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Q & A: Force of a horse

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
I am trying to measure the amount of force my horse exerts on the ground at a walk, trot and canter. I have measured the speed of the horse and the depth of his hoofprints at each gait. I know that F=ma and I will find the weight of my horse, but I thought I should try to use the depth of the hoofprint he left in the sand. Could you tell me the formula I should use? Or do you have any other ideas on how I can find the exact force he exerts? Thank you!!
- Alex (age 12)
I'm afraid there's no unambiguous way to take the depth of your horse's hoofprints in the sand and convert that into a force. There can be a lot of variation in the response of the sand to a horse's footprint from place to place, having to do with how wet the sand is, its compositon and the shape of the grains, and the presence of pebbles or seaweed (if you're on the beach) or anything else. There's also the problem that the force a horse's hoof exerts on the ground is a rapidly varying function of time. At the beginning of the collision, the force is small; it gets much bigger, and perhaps stays constant for a while or varies with the horse's position and muscle flexing, and then it reduces until the hoof lifts off for the next step. So then the question is if you are interested in the maximum force or the average force over the time the hoof is in contact with the ground.

The average force might be easier to compute from other arguments. You can weigh the horse on a suitable scale, divide by four (an approximation -- the four legs may not evenly distribute the weight on average), and find out the fraction of the time each hoof stays in contact with the ground at each gait. (weight/4)/(fraction of time the hoof is in contact with the ground) should give you the average force on a hoof while it is in contact with the ground. At many gaits, a horse may spend some time with no hoof in contact with the ground, while at others, all but one hoof may be in contact with the ground. You could use a video camera and count the frames in slow-motion over a full cycle of the periodic step to determine what fraction of the step has each hoof in contact with the ground.

Now that's the average force -- the maximum force also depends strongly on what the ground's made of. If the horse is walking on concrete, the peak force will be much larger than it is on sand. And not all steps will have the same force of the hooves on the ground -- say, if the horse jumps or lands after a jump, some of the forces can get very large. Forces can also be locally very high. If the horse steps on a rock and the total force which normally is distributed over the contact area of the hoof gets concentrated at a very small contact area where the rock touches the hoof, the foces can get large.

You could put scales down with ratchets on their dials to record the maximum force -- but then you'd have to convince your horse to step on them in a sensible approximation of the gait you're interested in. There is also such stuff as "pressure sensitive tape" which you can attach to the shoes of the horse -- it's read out electronically via an ohmmeter (the resistance of the tape changes with pressure). You'd need some electronics to record the pressure as a function of time and find the maximum.


(published on 10/22/2007)

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