Care of your horse’s hooves is a very important aspect of horse management. Nature did not intend for horses to be ridden on roads and have shoes nailed on every 6 weeks, and it is very important to ensure that the hooves can cope with this constant assault. Farriery is also a major part of the horse owner’s budget, so it makes sense to ensure your horse’s feet remain in good condition to make your farrier’s job easier and minimise your shoeing costs.
The structure of the hoof
Hoof horn is composed of a specialised skin derivative, composed of two layers which obtain their blood supply and nutrients from the underlying tissues – they have no blood supply of their own which is why a horse feels no pain during shoeing. The hardness of the hoof is created by keratin, a complex protein identical to the substance that makes human fingernails and hair. The hoof is bound to the internal structures of the foot by the finger-like laminae, which interlock and attach the hoof wall to the pedal bone. (In laminitis the laminae are damaged and lose their strength so the pedal bone can become detached and rotate within the hoof capsule.)
The outer layer of the hoof wall is covered by the periople. This protective covering helps to minimize evaporation of moisture. Moisture loss will make the hoof dry and brittle so that it cracks and crumbles around the nail holes. Excessive drying in the summer months or from being stabled, or too much rasping will damage the periople. If this occurs, a method of replacing lost moisture must be found, such as applying a specifically designed hoof moisturiser. Maintaining the correct moisture balance will enhance hoof elasticity and strength, and may also promote hoof growth.
Using nutrition to improve the hooves
Regular shoeing and good management will support the condition of your horse’s hooves, but nutrition also plays an important part. If your horse is receiving a correct well balanced diet he should be getting all he needs to maintain hoof health. However, this is not usually the case. Many horses do not require the full recommended quantities of hard feed, or they could be fed cereals, or forage alone. All these animals will not be getting adequate levels of vitamins and minerals, which could result in poor hoof condition.
Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin. Under normal conditions, the horse will manufacture enough of his own biotin to meet his needs, but during times of stress this will not occur, and the horse cannot make a large enough quantity to have ‘therapeutic’ effects. Research has shown that a 500kg horse needs 15-20mg biotin per day to have a positive effect on hoof condition, where as the daily maintenance requirement is estimated to be just 2mg per day (NRC 1989). Biotin is particularly recommended for thin brittle hooves, with crumbling edges and tender soles. It can take 6 months for a visible improvement, and up to 2 years to increase the hoof tensile strength. Traditionally, biotin was the only nutrient recommended for hoof strength, but it is now known that biotin must work in conjunction with other essential nutrients for maximum effect:
- The amino acid methionine is converted by the body to cystine, which in turn, is used to create keratin. This process requires Vitamin B6. Cystine is not a suitable feed supplement, so it is important to feed methionine and vitamin B6 for its production.
- The sulphur bridges used to hold the keratin tightly together, can be provided for by MSM. Sulphur is one of the major minerals in the body, and unlike other sources, methylsulphonylmethane is readily absorbed.
- Zinc is an important mineral for growth and strength. A zinc deficiency will lead to poor growth, and in order for it to work efficiently there must be sufficient copper in the diet. Research has shown that if chelated zinc-methionine is used, there will be greater accumulation of zinc in the hoof structures than any other part of the body. This chelate can therefore target the exact area we are looking to support.
- Calcium is important for holding the keratinised cells of the hoof wall together. But as calcium utilization is linked to phosphorus availability, these two minerals must be provided in the correct ratio, approximately 1.5 : 1 (calcium: phosphorus)
A balanced ratio of all the above ingredients is crucial if you want to improve the growth rate and quality of your horse’s hooves. Feeding a supplement can really make a difference to your horse’s hooves, but it is important to make sure that your horse is getting all the nutrients he needs, not just biotin. Anecdotal evidence suggests that supplements which contain a combination of nutrients work much more quickly and effectively than those supply just biotin.
The natural horse has evolved to eat a wide range of herbage, including seeds and berries, but on modern pasture its diet is being unnaturally restricted to just a few species of grass. It is therefore important to provide ingredients that the horse would have naturally selected for himself. Rosehips are traditionally used in hoof supplements because they are naturally rich in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant but also essential for collagen formation. Interestingly, rosehips are also a natural source of biotin, and vitamin B, both ingredients we have learnt are essential for healthy hooves. Seaweed is another ingredient which has been recommended for hoof support, probably because it provides a good balance of vitamins and minerals to supplement the diet.