Any serious rider knows
the value of keeping their horse's feet in tip top condition. This is particularly
important for distance horses which have to be shod more frequently than others.
There are nutritional, environmental, genetic and iatrogenic factors which influence
the health of your horse's hooves. Each carries equal importance in terms of hoof
It is important to realise that the hoof capsule is made of horn a keratinized
epidermis, much the same as the horse's coat, mane and tail. The nutritional requirements
of the hoof are the same as those for the rest of the skin. So if your horse's
coat looks unhealthy due to a sub-optimal diet then the hooves will also be weaker
than they could be. Similarly you cannot improve the condition of the hooves,
by change in diet, without also improving the quality of the coat, mane and tail.
It is now accepted that there are a large number of nutrients which the horse
needs daily if its epidermis is to remain healthy. These are know as micronutrients
as they are required in small quantity as opposed to the macronutrients such as
protein, lipid and carbohydrate. Back in the '60's, the vitamin biotin and flowers
of sulphur were the only supplements commonly used to try to improve the hoof
horn of horses. A horse with a healthy hind gut does not require supplementary
biotin as there is more than enough for its daily needs produced by the micro
organisms living in the caecum and colon. However these days finding a horse in
competition with a healthy hind gut is not so easy! Biotin alone has been shown
to improve the horn quality of less than 10% of horses with poor feet. To be effective
a supplement has to have a balance of particular vitamins, elements, phospholipids
and amino acids to be effective. It should be realised that a supplement works
best if no other additives nor balancers are given to the horse which may upset
the balance of the ration. This is an important general rule applicable to all
food additives. In particular owners should be very wary of mixing supplements
which contain selenium as it is all too easy to give your horse a toxic dose.
You should not exceed a daily dose of 3mg selenium for a 450kg horse for example.
It is much safer to have your horse sampled to establish its selenium status rather
than giving supplements indiscriminately.
Additionally, horses need
an adequate supply of good quality protein and calcium to maintain healthy hooves.
Alfalfa is the ideal way of providing these at a rate of 2.5kg of dried alfalfa
per 450kg bodyweight per day. Horses with flat feet and collapsed heels, chronic
bruising, hoof cracks or inability to retain shoes have all recovered well given
time, the above supplemented diet and regular appropriate farriery.
The degree of hydration of hoof horn has a major effect on its strength. Wet horn
is weaker than dry horn. So avoiding standing the horse in wet conditions will
help the hoof strength. What you are aiming for is a hoof capsule made of horn
which is not rock hard as this lends little to the anti-concussive mechanism as
the horse's leg lands. Neither do you want a hoof which is too wet as this will
encourage the hoof to deform in an exaggerated fashion when the limb is loaded.
Weak horn contributes to shoe loss and collapsed heels. You need a hoof which
is inherently strong, by nutritional means, yet pliable so that it will deform
when loaded yet spring back to its original shape without causing cracks or splits
in the horn. Ammonia produced from stable bedding is detrimental to the health
of both the horse's feet and its lungs, so clean beds are essential. I prefer
a good quality whitewood shavings bed e.g. Bedmax. Stabled horses need their feet
picking out twice daily whereas I am not so concerned if a horse has a sole filled
with soil for a period.
The other major environmental
influence is that of horn infections, leading to conditions such as thrush, white
line disease or onychomycosis. These should be watched for carefully at each shoeing
by the farrier and the owner alerted should they appear. Less obvious than frank
horn infection is the following scenario. Your horse's coat looks well but the
feet either appear not to be growing or are weak or split beneath the nails. This
is often due to bacteria which are digesting the distal horn at about the same
rate as new horn is produced from the coronet; giving the impression of no horn
growth. To avoid horn infections I now use Solution4
Feet from Equi
Life which is a highly penetrating solution which gets to the root of the problem.
It has been proven to be effective by two British University studies. It should
be applied after the farrier has dressed the feet and before the shoes are fitted.
Twice weekly applications are usually all that are necessary to keep the hooves
This means that the problem is a result of what the human has been doing to the
feet whether it be the human owner, veterinary surgeon or farrier. Problems of
laziness or parsimony resulting in the horse's feet never being picked out or
the farrier being called every 3 months are obvious reasons for poor hoof health.
The farrier has a major influence on keeping your horse sound. His job will be
made easier if he is asked to attend every 4-5 weeks, is presented with a horse
with clean but not oiled feet, has a flat area in which he can see the horse walk
up and a covered well lit area in which to work. A cup of tea is always appreciated!
A good farrier will not
allow the horses' toes to become overgrown, will make a shoe which gives the wall
of the foot full protection both in shoe branch length and width at the heels
and drives his nails into the inside of the white line so that they exit the wall
at least an inch above the shoe. He will avoid using shoes which are of too narrow
a section or those which press on the horse's sole. Pads are best avoided if at
all possible, they make the shoes less secure and trap evaporated moisture from
the horse's sole under the pad. This can lead to wet sole and frog horn and predispose
to horn infections.
It is very important to
avoid using products containing formaldehyde, lipid solvents, bleach or viscous
oils. Formaldehyde damages hoof horn and has been used for years in an attempt
to harden hooves which soon become brittle and more severely cracked. Remember
you need a strong but pliable hoof not a hard brittle hoof. Lipid solvents, destroy
the inter-celluar junctions of the horn and predispose to hoof cracks and infections.
Chlorine bleaches and ammonia are both damaging to horn. Thick oils prevent air
getting to the horn and provide an ideal environment for horn digesting organisms
Some horses seem to develop
poor feet early in life, some can be improved using the above treatments and techniques
but generally speaking you are never going to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse;
try finding a silk purse to compete on in the first place.