Sunday, November 10, 2013

Garmin Astro Dog (Horse) Tracking System

After the many loose horses at Skymont 2013, I have decided to go tech for insurance against the time my horses end up getting loose.

Several years ago, Daniel and I purchased a Garmin Astro 220 dog tracking handheld unit. At the same time, we purchased 2 DC30 dog collars. The Astro 220 is now discontinued as are the DC30 dog collars. The dog collars were too short to use for horses and the collars themselves made of rough nylon, which discouraged me from using them for the horses themselves. However, Daniel would put a DC30 collar on the back of my saddle in case my horse decided to dump me and leave me.

But Garmin has upgraded. Of course.

Enter the DC40 dog collar. This collar is great! It is self-contained and can be put on any 1" biothane collar. Which means I can get collars that will fit the horses!

The unit itself weighs only 5.1 oz, including the antenna. I bought 1 unit to test it out since it is compatible with my Astro 220 handheld.

The Astro 320 is the new and improved handheld that is the upgrade of the Astro 220. We don't have a 320, but if we want another handheld, we'll purchase a 320.

There is a DC50 collar, but it is bulkier and does not work with the Astro 220 handheld. The DC50 does boast better satellite reception as well as better battery life, but I decided the DC40 should work for our purposes.

After charging the DC40 and painlessly linking it to my Astro 220 handheld, I retrieved a spare 1" dog collar from my box of dog goodies and used it to extend the length of the included DC40 collar. I then put it on Snap.

The tracking unit is just heavy enough to keep the unit rotated down at the bottom of his neck, allowing the antenna to stick straight up. The antenna is attached to the collar by zip or twist ties to keep it from flopping all over and stay pointing up.

 Here's a view under his chin. You can see the lump doesn't really interfere with anything.

The off side. This is 2 dog collars joined together to make it long enough for Snap's neck. If the testing bears out, we'll get color coded collars for each of the competition horses.

Snap has no issues lowering his head to eat or, in this case, to lick the mineral block. (Don't worry, he gets loose salt in his feed every day as well. The mineral block is for any extra he decides he wants/needs and for the deer.)

Here you can see the data displayed about the horse. He's approximately 65 feet away. You can see the battery life, the GPS reception, as well as the communication strength with the handset itself. You can Select Go To to get an arrow that points right at him.

This view shows the compass. The red arrow is Snap. The blue arrow is one of our old DC30s. I've turned my back on Snap and you can see this is telling me that Snap is behind me, slightly to the left and approximately 67 feet away.

I left the tracking device on Snap until the battery died. The battery is a rechargeable battery, not regular AAs. However, the Astro 220 handheld does use 2 AA, so you can change those batteries on the fly.

The DC40 battery lasted 27 hours 37 minutes transmitting his location every 5 seconds. Advertised battery life at that rate is 17 hours. I can extend battery life by changing the transmitting interval to 10, 30, or 120 seconds.

I'm thinking 10 seconds should be plenty, resulting in a good battery life, while providing good updates if I'm actually trying to track him. You cannot change the tracking interval unless you're right next to the transmitter. So you can't set it to 120 seconds normally and bump it to 5 seconds after he runs off.

I kept the Astro 220 in the house with me. Every now and again, I would turn on the Astro 220 and let it connect with the DC40 to see where Snap was. I could tell if he was just outside the window or at the very back of our property, likely checking out the hay I put out.

The unit did not seem to slow Snap down at all. He was his usually jolly self, playing with Tanna, running pel mel up the hill for no apparent reason, and eating his supper out of his bucket.

I pulled the GPS track from the DC40 onto the computer this morning. In 27 hours, Snap roamed for 5 hours and 12 minutes and was relatively still for the remainder of the time. He wandered 11 miles over his 3 acre field, playing with Tanna, moving with the herd and checking out the hay spots.

All in all, I'm fairly pleased so far.

Yes, there are downsides to this system. It's a line of sight system. So if I'm in a valley, but Snap is in another valley with a mountain between us, the Astro 220 handheld won't pick him up. However, if I move up the ridge line, I should start to get a bead on him and be able to head in his direction.

I don't plan on tying Snap (or any of my horses) with the collar that holds the DC40. I would want to minimize any risk of that collar breaking and then him running off without the DC40.

Next steps are to put the collar on the other horses and see how long the battery lasts and how the older horses take to having the collar on.

If this all works out, we'll purchase an Astro 320 handheld (which is the 220 upgraded) and we'll have 2 handhelds which will allow Daniel and me to split up and cover more ground.

Horses Sometimes Get Loose

A fact of endurance riding is loose horses. Not at every ride, but at some rides, horses seem to get loose at an alarming rate. Happily, most horses are recovered within a few minutes or hours and most without serious injury.

However, there are those other stories. The ones where the horses are lost for weeks in the woods and maybe are never seen again. I read these stories and ache for those riders missing their equine friends.

My husband, Daniel, has been involved in many happy horse recoveries over the years, but I am usually in another place doing another thing. Usually riding.

Last weekend, at the Skymont endurance ride, nearly every popular containment system failed.

Several horses got loose from an electric corral on Friday morning, leading searchers on a merry chase down the road before a local person managed to corner and catch one of the horses. Fortunately, the other horses hung around until more help could arrive and catch all of them. Daniel ended up leading all 4 energetic horses back to camp from the back of a [motorized] mule.

Sometime overnight Friday night, another horse managed to get out of a metal corral system. He was caught not too far away. Meanwhile, his buddy snapped his high tie (unsure of the brand) and took off as well.

On Sabbath, another horse managed to slip his halter and lead other searchers on a merry chase down the pipeline for several hours. Yet another just walked away from the trailer he was tied to after apparently untying himself.

Oh, and don't think because it hasn't happened to you, it can't. One owner of one of the loose horses had said "I haven't had a loose horse in 30 years." What is that Proverb? Pride goeth before a fall?

Dozens of volunteers, including Daniel and me, spent many hours over 2 days covering miles and miles searching for Fougueux, a pretty chestnut wearing a green blanket. In the end, he was caught Sunday evening, just before dark, over 3 miles from ridecamp, down a steep grade. Amazingly, he seemed to be in great shape with very few obvious injuries.

All this excitement, caused me to think about my own horses getting loose. How would we find them? What if we didn't have dozens of volunteers to comb the woods? What if they weren't wearing a distinctive blanket that would aide hunters or other casual observers to point us in the right direction?

Anybody who knows me knows a couple things about me. One being, I'm a tech geek. I like tech. I like gadgets. I have a lot of them. So, I am turning to tech to help me locate one of my horses should they get loose.

Hunters have needed such technology for years to follow their hunting dogs or simply locate a dog that went too far afield. Why not use the same technology for horses?

So, join me after the break to discuss the Garmin Astro dog tracking system...for horses.