young horses, the numbers were much more varied than in the world elite jumping classes.
Chalmers has collaborations with several stakeholders both in Sweden and abroad regarding equestrian sport technology. There are collaborations with the Swedish breeding association SWB, and research applications are in progress together with the International equestrian committee, Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI). There is also a collaboration with Sahlgrenska University Hospital and with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). During the European Championships in Gothenburg 2017, Chalmers students also participated in the production of obstacles for the competitions in driving, and through a design competition Chalmers students developed no less than four of the jump fences at the Ullevi stadium. There are also examples of Chalmers projects in trotting and horse racing.
A collaboration with the Swedish School of Textiles in Borås has resulted in development of the possibility to measure ECG, heart rate and breathing with smart textiles through the horses’ fur – the list of impacts in different areas can be long. Chalmers’ equestrian technology has established contacts within equine research in Australia. Among other things, several students were invited to present their horse racing project in the Australian city of Wagga Wagga in 2018.
“The students are given a unique opportunity to create a network – internally at Chalmers, in the corporate world, in the horse sector and in various research areas around the world. We are constantly contacted by new stakeholders,” says Magnus Karlsteen.
Ireland is another great horse nation that has shown interest in Chalmers’ equestrian technology. During Gothenburg Horse Show this year, the fence group was contacted by the head of the Ireland national team. The Chalmers students received an invitation to visit Ireland and set up the Chalmers fence at the prestigious Dublin Horse Show in the summer of 2020 – though the collaboration has unfortunately been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.
The next step: commercialisation and entrepreneurship
The work of taking the technology from the Chalmers fence to the next step in a commercialisation process is done in various ways, including, in the spring of 2020, a master’s thesis titled "Development and testing of a concept for analyzing kinematics in show jumping".
“We believe that video analysis is a way forward for equestrian sport technology. We want to be able to offer riders and trainers a static tool that with the help of collected data, could detect a downward trend in the horse's performance at an early stage, which could be an indication of an injury for example. By quickly identifying a negative signal, the horse's well-being and a possible veterinary cost can be positively affected,” says Elin Lorin, one of the students behind the study.
She and her fellow student Niklas Westman are now getting help from Chalmers Innovation Office to develop the Master thesis into an eventual Startup. Several students who have been active in the Chalmers fence group are today entrepreneurs within the field.
The technical aspects of the Chalmers fence are also being developed within the Chalmers educational investment Tracks. The work is run in collaboration with the Riding School at Strömsholm, one of the Swedish Equestrian Federation´s educational facilities, where the national teams have their base.
This year, the participants in the Tracks course about the fence were tasked on the demand from Strömsholm to develop a system for measuring and analysing equipage that is jumping at their riding arena. Anna Skötte, project manager for the Chalmers fence 2020, also participates in this venture:
“We have chosen to continue with the same technology as in Scandinavium, through a camera which records the kinematic data when the horses jump, something we hope can support the training of both horses and riders at Strömsholm in the future”, she says.
Magnus Karlsteen says that the collaboration with Strömsholm is an opportunity to quickly reach out with the technology into the wider horse world, for example during the annual testing of young horses that is arranged at the facility.
“Through the collaboration, we get the opportunity to participate in and develop equestrian sport at the highest level, and in the longer term we can also make the technology available to the market and to the ordinary rider,” says Magnus Karlsteen.