Contemplating the beauty of the 2.5 million acres that make up Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, is best done by horseback. The hoof-fall and steady breath of a horse forms a natural harmony with the surrounding pine forests and mountain peaks that motor vehicles and whirring bikes could never achieve.
That’s because the horse beneath its rider belongs to the isolation that lends Shoshone its beauty. It confirms that isolation, that predominance of the natural over the human-made and artificial. That same isolation, however, means the horses that carry tourist and locals alike through the wilderness cannot readily access one of great advantages of human development–healthcare.
Bringing in a Trained Eye
One of the clearest indications that a horse is suffering from an illness or injury is the way it walks. A stumbling, staggering, almost drunken gait can be a symptom of not only skeletal or muscular injury, but also more sinister neurological ailments. In fact, the most common neurological problems vets encounter in horses are diagnosable through observing their gait. These potentially fatal disorders include equine herpesvirus type 1 (EHV-1), equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), and West Nile Virus.
It takes a trained eye to tell the difference between a horse that’s limping because it’s trodden awkwardly on a fallen branch and one that’s contracted a virus. And if you’re the owner of a horse displaying such symptoms, and you’re living on a Wyoming property hundreds of miles from the nearest vet, the financial and time cost of seeking out that trained eye could be dangerously prohibitive.
However, the video conferencing advances that link boardrooms on each coast of the U.S. could give a vet the chance to see for themselves just what is occurring in an isolated paddock.
It’s Been Tested on Humans
Doctors have already begun conducting consultations with patients in remote areas via online video chat services such as Skype. And the available services extend beyond a routine check-up. Physicians from the University of Miami have used emerging video technologies to help victims of natural disasters hundreds of miles away in Haiti. And recent developments from tech giant Intel now make it possible for doctors to remotely check the depth, tissue damage, and temperature of a wound using 3D imaging equipment.
In the hands of a skilled veterinarian the benefits of these technologies could also be brought to bear on the lives of horses in remote areas.
A video linkup using affordable hardware and any major web browser could allow a vet to observe a horse walking around its stable hundreds of miles away. With a little upgrade in image quality and the use of a handheld camera a horse owner could let the vet cast their eye across an animal’s entire body, checking eyes, ears, hooves, and nostrils.
Such a consultation would radically reduce the time it takes a vet to arrive on the scene of a serious infection, and make it possible to check in on the patient at regular intervals until help arrives. In between consultations in their city practice, the vet could simply open up a live link and see if the animal has improved. This kind of prima facie inspection would also rule out the costly, time consuming, and potentially hazardous transportation of an animal that could have been treated in its stable under expert guidance from afar.
There are already online, video call-based services available for urban animal owners that offer consultations as well as integrated record keeping. And one mobile UK vet service offers initial consultations by video conferencing for a fraction of the cost of a traditional visit, minus the trauma of trying to get kitty in her cat carrier.
The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has conducted courses and “virtual rounds” via video conferencing since 2007, and their farm animal experts currently offer email and telephone consultations to owners, a sign that more extensive use of communication technology by vets may soon become common.
Hands-Off Care Could Keep Horses Healthier
Removing the vet from the scene of a sick animal also reduces the threat of contagion, and the chances of a virus being carried from one property to the next on the person of a vet making house calls. Of course, should a virus be detected at one property a remote veterinarian could place a video call to surrounding properties to assess the extent of any outbreak.
Scanning equipment capable of transmitting 3D images online and temperature sensitive hardware that can be read remotely could become standard features of any rural stable. With information flowing regularly back to the laptops of vets, a daily walk through a scanner at the barn door capable of recording heart rate, temperature, and perhaps even brain activity may be all the interaction a horse need have with a medical expert on a regular basis, enabling horses in remote areas to remain healthy and happy in the wildest of wildernesses.