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May 21, 2013

Rose-Hulman projects will promote growth, learning for people with physical challenges

TERRE HAUTE — Life changed dramatically for college engineering student Drew Christy on Feb. 22, 2008 when he was involved in an auto accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

His rehabilitation has progressed slowly and steadily.

But on Monday, progress took a big leap forward when senior biomedical engineering students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology unveiled three projects that will promote growth, learning and hope for people like Christy who have physical challenges.

Christy and people with special needs are the inspiration for the RHIT capstone projects, and the Hope Haven Horse Farm in eastern Putnam County — just a few miles from Christy’s Fillmore home — will host the technological innovations.

A therapeutic saddle, a “Stable-izer” device, and an iHorse simulator will be used for therapeutic riding research at Hope Haven, a non-profit organization that uses equine assisted techniques, both on and off the horse, to improve the confidence, self-esteem and physical mobility of the people served.

RHIT senior Melissa Montgomery of Alexandria said that getting the iHorse simulator project to work was “paramount” not only because it was her senior capstone project, but because she and teammates Nicole Richardson and Jacki Simon wanted to make a difference for Christy.

“We came here in January and met him,” Montgomery said. “We realized at that point that we can’t fail. He is just so sweet. He gets so much out of [horse therapy]. So it became more than a school assignment at that point.”

Montgomery did a lot of the design for the iHorse, which simulates the hip motion and core muscle activity experienced when a person rides a horse, for easier equine-assisted therapy. The simulator is powered by an old washing machine motor, and is inspired by a massage chair design that they translated to a mechanical horse. The trio created an iPad application to operate the iHorse, which has sensors that even tell if the rider is placing the correct tension on the “reins” of the mostly wooden “horse.”

With an original budget of $2,500, the trio spent less than $1,000 on materials, and received a $1,500 donation, which helped them get the iPad.

For the “Stable-izer” device, students Creasy Clauser, Alex Schwier and Tanya Colonna created a system to monitor a horse-rider’s posture. It detects when the rider is leaning away from the vertical position. An alert can sound to let volunteers know when the rider needs assistance, but a cool pair of sunglasses also contains sensors that light up to alert the rider to correct his or her posture.

That type of technology is perfect for Christy, Hope Haven founder and executive director Christina Menke said.

“Drew’s very independent, and he gets very aggravated at me for telling him ‘do this, do that’,” she said.

The “Stable-izer” team worked several hours each week on the project, in addition to their other senior courses.

Students Candice Sandberg, Peter Moorman and Michael Boyer custom-made a saddle that provides back, hand and leg support for riders in equine-assisted therapy.

Peter said the team took direction from Menke, who said the back, hand and leg supports will allow a rider more independence, and require less volunteers walking alongside to keep the rider safe.

“Christina told us a lot of the major issues, and we took that and ran with it,” Peter said. “She was mainly concerned about the lower back, and hand holds and their feet.”

The new “saddle” actually sits on padding on the horse, and the rider’s personal saddle is placed on top of it, with the back supports and handle cradling the saddle.

Christy’s parents, Mark and Debbi, praised the Rose-Hulman students for their caring attitudes and creative solutions that will help not only their son, but others in the therapeutic riding arena.

“Drew always wanted to help other people,” Debbi said, “and we feel this is the way he can take what he’s learned and help other people.”

Christy himself was a biomedical engineering student at RHIT. His mother said she was aware of the senior capstone project because of that, but she wanted to wait until her son’s classmates had graduated from RHIT before she requested that they do a project to benefit Drew.

“A lot of Drew’s friends still have a very hard time,” she said of her son’s current reality. “He was a Fiji, and we waited until the last of them had graduated before I called.”

The Christy family has adapted their lives to meet Drew’s needs, even moving into a new house built to be completely accessible for him. He still attends therapy sessions in Indianapolis as well, and Christy is able to get exercise independently by operating a three-wheeled bicycle.

His mother said the RHIT project and the cooperation of Hope Haven Horse Farm is a great example of innovation and collaboration, and something Christy himself would have worked on as a student — and actually is working on now.

“I just see this as getting bigger and better,” she said.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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