Booting up idea to soothe horse legs
Louisa Williams tapped into her experience with horses to develop a rechargeable cooling, massaging boot to soothe equine legs
You could say it was horse sense. Four years ago, Louisa Williams was watching a horse trying to get some relief from sore legs, and she hit on the idea of massaging those aching equine limbs. Four years later, the idea has developed into a massaging and cooling “boot” that is sold around the world.
Williams is no stranger to horses – her mother was an instructor and Williams herself started horse-riding as a pre-schooler in her native New Zealand.
By her teens, she was getting up at 5.30am to go to the racetrack. “I would drive to the track, ride racehorses, get into my uniform and go to school,” she recalls.
At the age of 20 Williams jumped at the chance to work in Coolmore Stud in Co Kildare. What was meant to be a short stint abroad turned into a life of working with horses in the US, France and mostly Ireland, where she has worked with trainers Charlie Swan and Aiden O’Brien.
“When I left New Zealand for Coolmore, my mother said I would never come back,” says Williams. “She was right – I was meant to be away for six months, and that was 17 years ago.”
So it’s not really a surprise when she says she loves horses, and how it upset her to see the animals get injured and end their careers.
“Horses have really poor circulation in their lower legs,” she explains. “And I think one of the biggest problems is that they work hard and then spend so much time standing in stables – it’s not ideal for healing.”
One horse in particular caught her attention when she saw him building little hills in his stable to try and get relief from sore tendons.
“I remember thinking if I could just help increase circulation it would help relieve the soreness – so I started massaging his legs,” she says. “And every day I wasn’t racing I kept reading the latest tendon researcher papers.”
Williams bought a plug-in neck massager and re-engineered it to make a boot for horses – even incorporating a wine cooler to keep the leg chilled.
“I knew that icing horses’ tendons for long periods could make their legs too cold and can create an inflammatory response, so one of the ideas behind the Ice-Vibe boots was that the legs wouldn’t get as cold due to the combination of cold and massage, and the results were really good,” she says.
“And Enterprise Ireland gave me some funding to help with the prototypes.”
But while she knew it was a good idea, she didn’t have the skills to take it much further herself. She emailed Tom McGuinness, MD of Dundalk-based Horseware Ireland, which distributes equine products around the world.
“I thought ‘I have nothing to lose’ and I just emailed him – but I didn’t hear back at first,” she recalls.
Another resourceful email got her working with a wearable electronics company and the prototype got better. And, after a while, McGuinness responded.
“I remember that moment so clearly, the relief I felt,” says Williams. “I went and met him and he took a chance on me – I now work with Horseware, developing the Ice-Vibe range further.”
Horseware Ireland now distributes the rechargeable Ice-Vibe circulation boot around the world, and about 6,000 pairs have been sold, according to Williams.
She describes how it can be used to help healthy horses warm up and recover as well as offering relief after injury.
Last year, Ice-Vibe won the BETA Innovation award, and last month the circulation boot made the finals of the The Irish Times IntertradeIreland Innovation Awards.
So what do the wearers think? “Horses love it,” she says.
“And we have had some amazing stories of people coming back and saying they had given up on the horse and now he is back riding. For me that is everything, I love that.”
Williams has been carrying out case studies of the circulation boot on horses with tendon injuries for the last three years, and the plan is to start a larger research study on horses this year. She is also looking at developing the technology for dogs.
Know your customer
She sees a large market for the boot as a relatively low-cost and re-usable option to help alleviate symptoms.
“The professional horses are very important of course, but it’s also an affordable approach for families to use with the family horse or pony,”she says.
And she has gone to lengths to make the equipment a good fit for the customer. “I have applied everything that I have learned as a ‘horse’ person – to make it easy and comfortable for the horses and their owners,” she says.
“It turns itself off, it’s rechargeable, the horses can’t hurt themselves with wires or sharp objects, it’s not loud or invasive for them.”
“It has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and every horse that gets a second chance because of something you have helped create, that is what it is all about for me.”