As a concerned horse owner who rides over sometimes-challenging terrain, you're wise to keep a close eye on your horse's hooves. But when you spot a hoof problem, don't assume the trouble lies just in the hoof, and immediately reach for an over-the-counter supplement. What you see could be indicative of another, deeper problem.
Just as your skin and hair says a lot about your general health, your horse's skin, haircoat, mane, tail, and hooves give you clues on how he's functioning inside. They're like border crossings, where internal functions meet the outside environment.
The hoof capsule, the hoof's outer portion, is part of the integument system, your horse's entire outer covering. That tough hoof wall is really just an adaptation of skin, much as your fingernails relate to your skin. The blood supply that serves your horse's skin and coat also sends nutrients to his outer hoof.
Therefore, your approach to fixing the problem needs to be well thought out and done so in conjunction with your veterinarian. Make sure that you're feed good-quality hay. No supplement can make up for substandard forage.
Also make sure your horse's digestive system is working properly, he's parasite-free, and he's getting enough water.
Ask your farrier if he or she has seen similar hoof problems in your area,
and if so, what the outcome has been.
If your veterinarian or farrier agrees that hoof supplements will likely help your horse's hooves, follow this six-step plan for optimal results.
Step #1: Give it Time
Note that supplements don't "fix" the hoof. There's no way to fix a poor-quality hoof wall ? your horse has to grow a new one. This growth takes two things: stimulus and time.
Hoof supplements provide the stimulus, but then you need to be patient. Once you put your horse on a supplement program, you must give it time to work.
Purchase at least a 60-day supply of your chosen supplement, and follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter. When you reorder, order the same supplement, and continue to follow the dosing instructions.
It might take four to six months to see the results of a good hoof supplement. Your farrier might notice that your horse's hoof wall isn't as spongy in the nippers as it was during the previous trim. He or she might notice that the wall is getting stronger or that the white line looks tighter.
Then your farrier will gradually rasp and nip away the old crumbly wall and sole. When healthy, new wall is in the jaws of those nippers, it feels like hitting pay dirt.
Step #2: Consider Protein
Vegetable-based protein is a quirky diagram of building blocks called amino acids. Each is there for a reason, and each serves a function. They're usually in ample supply in horse feeds in the form of soybean or cottonseed oils.
Two types of amino acids dwell in those building blocks. One type contains sulphur and one does not. The conventional wisdom for stimulating hoof growth is to feed sulphur-based amino
acids (such as methionine), because the hoof wall is constructed of the protein keratin, and keratin contains sulphur-based amino acids.
However, this isn't always a successful approach, because the building-block diagram calls for a balance between all the protein elements. If your horse is deficient, feeding just the right amount may help, but that's a gamble.
And keep in mind that most things in nature have a yin-yang relationship: Pumping up a single nutrient will affect another nutrient.
Step #3: Consider Minerals
The biggest source of minerals in your horse's diet is the soil in his pasture and in his hay. Like other nutrients, minerals need to be in balance.
The bigger group of minerals, called the macro minerals, consists of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, sulfur, chloride, and potassium. The micro minerals important to your horse are zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, chromium, and cobalt.
The principle minerals to look for in a hoof supplement are calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, and chromium. Again, work with an equine nutritionist to determine the right mix for your horse.
Step #4: Consider Vitamins
Many have suggested that horses with wall cracks, slow hoof growth, or spongy hoof walls need the vitamin biotin. Research studies clearly have shown that horses do respond to a target addition of biotin to the feed.
But just as clearly, research has shown that some horses with hoof-quality issues don't respond to biotin. There's also the question of how much biotin to feed.
Biotin is sold as a supplement, but it's also manufactured in the horse's hind gut. There's no question that biotin is a key nutrient for proper hoof metabolism at the cellular level. But don't be surprised if your horse doesn't respond after a few months. It might be better to feed a broad-spectrum hoof supplement that contains biotin, among other nutrients.
Also look for supplements that contain Vitamins A and D for horses with hoof problems.
Step #5: Choose Pellets or Powder
To choose between pelleted and powdered formulations, consider how and where you feed your horse, and what his habits are. Some horses are messy eaters that knock over a feed tub or bucket, spilling the contents onto a stall floor or the ground. These horses will waste a powdered supplement, but they'll probably clean up flavored pellets.
You can also hand feed your horse's daily dose of pelleted supplements as a treat.
A powdered supplement is a great choice for a horse that receives direct care, such as a stall-bound horse with laminitis or a leg injury. You can feed a powdered supplement in a wall-hung feeder, or mix it with some applesauce, put it in a medication tube, and push the plunger right in your horse's mouth.
Step #6: Choose Targeted or Broad Spectrum
Whether you should use a targeted, specific element or a broad-spectrum formula is the biggest argument in hoof nutrition and overflows into differences of opinion with overall horse nutrition.
Many equine nutritionists and veterinarians simply state that overfeeding a single nutrient can be more dangerous for a horse than underfeeding it.
If you're already feeding your horse a general vitamin supplement or a fortified grain product, he may be receiving plenty of the nutrients he needs. Therefore, avoid piling on a single ingredient, such as methionine, zinc, or biotin.
If you feel that you must supplement an individual nutrient, do so with the help of an equine nutritionist to determine the proper dosage.
Fran Jurga is editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and writes the informational Hoof Blog, www.hoofcare.blogspot.com