You'll find at least one kind of horse hoof supplement and horse hoof dressing in any tack shop. Large stores and catalogs will likely have 10 or more horse hoof choices in these categories. People want to take good care of their horse's feet, but the primary reason for so many products is that hoof problems are a major headache for a lot of horse owners.
Brittle, chipping feet (and lost shoes as a result) are a common problem. A healthy hoof wall resists drying and chipping, just like a healthy fingernail, but many factors can cause this problem. Genetics can play a role, especially because many breeds have been selectively bred to favor characteristics like speed, muscle bulk or size without much, if any, attention paid to good hooves. But you can usually keep feet that seem prone to chipping and breaking in good shape by scheduling regular trimmings, avoiding chemical dryness, nipping hoof cracks in the bud, seeing that your horse gets regular exercise to stimulate the blood flow and, most importantly, giving your horse a proper diet.
Promoting Hoof Health
- Maximize hoof quality from the inside out by proper feeding.
- Make sure the horse doesn't go too long between trims or shoe resets, especially if you are having problems.
- Remember that improper weight distribution caused by overgrown or unbalanced feet predisposes to cracks.
- Don't strip the protective natural fats and waxes from your horse's feet with harsh chemicals or filing of the hoof wall.
- Involve a knowledgeable professional in your supplement choices.
- When needed, use hoof sealants to protect damaged areas of the hoof and avoid further damage until the hooves can grow out.
One of the most important ways to avoid hoof problems has nothing to do with what you feed the horse or put on the feet. Proper and timely trimmings are crucial. Letting a barefoot horse go too long between trims increases the risk of chipping and breaking, just like people with long fingernails can damage them by working with their hands.
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. Today it's usually called a mustang roll, but good hoof care professionals have been doing it long before it received that name.
Moisture and Dryness
Feet that are chipping and not holding shoes well because they are brittle are a different story.
Periodic exposure to high moisture, e.g., turning horses out in early morning dew, sometimes gets blamed. 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.
The bottom line is that if your horse has hoof-wall problems that seem to be related to exposure to moisture, the hoof quality wasn't normal to begin with. While even a normal hoof will soften to some degree with soaking, just like our own nails do in a long bath, after removal from the water, a normal hoof, like our nails, will return to its original toughness with no harm done.
Letting a barefoot horse go too long between trims increases the risk of chipping and breaking, and long hooves can also allow undue stretching that can lead to the crumbling of the white line.
Horses with poor hoof quality may need nutritional support as well as regular trimming.
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. For example, horses in the Camargue region of France spend all of their time in marshlands, while it's hard to imagine an environment drier and hotter than the deserts of Arabia. The good hoof quality of horses in these regions is what allows them to withstand these extremes.
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.
Even many of the things that people put on their horse's feet to make them look "pretty," or in hopes of protecting them, actually do more harm than good. This includes the common practice of rasping off rings, which removes the hoof's natural protective barrier, and use of drying hoof dressings and polishes, as well as polish removers.
If your horse repeatedly gets cracks in the same point on his hoof, check for possible trim problems, The weight load on the foot may not be correctly distributed. Horses with their breakover point incorrectly positioned are prone to toe cracking.
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.
Horses that repeatedly get hoof cracks in one location also need to be checked carefully for problems with the trim. These cracks are usually associated with the load on the foot not being correctly distributed. For example, horses with under-run heels and long toes may develop heel cracks, toe cracks or both. Horses that do not have their point of breakover correctly positioned directly in front of the tip of the frog are prone to toe cracking.
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.
What to Do About It
We've already talked about the importance of frequent and correct hoof care in avoiding common hoof problems. A good trimming schedule also keeps the hooves in a mechanically efficient shape that encourages the horse to move around more. This in turn improves blood supply and encourages the hooves to grow. Exercise is the best promoter of hoof growth.
Once mechanical issues have been addressed, you need to help the 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.
The 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 the horse also has a dry, dull coat, this will benefit too.
If your horse is limping or you're aware of problems such as stone bruises or abscesses, you'll need to get your vet or farrier involved in the treatment.
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, the 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% 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.
Some people become concerned when they see rings on their horses' feet. The horse's hoof is a sensitive indicator of general health and nutritional status. Diet changes, illnesses, changes in metabolism (including normal changes with things like pregnancy), alterations in the mechanics of the hoof, inflammation in the feet and changes in exercise level regularly show up as slight rings and grooves on the hoof wall.
In general, the more dramatic the change, the more obvious the ring will be. However, because so many different things can cause rings to appear on the feet, rings don't necessarily indicate a problem. Exceptions are rings that are closer together on the front of the foot than they are along the sides and heels. These are laminitis rings.
If you are concerned about prominent ridging, or ridges that are wider at the heels, get your vet and farrier's opinion.
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 those ingredients as well as folic acid, higher lysine and riboflavin in a 40% protein base.
Farnam's Horseshoer's Secret leaves out the cobalt and iodine and has less protein overall (20%), 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, like 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, you should talk to your vet or an equine nutritionist about what nutrients are lacking in your horse's diet. As a general rule, if the horse is primarily at pasture, you should focus on minerals because protein, essential fatty acids and vitamin intakes are likely fine. Your agricultural extension agent or state university should be able to give you a pretty good idea of what's usually lacking in pasture grasses in your area. If the 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), but you'll need to consider adding vitamin E, biotin and other B vitamins, and essential fatty acids too.
If your horse is already on a vitamin and mineral supplement, or being fed at least 5 lbs./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 is not 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.
Finally, there's the issue of hoof dressings, oils, polishes and sealants. 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. It's even more tempting because 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.
If you want to try a hoof dressing, ask your vet and farrier what products they would suggest, and realize that horses with deep cracks can have sensitive tissues exposed to potentially irritating ingredients. Hoof polishes and polish removers should be avoided entirely in horses with problem feet. Harsh chemicals in these products can dry and strip the feet.
An increasing number of vets and farriers are turning to hoof-sealant products like 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.