A Guide to Proper Care and Nutrition for the Equine Hoof

By Frank Gravlee, DVM, MS, CNS; reprinted by permission from Life Data Labs, Inc.

Whether your horse is a beloved backyard companion or an international competitor, healthy feet are an essential part of his overall health. For overall hoof care, having a good farrier and veterinarian is critical to the success of any horse management plan.

Anatomy and Physiology of the Hoof
A basic understanding of how the hoof fits into the anatomy and physiology of the horse is the best place to begin. The largest organ (glandular structure) of the horse is the dermal tissue, a consumer of nutrients which includes the hooves, skin, hair follicles, sweat glands, oil glands, and related structures. Because these parts share common nutrient needs and utilization, it is possible to nutritionally improve the condition of the hooves while also achieving improved mane, tail, and coat.

What sets hooves apart, and makes them more vulnerable than other dermal structures, is their function. Because they serve as the barrier between your horse and a germ-laden environment, hooves are critical to overall equine health. And, since they show weakness or defect more quickly than other dermal structures, hooves also serve as a highly reliable indicator of your horse’s dermal health.

Hooves reflect the fact that every horse is an individual with a home environment, a genetic heritage, and a career (discipline) that affect his body and the level of care needed. You can have two horses in the same barn, on the same diet, competing in the same discipline and level, with the same farrier and one will have healthy feet while the other can barely hold shoes on for a week. In this case, even though the diet is the same, the culprit is likely to be nutrition. Two otherwise similar horses can have many genetic differences, and genetic makeup plays a big role in how nutrients are absorbed and utilized.

Nutrient Building Blocks
There are many essential nutrients required for healthy connective tissue. When horses have poor feet due to dietary factors, it can be hard to determine the exact cause. The cause can be because: (1) your horse is not receiving the correct nutrients or (2) is not absorbing them sufficiently, or (3) another dietary factor is interfering with nutrient utilization.

Start by making sure your horse is receiving a high quality, well-balanced diet that consists of forage, grain, and, perhaps, a broad spectrum supplement that provides all the nutrients known to be deficient in a horse with poor feet.

If your horse is not absorbing nutrients or suffering from dietary interference, the following suggestions for internal (nutritional) hoof care may be helpful.

Salt and trace-mineralized salt blocks: Salt and trace minerals should not be fed in combined form, as a horse’s need for these are quite different. Salt requirements beyond metabolic needs are based almost entirely on the amount a horse sweats. Trace minerals are a metabolic need, but are relatively steady irrespective of exercise and ambient temperature. When salt and trace minerals are fed together in block or loose form, horses are fed trace minerals according to their salt needs. This can be dangerous because trace minerals aren’t easily shed and can rise to toxic levels in a horse’s system. The answer:  feed a high quality hay, a single balanced supplement, and grains as needed, as most horses receive enough trace minerals. It’s a good idea to provide horses with free choice loose salt to make sure their salt needs are met.

Bran should not be fed in the presence of hoof problems. Whether from wheat, rice, oats, or other grains, bran contains phytate, which is high in phosphorus. Phosphorus blocks absorption of calcium in the small intestine, creating a systemic calcium deficiency and undermining hoof health.  If bran is to be fed to regulate stool consistency, use soaked sugar beet pulp instead. If it’s being fed to prevent sand colic, psyllium is a better solution.

Biotin alone is not enough to correct poor horn quality in most cases, as its only one of many nutrients need by the adult horse. The adult horse is said to have no dietary requirement for biotin unless under stress conditions such as intense work, traveling, being stabled for long periods, or being fed a low quality diet. Even under those conditions, biotin deficiency is relatively rare and is usually accompanied by other dietary deficiencies.

Horses which respond to biotin supplementation alone (approximately 5% with poor quality horn) show large holes in the outermost layer of the wall when viewed under a microscope. The inner layers of the wall are usually not affected.  However, research indicates that an increased amount of biotin helps the hoof in the presence of laminitis.

Methionine, proline, glycine, and glutamine are some of the major building blocks of healthy connective tissue, or collagen. Copper and vitamin C are also necessary, serving as catalysts in the formation of strong and healthy horn. For healthy hooves, all these nutrients should be supplied via diet or supplementation.

