Shoes, Boots & Proprioception

What is proprioception?

It is the horse's awareness of his body - position and movements and placement of his hooves for safe footing. It is an unconscious coordination of environment and body through complex locomotor tasks.

According to Dr. Bowker, AM Brewer, KB Vex, LA Guida, KE Llinder, IM Sonea and AW Stinson in the American Journal of Veterinary Research 1993, Nov., there are many different types of sensory receptors. Each one has its own task of registering vibration, temperature and pain with the bulk of the receptors being located in the back of the foot. A horse that trips or stumbles frequently may be challenged in its proprioception for a number of reasons. One being shoes, another being physical injury of some sort and yet another reason might have to do with incorrect form of the hoof/trimming. It is commonly seen that a shod horse that stumbles a lot will stop stumbling when the shoes are removed and the hooves trimmed appropriately.

Input from the proprioceptors and nerves in the horse's foot not only gives insight as to terrain and temperature of the environment but also tells the horse which muscles to move and how to move them in order to walk and stand accordingly. When a horse is standing there is little energy being exerted therefore using few muscles. This allows the horse to be ready for flight at any given moment in time as needed.

A horse that is not receiving sufficient and/or proper communications from the proprioceptors in the foot will stand and move in positions that require excessive muscle and energy use. This means the muscles may become abnormally contracted and can spasm, causing pain in other areas of the body. It also means the horse will become tired more easily and become more susceptible to injuries from fatigue.

As we all know, nerves are extremely sensitive in our own bodies. This is no different in horses. Just the tiniest amount of pressure can affect the horse in some manner. Scientist Chung Ha Sue at Colorado University discovered that the weight of a mere feather can decrease nerve transmission by up to 50% !! This decrease in transmission can cause faulty input and output from the brain and spinal column to the rest of the body. Now imagine how tiny pebbles and uneven terrain can affect the horse.

Many will turn to shoes for the horse to prevent situations as this but  . . . . . . .

Contrary to many people's beliefs, shoes do not solve problems, nor do boots. Instead, they mask the issue. This means that while shod or booted the horse may not feel discomfort the cause of the discomfort is not resolved. Once the shoes or boots are removed, the discomfort is evident once again.

It takes time for hooves to recover from imbalances or injuries or wounds during which time protection is needed. I personally prefer boots but do not discount the orthotic benefit of shoes in some cases. Preferably, shoes that are glued on instead of nailed on. When there is bio-mechanical dysfunction, there is inaccurate neurological information that is sent to the Central Nervous System from the hooves. As I've mentioned above, this can have a negative and harmful effect on not only the coordination of the horse's movements but also the balance of the horse through the spine and pelvis.

Barefooted horses have much more effective proprioception than do shod or booted horses. But again, if the form of the hooves is not correct for the individual hoof on the individual horse then the same postural and movement problems that arise in shod horses will be evident in the barefooted horse also. As a result, the horse compensates for the imbalances and discomfort with such issues as tilted pelvis, sacroiliac joint subluxation, ligament and tendon strains of the lower legs and more.

If you are thinking of removing your horse's shoes then, by all means, do so under the supervision and with the help of an experienced hoofcare practitioner. He or she may recommend that boots be used in place of the shoes during whatever time for rehabilitation is required.

If you have a horse that is uncomfortable in shoes, do not attempt to further mask the problem by adding boots to the shoes thinking the hooves need more "protection". This will further inhibit the horse's capabilities to sense its environment, terrain and can permanently alter the horse's movement as it will further deaden the proprioception of the hooves. Again, this will not address the root issue and only masks the symptoms.

If you have a horse that is tender and is already barefoot, consider first if the trim is appropriate. The tenderness may stem from an organic reason such as bacteria or fungus. Treat the condition as needed and put boots on your horse to help mitigate the discomfort until the situation is rectified. If the trim is not correct then, of course, you'll want to find a hoofcare professional who can help straighten out the hooves for maximum comfort and optimum functioning of the hooves.

And more on the subject from Dave MacDonald, creator of Scoot Boots:

Scoot Boots allow the maximum feel of the ground for the horse of any hoof protection available. The Scoot Boot sole is designed to flex with the sole of the hoof and is firm enough to protect the hoof without being too soft and bouncy, which would interfere with the horses' ability to feel the terrain (proprioception). As our slogan says, our hoof boots are "the closest you can get to natural" . . . . . 


Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications including The Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. 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 and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in NE Connecticut and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:

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