Friday, January 20, 2017

Swedish research tests hoof sensor capable of predicting wall structural changes

An electronic sensor taped to a horse's hoof walls at Chalmers University in an earlier stage of research.
Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden is entering a public testing phase for a new sensor that gauges the structural integrity of the equine hoof wall, with a goal of pinpointing cracks and wall damage before they are visible to the human eye.
Interdisciplinary research undertaken at the tech-centric university, titled "A non-invasive method for the detection of damage and changes in equine hoof walls", is jointly managed by Chalmers and Gothenburg universities and independent industry collaborators.

The Hoof Blog set out to find out what was behind all the tech-speak in the papers. The actual device and what it is designed to do were actually quite simple to understand.

Chalmers researchers have plotted the normal variation in thermal change for different parts of the hoof wall. A marked deviation in the curve would indicate a need to investigate the problem or to be viligant. The data can also be helpful to locate an abscess if a drainage tract is needed. (Photo still from video)

The aim is to detect potential damage to equine hooves through the use of thermoelectric sensors. In the future, hopefully, this technique will be an attractive alternative to other diagnostic tools, such as radiographs, which are not designed to create images for diagnosing hoof wall quality.

In the Proceedings of the 4th International Congress on Sport Sciences Research and Technology Support - Volume 1: icSPORTS in 2016, the collaborative team wrote, "We have observed differences between the transient curves obtained from a normal hoof structure, a hoof structure containing a foreign material and hoof capsule subjected to wall separation."

The research utilized 15 police horses, who wore sensors on their hooves which attached to a surcingle for data collection.

“Some injuries in the hoof capsule of the horses can be difficult to detect, for example: cracks or infections in the tissue between the hoof wall and the hoof bone. By measuring the heat transport in the hoof it might be possible to detect damages that cannot be observed in other ways," says Jennie Sköld, a Master's student of science engineering physics at Chalmers.

“It’s nice to be part of such a diverse team with unique competence. My experience with horses has really helped me a lot – it’s not necessarily easy to put sensors, wires and equipment on a horse and convince it to stand still,” Jennie commented, as she scratched a police horse named Viggo."

Preliminary research already compiled and published will now be compared to data from the living horses. At the 10th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference in 2014, the team reported on tests done on hoof capsules from dead horses, 3D-printed model hooves and the hooves of one live horse at a veterinary clinic. "All results are reproducible," they reported. "Results show the curve of the thermal conductivity versus depth changing when the heat flow reaches a place where there is an inhomogeneity in the hoof."

Hoof models used in the research at Chalmers University were developed using 3D printing.

What does the image look like? Can we anticipate new eye candy from this system? Chalmers researcher Magnus Karlsteen clarified, "It will not be an image like from an X-ray. You get information of what area on the hoof there is some problem, how deep from the surface, and to some extent if it is a fluid or dry. At the moment, a lot of data points; it has to be developed to something more easily understood by the farrier or the veterinarian."

This winter, fifteen police horses in Gothenburg have taken a real interest in this new angle on hoof science by serving as test subjects for the project. The city’s police horses have been selected for various reasons: They are healthy; they are held and trained in the same way; most of them are of the same breed; and they all have the same farrier, Björn Berg of Gothenburg.

In 2013, Björn Berg presented the idea of thermal sensing of hoof wall structure as a "Future Forward" poster presentation at the Seventh International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot in West Palm Beach, Florida. In his poster, he submitted early data on this project, which is now in more advanced development.

The sensor is covered by a plastic pad and then wrapped onto the foot. (Photo still from video)

"This technique originates from the Transient Plane Source method and provides a dependency of thermal conductivity versus probing depth of the material under study," he wrote in his abstract. "Considering that the thermal conductivity is sensitive to the internal constitution of a given material, this dependency furnishes a 2D-structural map of a particular sample, e.g. a horse hoof. 

"A 3D-representation can, in turn, be achieved by applying a Hot Disk sensor to various positions on a hoof surface consecutively or simultaneously," he continued. "The differences in the acquired signal will be able to indicate the presence of different hoof imperfections, which can be linked to specific hoof defects and its known diseases."   