Essential fatty acids are necessary for a healthy, shiny coat, and for proper moisture balance and pliability of the hoof structure. Your horse can obtain them from grain, unprocessed grain oils, or the lecithin found in processed grains and supplements.

Healthy hooves require zinc for the prevention of defective keratin, the tough material found in the outer layers of hoof and skin. If keratin is not properly formed, the hoof will be soft and brittle.

Selenium. Some believe that selenium will help hooves become healthier. But no known definitive studies support this. In fact, when fed in high amounts, selenium causes excessive and poor quality hoof growth, and can be toxic. Because selenium deficiency can cause muscle problems, supplementation should be handled carefully and under a veterinarian’s direction.

Older horses often have problems chewing. Combine that with their less efficiently metabolized nutrients, and the horse needs special care. Try feeding ground hay and/or steam rolled oats for a near-toothless senior, and continue to provide regular exercise suitable for his health and condition. Routine veterinary and farrier care becomes even more critical because aged horses often have thyroid problems that can cause poor hoof health and a dull hair coat.

If your horse isn’t chewing his feed properly, he’s not getting enough nutrients. The most common cause of poor mastication is uneven wearing of the molars into sharp points. Examine your horse’s manure for whole grain or hay stems exceeding ¼ inch in length; look for excessive dribbling of feed, or an unusual sensitivity to the bit. These are signs that your horse’s teeth are not properly functioning and require the attention of your veterinarian or equine dentist.

Foundered horses require special care, usually good quality grass hay, little or no grain, free choice water and loose salt, along with a well balanced supplement for proper nutrition. Each foundered horse is an individual, and your veterinarian and farrier should be consulted.

Easy keepers can actually be less than easy, as feeding too much lush pasture or grain can cause founder, while not feeding enough nutrients can cause poor dermal tissue health. The solution is good quality grass hay, little or no grain, free choice water and loose salt, and a well-balance supplement that includes L-tyrosine and iodine.

Feed only a single, well balanced supplement (if needed) under the direction of a veterinarian.

External Hoof Care
Hoof trimming or shoeing should be performed as recommended by your farrier, dependent on level of work, condition of the hooves, and how fast the horse grows horn. As a general rule, no horse should go untrimmed beyond eight weeks. With excessive untrimmed growth, hoof balance alters dramatically, decreasing stride, comfort, and performance of the horse; at worst it can cause structural damage and lameness.

Stabled horses should be kept in clean, dry bedding with soiled bedding removed a minimum of once per 12 hours of stall keep. Ammonia from equine waste and decaying bedding is very destructive to hooves.

Wet-dry-wet-dry: a cycle that’s especially tough on hooves and difficult to control. Try to keep moisture changes to a minimum.

Cleaning your horse’s hooves should be a daily event, especially before riding. This can prevent stone bruises and thrush, a bacterial infection that eats away at the horse’s frog and sole. Clean the grooves on either side of the frog, as that’s where stones and bacteria tend to collect.

If you detect a rotting smell when you clean your horse’s feet, he probably has thrush. All horses are exposed to the bacterium thrush. Thrush bacteria are opportunistic, multiplying in the absence of oxygen and the presence of waste.

Don’t use copper sulfate, tincture of iodine, iodine crystals or a bleach solution. All are damaging common thrush remedies that act as sealants, fostering anaerobic growth of bacteria. Instead, organic iodine such as povidone combined with a softening and penetrating agent can be used in proper dilutions and applied to a clean, dry hoof. Chronic or severe cases should be attended to by your veterinarian or farrier.

Hoof remedies. As tough as hoof horn may be, it’s approximately 95% protein, and therefore susceptible to damage. A general rule of thumb is to avoid any commercial or home remedy containing solvents, protein-altering ingredients, or anything that seals oxygen away from the hoof. Avoid remedies containing axle grease, motor oil, pine tar, formaldehyde, acetone, and turpentine.

About the author. Veterinarian and nutritionist Frank Gravlee, DVM, MS, CNS graduated from Auburn University School of Veterinary Medicine and attended graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received a Master’s degree in nutritional biochemistry and intermediary metabolism, and is a board certified nutrition specialist.

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