Hoof Help

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We doting horse owners endeavor to pamper our beloved and prized equines, so we buy hoof dressings and conditioners, ever hopeful that the brush in the bottle will work magic. Supplements promise to improve hoof quality from the inside. Millions spent annually on our horses’ feet make the hoof business big business. Sure, genetics play a part, but absent good genes, just what can be done to improve on Mother Nature?

Clip and Save: Hooves 101

Hooves are comprised of a dead protein called “keratin.” The hoof is a viscoelastic structure that should be firm and resilient, yet somewhat flexible. Obviously, the environment in which a horse lives will determine to a great extent the hooves’ condition. We know that dryness dehydrates the hoof, leading to chipping and splitting, while wetness can have the same negative effect. But are there legitimate ways to counteract these conditions?

Scientific evidence is provided by a 1997 Texas A & M University study overseen by Ilka Wagner, DVM, currently in private practice at Equine Veterinary Services in Hearne, Texas. The research determined that several commercial products, when topically applied to the hoof wall, are able to maintain moisture.

Wagner categorized hoof dressings like this:

In the first category, maintaining over 95 percent hydration (how moist something is), were ingredients such as neatsfoot and cod liver oil, pine tar, petroleum compound and turpentine, as found in pine tar (generic), Bear-Cat, Rain Maker, Vita-Hoof Conditioner and Dressing, Fiebing’s Hoof Dressing, and Shur Hoof Dressing. The products are thick and gooey to the touch.

Products maintaining 90 to 95 percent hydration, with main ingredients of lanolin, lactates, stearates, alcohols and glycerin, included: Hoofmaker, Hooflex, Hoof Saver, Reducine Hoof Dressing (no longer manufactured), Purina Hoof Moisturizer (now Sportsman’s Friend Hoof Moisturizer) and Hoof Quencher.

In the third category, less than 95 percent hydration was maintained by products based on ketones, toluene, acetate and alcohols: Hoof Fix (no longer available, Hoof Stix replaced it) and Tuff Stuff. These are also sometimes called “bonded” hoof coatings, hardeners or sealants. They’re often used on horses with sanded hooves, say farrier experts.

“Pine tar maintained 100 percent hydration to the hoof,” reports Wagner, who repeats that “it’s not necessarily a good thing if you get the hoof too wet. It can do more harm than good.” She cites previously published research by J. E. Bertram that suggested the ideal level is between 70 and 75 percent relative hydration.

Since seasons and conditions change, your hoof care needs do, too. A dressing may shine hooves and temporarily fill in tiny cracks, but it won’t change your horse’s internal biology, especially when other influences are at work.

Fran Jurga of Gloucester, Mass., is not a veterinarian, but is a recognized hoof expert. She’s the founder of “Hoofcare and Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science” (www.hoofcare.com) and concurring with Wagner, cautions that “total hydration turns a foot to mush.”

Turning horses out in dewy pastures, then putting them in dry stall shavings, then back in the wash rack, “means cycling from wet to dry. Research shows that’s a big part of the problem—weakening hoof walls,” says Jurga. Be aware too that standing in waste is not healthy for hooves.

If you’re a back-to-basics kind of person, Wallace Henderson, a Glendora, Calif., farrier with 20 years’ experience (www.californiahorseshoeing.com) writes that “we mix our own [hoof dressing] in a five-gallon pail. Any lubricant will do as a base, such as vegetable oil, Neatsfoot oil, and for some reason, used motor oil works wonders. You can then add pine tar, iodine, or any variety of things. Get creative with your mix. Fish oil, if available, is a wonderful hoof paint, used alone or in your mix.”

Killing with Kindness

Do you really need to apply a dressing? Maybe not, say some veterinarians, since it can encourage growth of harmful bacteria. Don’t mess with success if your horse’s hooves look good.

As someone who sees thousands of hooves, current American Farriers Association president Craig Trnka worries that sometimes, “we kill our horses with kindness.

“Most conditioners that are lotion-based or tacky attract sand and dirt that pull moisture out. Washing a horse actually dries his feet; in a natural state, the feet would be more greasy, with a natural coating.”

