When she was 12, a veterinarian told Niki Hansen her beloved quarter horse named Power would probably die.
An infection in Power’s hoof caused him to go lame, and horses that can’t walk or stand without pain are usually euthanized.
“When the vet told me, ‘You should probably put your horse down,’ I was just a kid,” said Hansen, now a 35-year-old graduate student at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t do it. That I kept with me through all the years.”
Power survived because of a costly, risky surgery, but the fear that he would have to die propelled Hansen to develop new life-saving treatments for horses with leg injuries and diseases.
Her doctoral research at LSU aims to create the first successful prosthetic legs for horses — artificial limbs implanted into the horses’ bones that can support a 1,000-pound animal and up to 4,000 pounds of force.
While prosthetics for smaller animals and lighter ponies have been successful, they haven’t worked for full-size horses.
“She is definitely moving in a direction very few people are moving in,” said Laura Riggs, a professor at LSU and Hansen’s adviser. “It’s something that needs to be done.”
Lameness, a diagnosis that describes several conditions that prevent a horse from moving properly, accounts for 24 percent of all euthanasia deaths of older horses, according to a study by The Horse Trust charity in the United Kingdom. Young, otherwise healthy horses are put down from injury, too.
“A horse can’t live for any period of time without the fourth limb,” Riggs said.
Horses cannot limp like a dog, cat or human that has lost the use of a limb, Riggs said. Also, it is nearly impossible to prevent a horse from standing during a long recovery period, she said, so any implant has to bear weight immediately.
Hansen plans to use a titanium prosthetic that is implanted into a horse’s leg bone, a technology developed by an English researcher for smaller animals that hasn’t been tested yet for horses. Similar implants have been unsuccessful with horses because of infections, but Hansen said new anti-bacterial coatings will likely solve that problem.
Hansen’s passion for animals is nothing new. She grew up on a farm in Wisconsin surrounded by cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, dogs and cats. Intimidated by science classes, she studied music at college in South Carolina instead of becoming a veterinarian.
After working a string of uninspiring jobs, Hansen says her life changed when her pet of 13 years, a golden retriever named Bucky Roo, died from cancer. He passed away with his head in her hands and a ball in his mouth.
“I decided this was it,” she said. “I just wanted to be a veterinarian.”
Hansen returned to college to earn an additional bachelor’s degree in molecular biology. She read voraciously about prosthetic limbs, creating a plan to save more horses.
Ten veterinary schools rejected her application before an adviser at LSU said there was money at the university for her research.
“He was the only person who didn’t think I was nuts,” she said.
In 2009 Hansen started at LSU. She even spent nine months getting a certificate from the Prosthetic and Orthotics Center, a human-focused program at Northwestern University in Illinois, and has created traditional prosthetics for dozens of dogs, cats and goats.
While at Northwestern, Hansen’s LSU adviser left the vet school, and all her research funding went with him.
Since then, Hansen and Riggs have applied for numerous grants, but have been rejected over and over again.
Last year, Hansen began working with LSU to crowdfund her research. Through Experiment.com, she is asking the public for $25,000 to complete her research. That would buy a few titanium prosthetic legs from the English researcher, plus surgical instruments and CT scans.
“I think $25,000 is really ambitious, but I think it’s definitely possible,” she said.
To test her hypothesis, Hansen plans to implant the prosthetic legs into leg bones of deceased horses that were donated to the Vet School. She does not believe in testing on live animals. A machine at LSU will test whether the prosthetic can take the force a 1,000-pound horse will exert.
Veterinary medicine is lagging other fields in the realm of prosthetics, Riggs said, and Hansen’s research could advance the field.
“Clearly the need is there,” Riggs said. “It’s the science that needs to catch up.”