Hoof sealers and hardeners are "heavy guns" and need to be used sensibly.
You need to address the problem at hand and be sure not to go overboard with a product that’s doing more than you intend or the horse needs. This is especially true of hardeners, but sealants, too, should be used only as needed. If all you want is a shine, choose a product that does just that.
Who Needs more? A normal, healthy hoof doesn’t need a sealant or hardener—or hoof dressing for that matter. The intricate structure of the hoof-wall protein (keratin) combines with various waxes and oils in the hoof. A healthy hoof will naturally seal in the moisture it needs and seal out damaging moisture from outside elements. The surface of a healthy hoof is smooth, slightly shiny and very hard.
Unfortunately, things can get in the way of a horse maintaining a naturally healthy hoof. While we will always maintain that there are places where shoes are necessary, the fact is that rasping and driving nails interfere with the integrity of the hoof wall, predisposing to drying and cracks. You may find that your farrier routinely uses a filler/sealer over the nail holes to help keep moisture from penetrating into the hoof.
Conversely, letting the feet go too long between trims, or trims done by an inexperienced, untrained person, results in abnormal forces being placed on the hoof wall, increasing the risk of chipping, cracking and white-line crumbling. Even with minor breaks in its armor, the healthy hoof is resistant to damage from water. Ammonia from urine breakdown and keratin-degrading bacteria in manure are another story.
Last but far from least is the nutritional element. Peak hoof quality is only possible when the nutritional needs of the hoof are being met (see our article on hoof supplements in May 2009).
In most cases, one or more of the factors above can be identified as causing problem hooves. Correcting them will correct the problem. However, in the meantime, if you have a horse with severe problems with cracking, chipping or brittleness, you need some help holding things together until strong hoof can grow in to replace the damaged areas. If a regular hoof dressing does not get the job done, you need to move up.
Proper Use. We found that people use sealants for one of two major reasons: either for shine or to protect the hoof from excessive drying or softening. If you use a shining sealant just because you like the hoof to look shiny, you are making a mistake. You need to look for a polish only.
Sealants are products that sit on the surface of the hoof and prevent moisture from entering or leaving through cracks in the hoof wall. They may also provide some protection from ammonia and bacteria, but sealants will be worn off by the abrasive effects of soil/ground. This limits their usefulness in dealing with chipping at the ground level.
Most sealants are also shine products, with one or more ingredients similar to what you would find in a human nail polish. The fastest drying ones also contain acetone and/or other solvents that will strip the outer hoof wall of its oils, leading to drying and possibly peeling or superficial cracks.
Hardeners are products that actually chemically modify the structure of the hoof wall to make it harder by altering chemical bonds within the keratin and creating other bonds. Again, these products should only be used when they are clearly needed, preferably recommended by your farrier and/or veterinarian.
To apply any of these products, start with a freshly trimmed foot, with chips rasped smooth. Cracks should be carefully inspected by your farrier or veterinarian to make sure they don’t harbor a deep infection that you could be sealing inside. Probe any areas of crumbled white line to make it sure it doesn’t extend up beyond the live sole plane (white-line disease).
With both sealants and hardeners, the hoof must be clean before application to guarantee the product comes in good contact with the hoof wall. Washing with soap and water, followed by thorough drying, is recommended. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for applications closely, including frequency of use and areas of the hoof to be treated. Many products must be kept away from the heel bulbs and coronary band.
The effects of hardeners are permanent and can’t be reversed. Treated areas of the hoof must grow out. Many sealant/shine products can be removed with regular nail-polish remover or will wear off over time, but any dryness resulting from the products will have to grow out.
Soft Soles. When a soft, tender sole is a problem, you should be able to trace this to an environmental problem where the horse is standing in areas contaminated by urine or manure, including in muddy areas around feeding stations in a field setting. Fix that, and you fix the problem.
Remember, too, that horses can be protected in these mucky turnout areas by applying a good hoof boot with a Hawthorne Sole Pack inside. Venice Turpentine is also a simple, inexpensive product to use on sore, tender soles.
Bottom Line. If you need your horse’s hoof to shine for a special event, skip a sealant and stick with something that just shines. For that, we’d definitely go with Fiebing’s Hoof Polish.
Of you want something that shines and seals, try HOOFix Hoof Sealant and Polish, which is also high shine.
However, if your main concern is to address problems with chipping, losing shoes, superficial cracks, we like SBS Farrier’s Hoof Sealant. It lasts much longer than the other combination shine/sealants and does a better job of filling in nail holes, cracks and other irregularities in the hoof wall. The sealant works best on shod horses, because barefoot horses will wear it off at ground level much quicker.
Keratex Hoof Gel is also very effective and earns Best Buy, but it does have to be applied more frequently.
For a barefoot horse, or a shod horse that isn’t protected well enough by a sealant, Keratex Hoof Hardener is the answer. It effectively hardens the hoof wall and can also be used on soles. Continue use until healthier horn has grown down to ground level. We were impressed with the results from this hardener.
If you need a hardener for soft, thin soles, try Keratex Hoof Hardener or Best Buy Cavalor Dry Feet. Remember, though, the problem can’t be truly "fixed" if the horse isn’t being trimmed correctly.
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