Veteran farrier and veterinary podiatrist Steve O’Grady of The Plains, Virginia, also cautions against water-logging the hooves, especially of frequently-bathed show horses. Many owners like to apply a dressing before a bath, as the fresh coating does repel water.

As to rubbing those conditioners into the coronary band and hoof? It is thought to stimulate growth but is probably a waste of energy on the owner’s part, theorizes O’Grady.

“The coronary band provides circulation for the origin of the hoof wall, plus the laminae or dermis, and you may dilate the blood vessels to a degree, making the area warm with rubbing. Truthfully, very little of anything can be absorbed this way,” O’Grady explains. “The tubules that run down the front of the horse’s hoof and strengthen that hoof wall are encased in intertubular horn and both lack the ability to absorb.” Products applied on the foot bottom could be absorbed to some degree, he says.

However, other farriers frequently counsel to apply dressings to the coronet band with massage action, so it appears that opinion is often divided on this issue.

From the manufacturer side, SBS Equine Products in Hyannis, Massachusetts makes Farrier’s Hoof Sealant with a formula based upon dental technology, containing fibers. Ray Tricca, president, says that “sometimes, people perceive that sealants are bad because they don’t allow the hoof to breathe; the hoof doesn’t breathe through the horn, where sealants are applied. They fill voids and fissures that can be pathways to pathogens.”

Internal Hoof Help

You’ve dressed the hoof and now you’d like to know what to add to your horse’s feed. Paal Gisholt, president and CEO of Smart-Pak Equine (www.smartpakequine.com) in Plymouth, Mass., carries 18 hoof supplements that go into SmartPaks on an individual order basis. Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers equine supplements a low priority, and because Gisholt is a director of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), a self-policing industry group, he looks carefully at the quality a company produces and at its reputation.

Companies with strong track records, says Gisholt, include Farnam, Absorbine, Grand Meadows, HorseTech, Select, Source, and Life Data, among others. Buyer beware, he cautions, of supplements that are very inexpensive or make extreme claims, i.e., “this supplement will rotate the coffin bone in six months.”

Despite such warnings, supplements are quite safe. Gisholt says that, out of 200 million supplement administrations in the last 12 months, only 102 “adverse events” have been reported by NASC member companies. Most are deemed “not serious” in nature, with many occurring in older horses that already have health problems.

Supplement component mainstays include biotin, zinc and methionine, and they provide a starting point when reading labels. One money-saving tip: The biotin in hoof supplements affects all connective tissue, including skin and coat, and often produces a bloom in the coat similar to a coat supplement. And yes, some supplements come in combos, such as a coat conditioner included.

Finding the most effective supplement requires a little experimentation. “Horses, like people, differ so much from individual to individual, so product efficacy really varies from animal to animal,” concludes Gisholt. His most important advice: Because hooves grow slowly, pick a product and stick with it for at least six months to judge the effects on your horse.

Good old common sense plays a part in hoof maintenance, too, says Jurga. “Horses need circulation; standing around is not a good thing. Pump all these nutrients into them…but they need to get to the feet, to make healthy new tissue. Shifting weight from one foot to another is not enough.”

Jurga advises making good use of your farrier’s knowledge and reminds us that often “supplements work according to where you live,” depending upon what minerals are in the soil, and thus the hay. “Your farrier sees lots of hooves and talks to lots of owners and is a wealth of information.”

Maybe your horse doesn’t need a supplement, she adds, and if you over-supplement, “you’re making expensive manure.” Why not have your hay analyzed, since “there’s a tremendous variation in hay and forage?” Your farrier or veterinarian can suggest sources for analysis: Veterinary schools often do it for a very reasonable fee.

If the horses in your care get regular hoof assistance from you, chances are it’s not a bad thing. At least you’re paying attention. O’Grady observes that “the most beneficial effect of applying hoof dressing may be that it forces owners or trainers to observe the condition of the feet on a daily or frequent basis,” and for that, the horses would say, “we thank you.”