To home in on healing in the most precise, individualized way possible, Dutch scientists are creating custom therapeutic shoes through 3D printing.
“This is personalized hoof care we’re developing, because every horse is unique and has unique problems with unique challenges,” said Harold Brommer, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, professor and chair of Equine Surgery and Orthopaedics at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.
Modeling after personalized foot care in human medicine, Brommer and his associates, who include master farriers Jan de Zwaan and Gerben Bronkhorst, have carried out pilot testing of their high-tech, custom-designed shoes on two horses for two consecutive shoeing cycles.
“The shoes are holding up nicely to the normal wear and tear from the horses’ daily lives,” de Zwaan told The Horse. “Due to the very close fitting of the customized shoe, we only require a minimal amount of glue, which we think will be beneficial for the quality of the hoof wall. The close fitting of the 3D design generates a more sustainable connection between hoof and shoe.”
Created based on 90 seconds’ worth of scanning photography per foot, each shoe currently takes about six to eight hours to print, he said. “The horses don’t get the shoes until the day after fitting,” explained de Zwaan, adding that manufacturing time should improve significantly as their research develops and the technology surrounding 3D printing progresses.
Unlike standard therapeutic shoes, 3D-printed shoes allow for a perfectly custom fit while permitting farriers and veterinarians to address specific pathological issues with fine-tuning, said Brommer. “With the computer, we start with the exact shape of the horse’s foot, and then modify the shoe according to the pathology,” he said. “By the next shoeing a few weeks later, we can visualize the progress based on the actual scan and adapt the new shoe accordingly for truly personalized foot therapy.”
The lightweight synthetic material used in the shoe—the components of which the scientists aren’t ready to reveal yet—makes a significant difference in the weight horses carry at the end of their limbs, de Zwaan said. “They’re also a lot less slippery than metal shoes, which is especially useful on roads and other hard surfaces,” he said. “At the same time, as part of our research, we’re investigating whether the degree of slippage can be adjusted through the type of filaments used in the 3D-print material.”
Still in its early stages, the 3D horseshoe printing project will soon focus on evaluating the shoes’ effects on horses’ gaits with the help of an objective gait analysis system, de Zwaan said. The general public won’t be able to acquire the shoes in the short term, but they could provide practical solutions in equine clinics in the near future. “If you’ve got a tough case, you can just scan the foot and design a shoe that can help with most difficult problems, while having a way to track progress over time,” de Zwaan explained.
“This is looking at the shape of foot and the shape of shoe and letting health care professionals do precision work literally millimeter by millimeter so as to change shape much more gradually than any farrier is able to do right now,” de Zwaan said.
The gradual change promotes better and more comfortable healing while encouraging better welfare by letting the horse experience less pain related to his pathology, he said.
“This is high-tech, but the goal isn’t to commercialize a high-end product,” Brommer said. “We’re following through with our societal role as a nonprofit university, combining the talents of various departments to develop a solution that contributes to better health and welfare for horses.”