A healthy hoof is the foundation upon which every horse stands. When viewing or purchasing a new horse, many well respected dealers and trainers will tell you the hoof is the first part of the horse they will look at. As the saying goes, no hoof, no horse!
The health of horse’s hooves is determined by several factors including genetics, the horse’s environment, activity levels and nutrition. In this article we will discuss how nutrition can influence hoof health.
The normal growth rate of the hoof is between 6-10 mm per month (0.2 – 0.4 inches). A horse’s hoof is about 75-100 mm (3 – 4 inches) in length, meaning a new hoof should grow from the coronary band to the ground surface each year. It should be noted that young horses and especially foals’ hooves normally grow much faster.
When the diet is deficient of certain nutrients, hoof growth is slowed down and the hoof horn that is produced will be weaker and of poorer quality. If the horse is lacking in one or more of the following nutrients, hoof quality and growth will be compromised.
Meeting energy requirements may be the first and most important step in ensuring hoof growth and functional integrity. A horse in negative energy balance will utilise protein in the diet or body to make up energy needs for maintenance or growth. This may create a secondary protein or amino acid deficiency.
Hoof wall is approximately 93% protein on a dry matter basis. Horses consuming too little protein have slowed hoof growth and tend to produce inferior quality horn. As a result, the hooves will be at increased risk of problems such as cracking and splitting and, once an issue does occur, it will take far longer for it to ‘grow out’.
The composition of the hoof wall is predominantly an insoluble protein called keratin. Keratin is also found in the skin and the hair. Keratin, like all proteins, is made up of a chain of amino acids. The amino acid cysteine accounts for as much as 24% of the total amino acids in keratin. Methionine, an essential amino acid, is also present in keratin but only in small amounts. The role of methionine in hoof formation is in producing cysteine, as the horse can convert dietary methionine into cysteine.
The amino acids methionine and cysteine both contain sulphur, which is an essential element in the formation of keratin. The sulphur components of these amino acids form strong cross-links between the collagen fibres during hoof formation. The more cross-links formed the stronger the resulting hoof wall.
Diets deficient in methionine will cause a cysteine deficiency, leading to weakened hoof growth. Methionine also helps increase the bond between the laminae of the hoof wall and so is particularly important for horses prone to laminitis.
The amount of protein your horse needs will depend on their age, workload and reproductive status. Horses in work, young, growing horses and mares in the latter stages of gestation and lactating broodmares all have elevated protein and energy requirements. If these requirements are not met, hoof growth and quality will be compromised.
The health of the hoof is an extension of the health of the horse in general. If the horse suffers a deficiency of dietary minerals such as zinc, copper or calcium then hoof health may be compromised. Some of the key minerals needed in the formation and maintenance of hoof health are:
Zinc is present in high concentration in normal hoof tissue and is critical for a variety of functions, including the formation of keratin. A zinc deficiency can cause slow hoof growth, thin walls, weak connections, and weak horn. Zinc also plays a role in minimising hoof abscesses and hoof diseases.
Copper is important in hoof formation as it is required for the activation of the enzyme which forms the sulphur cross-links that hold the keratin strands together.
Calcium is essential for the cohesion of one cell to another, and it is thought to play a role in the cross-linking of collagen strands in hoof.
Excess selenium in the diet can interfere with keratin formation. Selenium will replace sulphur and form its own cross-links. Selenium cross-links are much weaker, and the corresponding hoof wall will also be weak.
Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, and biotin are very important in hoof nutrition. However, since all the B vitamins are involved in some way with protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism, they play very important roles in a tissue as active as the hoof.
Biotin is a B-complex vitamin that is generally produced by microbes in the horse’s hindgut. A horse can usually synthesise sufficient quantities to meet their nutritional needs. However, where access to forage is limited, or the horse has a genetic predisposition to poor hoof quality, additional biotin is recommended.
Figure 1: Hoof Growth (cm) in horses fed 15mg/ day of biotin
Biotin deficiencies cause skin lesions, sparse hair growth, dry, scaly skin, and brittle, cracking hooves. Hoof deformities such as dishing and low heels have also been associated with biotin deficiencies. Studies have shown increased hoof growth and improved hoof quality in horses fed 15-20 mg biotin per day (Figure 1). This level of biotin seems to be particularly beneficial to horses with thin, brittle hoof walls and tender, thin soles.
Fatty acids protect the outside of the hoof from moisture damage. Fatty acids protect the hoof wall that already exists but are not involved in the inherent strength of the hoof wall. When present in correct amounts in an unbroken layer, these seal moisture into the deeper hoof structures and seal water out.
Grass is a rich source of the essential fatty acids linolenic (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6) in a ratio of from 3:1 to 6:1. However, conserved forage (e.g. hay and haylage) and cereal grains such as oats and barley have lower concentrations of omega 3 fatty acids. Therefore, for horses that have limited access to fresh pasture, supplementation with a flaxseed based product such as Foran Equine Kentucky Karron Oil, which is a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids, is recommended.
Alongside optimal nutrition, good hoof hygiene should be practiced. Without clean dry living conditions and regular visits from a qualified farrier, hoof condition can deteriorate quickly. Whether your horse is managed barefoot or wearing shoes, their feet should be picked out daily to remove any build-up of dirt, bedding, stones, or foreign objects. Carrying out this task daily also allows you to spot any potential issues early and address them accordingly. In addition, there are a number of excellent topical products such as Carr, Day & Martin Daily Hoof Barrier and Foran Equine’s Flexi Hoof and Heel Conditioner, which when used regularly, will help to promote and maintain hoof health.
Feeding for Hoof Health
If your horse has good quality, strong, healthy hooves this is a sign that they are receiving a well-balanced dietary intake, as the horse’s feet are a good indicator of nutrition overall. Forage alone, particularly conserved forage, will not provide the horse with optimal levels of several minerals essential for hoof health. Therefore, to ensure sufficient intake of the essential nutrients outlined above, your horse will need a suitable hard feed.
All Connolly’s RED MILLS feeds contain high quality protein, rich in methionine to aid keratin formation and hoof strength. In addition, the RED MILLS Pro Vitamin and Mineral package will ensure your horse receives optimal levels of vitamins and minerals. All Connolly’s RED MILLS feeds also contain added biotin at levels sufficient for most horses.
However, as the metabolism of all horses differs, some will produce and utilise certain nutrients (e.g. biotin) more efficiently than others. This can mean two horses fed the same diet may have different hoof growth and quality. Several other factors including genetics, activity, and the environment will also play an important role in hoof health.
For horses with thin, brittle hoof walls or thin, sensitive soles, we recommended the Connolly’s RED MILLS Care Range. All the feeds in the Care Range are specifically formulated to help support hoof health and contain nutritionally significant levels of biotin, plus chelated zinc and copper to help enhance hoof growth, strength and condition. Alternatively, Foran Equine Hoof Aid Liquid or Powder, which is rich in biotin, methionine, and zinc, can be added to the horse’s feed (Figure 2).
When feeding a product from Connolly’s RED MILLS Care Range or adding Foran Equine Hoof Aid to your horse’s diet you should expect to see improvements in hoof growth and quality in around 2-3 months. However, it is important to bear in mind that it can take 9-12 months for a completely new hoof to grow and, for those horses genetically prone to poor hoof condition, long-term dietary support and the application of topical products will be necessary to maintain hoof quality.