Feeding for Healthy Hooves

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By Dr. Jim Ward

Hoof nutrition is often overshadowed in the normal feeding regimen, but should not be forgotten. Without strong, healthy hooves, horses can’t perform at their full potential. Dr. Jim Ward, an equine management consultant for Nutrena, gives these tips for hoof health:

Balanced Diet
The most important first step of good hoof health is a balanced diet. This includes a high-quality feed and hay best suited to your horse’s age and level of activity.

“Based on forage intake and levels they are being fed, you should select a concentrate that would be balanced with forage for the intended use,” Dr. Ward says. “In most cases, that means buying a feed that is balanced for performance horses.”

“Maintain the hay-to-grain ratio somewhere around 50-50, depending on the amount of use,” he says. “For safety’s sake, we like to see horses eating more roughage than grain.”

Purchase a feed designed for your horse and don’t change the feed ration once you get it home. This can offset the balance of nutrients and minerals in the feed.

 “One of the most serious errors that occurs is when people do not buy a commercial horse feed that is prepared scientifically for the class of horses they’re dealing with,” Dr. Ward says. “They’ll try to fabricate their own diet. Without having other nutrients tied to that, they either come up with a deficient diet or, in most cases, an unbalanced diet.”

Water and Nutrients
It seems simple, but water is an important key to horse health and many other important functions of the body. Horses should be provided daily with fresh, clean water.

“They have to have plenty of water,” Dr. Ward says. “The hoof is a living structure. It has to have adequate moisture content.”

Many nutrients and minerals play a role in hoof strength and growth. Dr. Ward says: just feed a balanced diet. “The first thing that a horse has to have is adequate energy. You need adequate protein for amino acids,” he says.

“Minerals to be concerned with are calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is needed for good, hard feet. Trace minerals needed are zinc, copper, manganese, Vitamin E and biotin.” Make sure your horse receives adequate amounts.

To Supplement or Not to Supplement
Horse owners often look to supplements for a quick fix. But, Dr. Ward says, supplements usually aren’t needed if a high-quality ration is fed that meets the horse’s nutritional requirements.

“If a feed is designed for performance horses and made by a reputable company, and its intended use is performance,” he says, “then it will be fortified adequately.”

Dr. Ward warns that not all feeds should be considered high quality. If the brand is not recognizable, be sure to analyze the nutritional content before purchasing.

“If you see a maintenance horse feed, many times, it’s put together with economics in mind,” Dr. Ward says. “Many times, those kinds of feeds do not have the fortification of all the nutrients (horses) need.”

Do your homework. Dr. Ward says many supplements on the market today might not live up to the promises on the label.

“If you see hoof conditions, you need to do something about it. See if you have a balanced diet. Sometimes supplements are full of hype, so check diet first,” he says. “People will buy a cheap feed and then spend money on expensive supplements. In the end, they end up with a higher cost per day and still don’t have a balanced diet.”

Diagnosing the Problem
“The hoof is one thing you can use as an index to good health,” Dr. Ward says. “Good-quality hooves and good-quality hair coats kind of go together. The hoof is actually an extension of the skin. Healthy skin goes along with a healthy hoof.”
If you feed a balanced diet, other factors might be causing your horse’s chips and cracks.

“The hoof is also a product of the environment,” Dr. Ward says. “Horses that are kept in conditions where their feet stay wet and then they go to a period of dry weather can experience profound changes.”

Regular hoof care is vital. Be consistent, whether your horse has shoes on or is only trimmed.

“A lot of times, people leave shoes on too long,” Dr. Ward says. “Shoes over a period of time cause hoof problems. They need to go barefoot some to stimulate proper hoof growth.”

Performance Horses
As competitors, we expect our horses to perform at their peaks at every show, rodeo or race. A performance horse’s hoof quality is important to consider when trying to reach the winners circle.

“In performance horses, you will have more stresses applied to the horse because of exercise and all the work that’s required,” Dr. Ward says. “That will provide more of a need for hoof strength and durability.”

Dr. Ward recommends paying attention to hoof growth and overall size.