One of the police horse demonstrates his acceptance of the procedure, as he rests his head on the shoulder of Björn Berg, his friend and farrier, and enjoys the candy that he gets from Åsa Hinton, the project’s veterinarian. (Chalmers University photo)

Farrier Björn Berg has been shoeing the police horses for the city of Gothenburg, Sweden since 1986. He is a frequent visitor to the United States and a graduate of Cornell vet school's advanced farrier course. He has been the farrier clinician at Ale Animal Hospital in Sweden since 1999, and was the FEI's official farrier for the FEI Show Jumping and Dressage World Cup Finals in Gothenburg in 2015. He has been show farrier at the annual international Gothenburg show since 2002, and has collected his case studies of foal limb problems into a book (in Swedish).

Björn Berg also co-authored a podium abstract, "Radiographic Findings Regarding the Toe Crena" with American author and researcher Lisa Lancaster, MSc, PhD, DVM at the same conference. This month, he began his studies in the inaugural Graduate Diploma in Equine Locomotor Research program at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, led by Professor Renate Weller.

Sensors that are applied to the horse's hoof to detect changes in thermographic data between sections of the hoof wall, indicating possible impending cracks or hoof wall disease.

“This is totally harmless for the horse. If this method works out the way we hope it will, we can detect a stress reaction in the hoof capsule before the problem gets too severe. In some cases, it might be possible to decrease the area of surgery, since we could know the extent of the defective area,” Hinton said.

According to the abstract of the team's ISES presentation, some of the hoof problems that the sensors should be able to discern are:
  1. the exact location and extent of abscesses 
  2. the depth and length of cracks
  3. the size of keratomas. 
The sensors attached to the hooves measure thermal conductivity and make it possible to see the structure of a police horse's healthy hoof capsule. The sensors themselves are developed by a spin-off company from Chalmers – "Hot Disk" – and the application for horses is brand new. To develop it and make it more user friendly, the engineers are working on a prototype that can easily be put on the hoof.

The sensor has multiple wires for transmitting data from the hoof wall.

After more than 40 hours spent in close cooperation with the horses, Jennie Sköld and her supervisor, Besira Mekonnen Mihiretie, started to see patterns of what a signal from a healthy hoof capsule looks like. They'll compare this to their earlier studies on cadaver hooves and 3D-printed models. In the future, the patience of these police horses might help other horses to stay in good health.

“I really hope that this results in a better way for farriers and veterinaries to take care of the horses,” concluded Jennie Sköld.

The horse can wear the sensor taped to its foot without any discomfort or irregular stance. (Photo still from video)

Chalmers is a unique university that offers innovative Bachelors and Masters degrees in sports technology, and especially sport materials research for equestrian, sailing, and other sports. Students develop and test their own products or software applications.

Here's a short video about a student project to apply sensors to a horse jump to measure how high the horses jump; it also includes more examples of research. It is in Swedish with English subtitles, but it is highly visual for easy understanding in any language.

Some of the current or recently completed projects in equestrian sports include, in addition to the hoof sensor:
  • Production of parts of hooves using adaptive technique
  • Measuring ECG, heart rate and breathing with smart textiles
  • A pre-study of the possibilities to use finite element analysis to understand horse-related accidents
  • Where on the chest is the highest risk of injury when being trampled by a horse
  • Using human body models to investigate the most dangerous type of fall within horse riding
  • Using human body models to investigate the influence of a security vest on the thorax injury risk if kicked by a horse
  • Analysis of equine locomotion
  • Producing biogas from horse manure
  • Fitting a saddle to the back of the horse
  • The quality of the mane
  • Stud Plate – a multi-tool used to ease the effort of changing the studs on the horses’ shoe
  • Bandaging with the right pressure
  • Design of bits
  • Pressure sensors
  • Bandaids for horses
  • Smart reins
  • Air quality in stables
  • Faster recovery from hoof damage

The hoof sensor project started a few years ago and is supported by Materials Science, an Area of Advance at Chalmers. Recently the project was also supported by Vinnova, the Swedish government agency that administers state funding for research and development.

Thanks to Björn Berg, Magnus Karlsteen, and Mia Halleröd Palmgren for assistance with this article.

Story by Fran Jurga
Photos by Mia Halleröd Palmgren/Chalmers 

Images of the foot are captured from the SVT video about the research project.

To learn more:

SVT news video about the device

Berg, B. Diagnosis of horse hooves defects by structural probe technique. Future Forward poster session presented at: 7th International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Horse's Foot; 2013 November 1-3; West Palm Beach, FL.

Behind the Scenes at the FEI World Cup Finals with Swedish Farrier Björn Berg

Berg B., Lancaster L (2013). Radiographic Findings Regarding the Toe Crena. In Proceedings of the 7th International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Horse's Foot. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 33, Issue 10, October 2013. Page 856.

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