Does my Horse Have Sensitive Hooves? Or Could it be Those Proprioceptors Working?
What a great time to head out with our horses and explore some trails! Whether our horses are barefoot or wearing hoof boots or steel shoes, we are hoping for fun and great adventures. Some of us are racing comfortably through the sand, while others seek out the uneven, steep and rocky trails.
I am usually out working with my barefoot horses on very rocky terrain, checking fences and water, and seeing where the livestock are grazing. Some barefoot horses and those wearing hoof boots look like they are navigating slowly, carefully choosing their steps over the roughest parts. Are they feeling pain or discomfort? How can we tell? Unconditioned horses or those that lose a steel shoe on the trail are suddenly very uncomfortable - what is happening in these cases?
Dr Tomas Teskey DVM, an equine veterinarian specializing in natural hoof care and barefoot soundness, explains proprioception and why it is perfectly understandable for horses to move in these different ways.
We know what good and bad steps feel like - the pain of landing on something sharp, the frustration of losing our balance on uneven or slippery ground, or the comfort of soft grass and sand. Successfully traversing a variety of surfaces (avoiding injury and getting from point A to point B) is accomplished through a ‘feedback system’ of nerves giving us valuable information. Horses have loads of these nerve endings in their feet, especially above the frog and heels. This is a nerve system providing touch sensation and proprioception, meaning “sensing where your body parts are and what kind of positioning is necessary to keep your body safe.”
Let’s take a deeper look at what these nerves are doing there, especially as it relates to getting their hooves and bodies healthier...
Horses can Feel and Understand Their Environment by Vibrations Felt Through Their Feet/Hooves
Horses and many other animals can detect a wide range of frequency vibrations through their feet. These nerves have a unique structure under the microscope and we have come to understand how they transmit signals, detect approaching animals or even ‘predict’ earthquakes and tidal waves.
We humans are not nearly as sensitive to the lower frequency vibrations created from deep earthquake activity, but if you suddenly notice your horses or other animals ‘heading up the mountain’, they very well may be exercising ancient instincts to seek higher ground in order to escape an oncoming tidal wave!
Different types of ground create different frequency vibrations in the body as the hooves strike the earth. Softer surfaces don’t create much vibration and harder ones can create ‘very stimulating’ or painful vibrations that can damage nerves, blood vessels and affect the entire body. Healthy hooves are efficient at dampening harmful vibrations from firm ground or steel shoes, up to a point.
We have long known that horses with steel shoes experience more concussion walking than barefoot horses trotting on the same surface. Many farriers describe a painful tingling sensation in their own hands and arms from pounding hammers on steel anvils, a painful condition called Reynaud’s Syndrome.
Horses that lose a steel shoe or those transitioning to a barefoot lifestyle often look like they are having serious trouble moving. The vital movement necessary to rehabilitate these animals is made beautifully possible by good-fitting hoof boots and pads made of dynamic (moveable) materials that truly protect and complement the dynamic nature of the hooves. With time, this therapy helps them ‘reset’ and calm their nerves that were previously subjected to damaging concussion from walking on steel.
Barefoot Horses Adapt to Different Terrains Naturally; Steel Shoes are a Handicap to Natural Form and Function
If we step down carefully, we can handle very hard and uneven surfaces. Hoofed animals are also able to do this, especially the ‘split-hoofed’ animals like sheep and goats, which prefer and excel at living in the rockiest areas of the planet. Horse hooves are designed for varied terrain and prefer the surfaces where they can leave a nice ‘hoofprint’.
Every part of the hoof is intended to take pressure and receive stimulation, and each is quickly adaptable to handle a wide variety of terrains when given time to adapt. By design, donkeys handle rocks the best, followed by mules and zebras, and then horses.
When horses step down ‘too hard’ on a rock, the nerves in their feet provide immediate information to stop, reposition, use the other feet more, and compensate with body position, all to prevent injury, which could be as simple as a small bruise or as deadly as a fractured coffin bone. This adjustment happens at incredible speed, so much that it takes very high-speed video to appreciate. It is vital for horses to detect how much pressure each hoof receives every time it engages the ground.
Horses with steel shoes are handicapped when it comes to detecting bad steps and poor footing, and suffer a much higher incidence of bruising, nail punctures and catastrophic injuries versus healthy barefoot horses. They simply can’t get the vital feedback quickly enough to take care of themselves properly.
Sound, Barefoot Horses are More Confidently Aware of Their Feet Compared to Shod Horses
Healthy horses that adapt to varied terrain ‘pay attention’ to where they put their feet and rarely trip, whereas horses with steel shoes or ones kept in stables often walk along as if the surface doesn’t matter, and often trip over obstacles or even their own feet. I notice this when horses change environments and learn that it pays to walk around cactus, thorny bushes, sharp rocks and shifting soil - they adjust their hoof position and body balance better and better as they spend time on varied terrain.
Of course, riding a horse that is learning such things can be quite unsettling when they suddenly trip or seem to ‘mis-step’ when hitting a rock. They are simply protecting themselves. Even when wearing boots that allow for good sensation, there will be instances when they reposition their feet very quickly - this is a good thing!
With time, all horses I have rehabilitated to a healthier barefoot lifestyle get better and more confident and are eventually able to go without boots if they are properly managed (provided varied terrain in their home habitat and exercised regularly). The joy and power of riding barefoot horses in rough country, with boots if necessary, is an experience I hope any conscientious horse person can experience.
Good Proprioception From Head to Hooves Over Varied Terrain Provides Security for Life
Having good proprioception provides security for life. Stress levels and anxiety are higher in horses with steel shoes, soft or deformed hooves, body inflammation or those confined in stables. Feeling the earth under your moving feet is a vital connection for health. There is a groundedness, stability and sense of secure balance when hooves are able to feel normally.
Not too sensitive and not too insensitive, the ‘sweet spot’ of knowing where your hooves are and feeling secure comes from lots of movement on varied terrain with friends, eating good grass, and being with humans that can learn how to make that happen.
Dr Teskey's ‘Insight to Equus - Holistic Veterinary Perspectives on Health and Healing’
If you would like to learn more interesting facts about your horses from a holistic perspective, please visit Dr Teskey’s website and read about his new book, “Insight to Equus - Holistic Veterinary Perspectives on Health and Healing”.
Dr Teskey has degrees in botany and veterinary medicine from Arizona in 1991 and Colorado in 1995. Within five years of graduation, he ventured into less popular and more holistic herd health practices for livestock and has now specialized in equine hoof and dental care, describing in detail the connections between the environment, nutrition and the body, specifically the foundational importance of hooves and teeth.
He is a strong advocate for responsible animal care and promotes connection and partnership as a way of life.
He and his wife and children spend time between Arizona, USA and Hungary, working on horses, ranching and farming and doing educational clinics around the world.
Dr Tomas G. Teskey Veterinary Insights
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Gwen Santagate is the author of "10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves" . For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She keeps a small herd of her own equines and continues to offer consults for horses in need.