“Through the years, we have bred horses to have ‘pretty’ feet, which many times means small feet,” he says. “Small feet do not dissipate the load as well as larger feet. A lot of times, hoof care is designed to make the hoof appear smaller. You don’t need to restrict the size of the foot.”

Old Timers
Dr. Ward stresses the importance of tailoring your horse’s diet to his age, exercise level, and condition. This becomes increasingly important as your horse ages and changes his lifestyle. If you have an older horse that you’ve retired or slowed down, think about changing his diet to help maintain his healthy hooves.

“When horses get older, two things happen,” Dr. Ward says. “When the activity drops off, many times they get overweight. If they get overweight, that can cause foot problems and even chronic laminitis and structural foot damage.”

Weight loss is the other side of the problem. Proper digestion becomes increasingly important in older individuals.

“As a horse gets older, its teeth function might be compromised or its digestive function is compromised,” Dr. Ward says. “If they stay on the same diet, they start losing weight. You need to go to a senior diet.”

Slowly but Surely
It’s frustrating to see hoof problems when you are doing everything right - feeding a balanced diet, giving regular hoof care, and providing a suitable environment.

“What you have to realize is that what you’re seeing today might have started eight, nine, or 12 months ago,” Dr. Ward says. “It takes that long to grow a hoof. You might have the horse on a diet that is correct now, but the problems might just be showing up from previous times.”

Keep It Simple
Practice the basics to keep your horse’s hooves healthy. A balanced diet, regular hoof care, and a consistent living environment are all your horse needs for perfect hooves. If you notice cracks or can’t seem to keep shoes on your horse, go back and make sure you’re covering the basics. If more problems occur, consult your veterinarian to find the source of the problem.

“It’s pretty simple,” Dr. Ward says. “It gets complicated when people try to fabricate their horse’s diet themselves. We spend a lot of money on research. Why try to reinvent the wheel?”

Possible Causes of Weak Hooves
  • A hoof that is out of balance
  • Not disinfecting stalls
  • Feeding excess amounts of sweet feed
  • Over de-worming and not rotating dewormers
  • A lack of or insufficient amounts of iodine, copper, salt and other vitamins and minerals
-- From The American Farriers Journal

Balancing Your Horse’s Diet
  • Light exercise = 60:40 hay/grain ratio
  • Moderate exercise = 50:50 hay/grain ratio
  • Intense exercise = 40:60 hay/grain ratio
Hoof Nutrition Guidelines
  1. Do not feed bran (wheat, rice, oats or other grain brans) if your horse experiences hoof problems. Bran contains phytate, which is high in phosphorus. Phosphorus causes calcium deficiencies by blocking its absorption into the small intestine. Calcium is necessary for strong hooves.
  2. An “easy keeper” horse can founder from overeating concentrates or consuming lush pasture. Foundered horses should be supplemented with L-tyrosine and iodine to furnish the essential building blocks for producing thyroid hormone.
  3. Be sure the horse’s diet is balanced for calcium and phosphorus. Make sure the horse is receiving adequate levels of protein (10-12 percent for the average adult horse).
  4. Feed according to age, amount of work and body condition.
  5. A horse should not be given more than one supplement at a time without veterinarian consult. Getting too much of certain nutrients can be toxic in some instances.
Beneficial Vitamins and Minerals for Strong Hooves
  • Vitamin A - Promotes tissue growth, strong bones and hooves.
  • Vitamin D - Helps properly use calcium and phosphorus, which are necessary for strong bones, teeth and hooves.
  • Vitamin E - Helps slow cellular aging as an antioxidant. Also helps fight fatigue and accelerates healing and growth.
  • Choline and inositol – B vitamins prevent fat accumulations in the liver. Choline plays a role in the removal of fatty acids from the liver. Inositol helps to properly use choline and promotes healthy hair, hoof and bone.
  • Iodine - Controlled amounts of iodine are effective in the treatment and prevention of white line disease.
Dr. Jim Ward, a 1965 graduate of Texas A&M University, is an equine management consultant for Cargill Inc, a position he has held since 2000. He is a member of the Cargill product development team and the Cargill equine enterprise team. He serves in a consultative and management role at Center Ranch, a cutting horse and cattle ranch in Centerville, Texas

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