New In-Shoe Sensor Helping Horses Stay Sound

Laminitis is not only one of the leading causes of disability and death in horses, it's also an important cause of emotional and financial turmoil for owners. And for veterinarians, predicting which cases are likely to resolve or have the potential to become disastrous and how best to treat a given case remains a real challenge.

Chief farrier and director of the Applied Polymer Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) Patrick Reilly refuses to be walked over by this devastating disease and is fighting back with a state-of-the-art pressure sensors that can measure the forces at more thanb 1,000 location on the hoof.

"For centuries we have evaluated hoof trimming and horseshoe properties based on our anecdotal experiences," Reilly said. "While useful, exactly how trimming and shoeing affect force distribution on the hoof remains unclear."

Force plates can help farriers and veterinarians gain a better understanding of force distributions, but the "ideal" place to measure the effect of a horseshoe is between the shoe and the hoof rather than measuring the shoe and the ground.

Said Reilly, "Unlike floor-based force plates, in-shoe force measuring systems would allow us to measure not only forces on the foot but also other information, such as the effect of different footings or measuring performance horses in the arenas where they are expected to perform."

Based on technology used in human sports medicine, Reilly worked with representatives from Tekscan in Cambridge, Mass., to "tweak" their existing technology to apply their system to horses' hooves.

"To use the system, the Tekscan sensors are adjusted to each hoof shape, sealed, and positioned between the hoof and a glue-on shoe," he explained. "Data is collected over several strides, stored in a device attached to the rider or the horse, and downloaded for analysis. Areas where pressure on the hoof can be localized, and information regarding impact, loading, and break over can be collected and scrutinized."

Although tempted to jump in with both feet and try this technology on clinical cases, Reilly and colleagues needed to walk before they could run.

"Some of our initial uses for the system started with the basics, such as trying to correlate hoof morphology [shape] to load distribution to see what is 'normal' and examining the changes in load distribution that occurs between gaits," shared Reilly.

In addition, the researchers conducted a pilot study that involved analyzing data from sensors placed on both front feet of horses while either jumping or performing dressage.

"That study generated interest in critically examining the footings upon which these horses are training," Reilly relayed.

This technology, called the Hoof System, has the potential to be useful in myriad situations beyond laminitis, and its impact could be immeasurable, he said.

"If we can quantify the effect of trimming and shoeing practices currently used for laminitis, we might be able to identify the desirable mechanical characteristics and use this knowledge to produce new mechanical treatments," said Reilly.

Ultimate Reilly believes this technology could provide a different perspective on hoofcare practices and could help better customize treatments for either various pathologies (disease conditions) or equine athletic disciplines.

For example, Reilly noted, "It would be helpful to be able to quantify the difference between a regular horseshoe and an egg-bar shoe or perhaps see how hoof balance on a dressage horse is different from hoof balance on a racehorse."

This service is currently available to clients on a limited basis. The length of study, time required, and cost will vary based on the information considered. For more information contact the farrier service at the Penn Vet New Bolton Center.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.