Are your horse's hooves brittle and chipped? Here, I'll explain how hoof supplements can help strengthen your horse's hooves. But first, follow these tips to address any potential underlying issues.
Chip Tip #1: Schedule Regular Trimmings
Proper and timely trimmings are crucial. Letting a barefoot horse go too long between trims increases the risk of chipping and breaking.
Here's why: As the hoof wall grows, it also extends further forward in relation to the bones of the leg and foot. When the hoof lands, the bones stay in the same location, connected to each other, but the hoof wall expands. This causes stretching and eventually crumbling of the white line, the layer of hoof wall that connects the outer wall to the sole and live tissues of the hoof. It also contributes to chips/flaps developing in the hoof at ground surface.
Another common mistake with barefoot horses is leaving the hoof edge sharp where it contacts the ground, instead of gently rolling the edge of the hoof. This rounding can greatly help to prevent chipping.
Chip Tip #2: Avoid Chemical Drying
Brittle hooves are sometimes blamed on periodic exposure to high moisture, e.g., turning horses out in early morning dew. But the truth is that shouldn't bother a healthy hoof.
Research has shown that the normal hoof wall actually takes up very little moisture, even if soaked for long periods of time. However, if hoof quality is poor, moisture soaks in much deeper and can cause loss of minerals and electrolytes from the cells.
Overly dry conditions also may be blamed for hoof-quality problems. But as with moisture, if the hoof wall is of good quality to begin with, this won't be a problem.
One thing that even a high-quality hoof won't be able to withstand is chemical drying. Overuse of lime, or stall-drying products that contain lime, can dry the foot at ground surface and predispose it to chipping. Overuse of harsh shampoos or coat cleaners can strip the protective fats and oils from the hoof surface.
Chip Tip #3: Dress With Care
When your horse's hoof is dry, brittle, chipped and cracked, it sure sounds like a good idea to "treat" it by painting something on. Plus, these products are advertised to moisturize and even help heal/repair damaged hooves.
Unfortunately, there's really no replacement for the natural protective barrier in a hoof. Excessive use of dressings and oils can oversoften an already damaged foot. And horses with deep cracks can have sensitive tissues exposed to potentially irritating ingredients.
If you want to try a hoof dressing, ask your veterinarian and farrier what products they'd suggest.
An increasing number of vets and farriers are turning to hoof-sealant products, such as SBS Equine's Hoof Armour, as a way to protect damaged feet from further chipping or cracking while they grow out. These products dry to form a hard, protective shell that can last for weeks.
Other culprits include drying hoof dressings and polishes, polish removers, and rasping off rings, which removes the hoof's natural protective barrier.
Chip Tip #4: Address Cracks
Hoof cracks also plague some horses. Cracks can appear for the same reasons that chipping occurs. They also can start at nail holes, especially when the shoes have been on too long and the holes widen, creating a local defect in even a healthy hoof wall's normal barrier to moisture and drying.
If your horse repeatedly gets hoof cracks in one location, check for trimming problems; his weight load might not be correctly distributed.
For example, horses with under-run heels and long toes may develop heel cracks, toe cracks, or both. Horses that don't have their point of breakover correctly positioned directly in front of the tip of the frog are prone to toe cracking.
Note that shoes won't help protect against these types of mechanical cracks. In fact, they often make them worse by concentrating all the weight bearing on the hoof wall.
Enhance Inner Health
Once you've addressed mechanical issues, help your horse build a strong hoof from the inside out.
The outer layers of the hoof wall get their resistance to moisture and drying because of high content of fats and waxes. These serve as a "glue" and protector for the hoof-wall cells. Cholesterol sulfate is the major fat, followed by free fatty acids.
Your horse can easily synthesize all the cholesterol he needs for his hooves, but some fatty acids need to come from his diet. Horses on good pasture are getting ample amounts, but those on hay and processed grains might benefit from supplementation. If your horse also has a dry, dull coat, this will benefit too.
Rice-bran oil and soy oil are naturally high in the omega-6 fatty acids, while flaxseed oil is the best source of omega-3s. However, flax oil is fragile, expensive, and needs to be kept refrigerated.
Therefore, most people prefer to get the flax oil their horse needs from feeding a stabilized ground flaxseed product, such as Omega Horseshine and HorseTech NutraFlax, and get their omega 6s from stabilized rice bran, such as Omega Stablized Rice Bran, Triple Crown Feeds' Rice Bran, Equi-Jewel and Natural Glo. Or you can choose a product that provides both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, like Uckele's Equi-Shine, or Moorglo.
Protein is by far the most abundant nutrient in feet. More than 90 percent of the hoof wall is protein. Protein deficiency can compromise hoof quality, but more likely than an overall deficiency is deficiency of key amino acids, particularly lysine and methionine.
Other nutrients critical to the production of normal, healthy hooves are biotin; vitamin A, E and D; nicotinic, pantothenic and folic acids; and the minerals calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, copper, iodine, cobalt, and selenium.
Small wonder that the condition of a horse's feet can mirror his general health and nutrition. It's also no surprise that when horses are on properly balanced and fortified diets, they rarely have hoof-quality problems.
Of all the nutrients in that list, vitamin E, zinc, copper, iodine, cobalt, and selenium are the ones most likely to be deficient. Hoof supplements target some of these common deficiencies. Vitamin E and selenium usually aren't included, because most people already know to supplement them.
One of the best known and effective hoof supplements is Farrier's Formula, which provides a high level of methionine, other amino acids, biotin and zinc, copper, iodine and cobalt.
Select's Nu-Hoof Maximizer provides these ingredients, as well as folic acid, higher lysine and riboflavin in a 40 percent protein base.
Farnam's Horseshoer's Secret leaves out the cobalt and iodine, and has less protein overall (20 percent), but good levels of lysine and methionine, and also adds ground, stabilized flax for omega-3 fatty acids.
Source, Inc., offers Focus HF, which provides a wide array of micro-minerals from the seaweed base (including iodine and cobalt), with added lysine, methionine, copper, zinc, flax, soybean meal, and biotin.
Still other products, such as Vita-Key's ZM-80, have a narrower focus (zinc, methionine, and biotin, in this case) and are often designed to be complementary to other products in the manufacturer's line.
To best figure out what type of supplement is ideal for your situation, talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist about what nutrients are lacking in your horse's diet. As a general rule, if your horse is primarily at pasture, you should focus on minerals; protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamin intakes are likely fine.
Your agricultural extension agent or state university can help you determine what's lacking in pasture grasses in your area.
If your horse is on predominantly hay, you again can get mineral information if you know where it was grown (or have the hay analyzed for best information). Consider adding vitamin E, biotin and other B vitamins, and essential fatty acids.
If your horse is already on a vitamin and mineral supplement, or being fed at least five pounds per day of a well-supplemented feed, but is on hay and not pasture, an essential fatty acids supplement and one that addresses the mineral shortages and imbalances in your hay will probably get you the best results.
If your horse isn't on supplemental vitamins and minerals, and is getting only small amounts of fortified grains, try one of the more comprehensive hoof-type supplements, or a combination of ZM-80 with Vita-Key's Equine Supplement.
Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD, currently works as a writer, teacher, and internal medicine/nutrition consultant. Prior to this, Dr. Kellon has had more than 10 years' experience in private practice. She also has extensive experience with performance horses. She's based in Pennsylvania, where she and her husband raise, train, and race Standardbreds. Her most recent book is Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals (Globe Pequot Press).