Hoof problems can take a horse out of commission for a long time! A horse can only give his best with stable and resilient hooves. Learn here what helps hooves that are dry and brittle, soft and flaky, or cracked and lined, and how you can improve the quality of your horse's hooves.
What does a healthy hoof look like?
A healthy equine hoof has a wall that is smooth with no ridges. Exceptions to this are the so-called "hoof rings" which run consistently around the entire walls and parallel to the coronets of all four hooves. These are caused by dietary changes, often in connection with moulting, and are frequently seen on horses kept in open stables or outdoors. In wild horses, these "fault lines" are smoothed down through natural horn abrasion.
A hoof with a healthy horn substance can manage changing terrain and weather conditions quite well. Hoof horn can absorb, retain, and release water, thus regulating its moisture content. During long dry spells, a healthy hoof will become harder but not brittle.
What does a hoof consist of?
Despite its thickness and strength, hoof horn is actually nothing more than keratinised skin, similar to our fingernails and toenails. Keratinisation occurs through various water-insoluble fibre proteins which fall under the umbrella term "keratins". The hoof wall is essentially built from these structural proteins.
How does a healthy hoof work?
A hoof may look like a rigid and immovable shoe, but it is elastic in all its parts. The hoof capsule expands with each step the horse takes. The rubbery frog acts like a shock absorber and the slightly arched sole expands the bearing edge, especially in the heel area. When the load is removed, the mechanism works in reverse: frog, sole, and wall contract again.
This mechanism keeps blood circulating and thus supplies blood to the inner parts responsible for healthy horn growth.
How does hoof growth occur?
The coffin bone (the horse's "toe bone") and the underlying digital cushion are covered by the corium, which produces a large part of the horn mass. The corium is rich in blood vessels which ensure its nutrient supply.
The horn grows directly on sole, frog, and heel bulb, from the inside out. The wall, by contrast, grows from the soft coronet downwards. The speed of hoof growth depends on the horse's diet and physical activity as well as on the season: hooves grow more slowly in the winter than in the summer. A hoof needs about a year to fully regenerate itself. This means that treating hoof problems requires patience!
What causes horses to have bad hooves?
Equine hoof horn quality is probably determined by genetic factors. Differences in hoof quality can be seen even in young foals. Some horse breeds experience hoof problems more frequently because breeders paid more attention to conformation than to hoof quality.
Older horses generally show poorer hoof quality. Their metabolism decreases, making them less able to utilise nutrients that ensure good hoof quality.
Are white hooves worse than dark hooves?
Even when opinions on this persist, hoof colour – whether white, black, or striped – plays no role in hoof quality!
Problems from misalignments?
Irregularly formed hooves are often susceptible to problems. Look closely at your horse's hoof position! Ideally, the hoof walls run straight down inside and outside, the hoof and pastern form a line, and the sole is the same size on both sides of the frog. This is in theory, at least – absolutely perfect hooves are rare!
If your horse's hooves crack easily, the irregular pressure on crooked hoof walls may be a cause. It's best to discuss whether and how to correct the hoof with a farrier!
Problems through too little movement and too little hoof stimulation
For the hoof mechanism, which ensures the regrowth of healthy hoof horn, to function, the horse must get enough exercise on different surfaces. If the horse stands on a paved paddock surface and is mostly exercised on sand footing, the hooves will not be as stimulated and hardened as they would be from a variety of cross-country terrains. The hooves' ability to regulate moisture will also not function properly.
Tip: If you keep your horse in an open stable, you can provide him with a variety of ground surfaces in the paddock. Some farriers recommend putting pea gravel in a few places in the paddock to harden the hooves. In the summer you can put in a "mud puddle" to help keep hooves hydrated. What's important here is that the horse can seek out each surface and feel comfortable on it.
Bad hooves resulting from husbandry conditions
Even healthy hooves can become damaged. One of the most common causes for hoof problems is stable hygiene. The chemical effects of the mixture of faeces and urine in soiled bedding or constantly damp deep bedding and confinement in muddy paddocks will weaken horn substance, as these damage the strengthening keratin proteins in the horn cells. The horn becomes soft and flaky, and the horse responds with increasing sensitivity and begins to avoid hard surfaces. Soft hooves are easier targets for aggressive bacteria and fungi which are damaging to the frog and the horn of the sole.
Will pine tar help soft hooves?
The once-common beechwood tar is used less often today, because it seals microcracks in the horn if applied too liberally, and this creates ideal conditions for anaerobic germs! You'll have more success by moving the horse to dry ground and having the damaged hooves treated professionally by a farrier
Metabolic disorders as causes for poor hooves
Metabolic disorders like PSSM and EMS can negatively affect hoof quality. As the "last stop" in blood circulation, the hooves absorb both nutrients and toxins. Metabolism imbalances and poor blood circulation in small blood vessels lead to severe damage to the hoof substance. Warning signs are often crumbling horn, thrush, and a widening of the white line.
If metabolism becomes imbalanced and the hooves are affected, diet and support for the liver and kidney are the key!
You can support liver and kidney function with herbs:
- Milk thistle promotes function and regeneration of stressed livers
- Birch leaves and nettle increase urine output, thus helping the organism to flush out pollutants.
- Dandelion has bitter substances that stimulate the formation of digestive juices, relieve strain from the liver, and have diuretic properties.
Hoof care is essential!
Hoof care is another important factor in maintaining or improving the quality of your horse's hooves. Your horse's hooves should be examined by a farrier every 6 to 8 weeks!
Clean and inspect hooves on a daily basis! You should also make sure that a healthy hydration level is maintained.
What to do about dry hooves
Horses that live predominantly in loose boxes and paddocks or in open stalls with paved surfaces will frequently have hooves that are too dry. Dry hooves will become brittle and start to chip or crack. This is not an issue for horses in 24/7 turnout, who stand in dewy wet grass in the early mornings. If your horse's dry hooves are the consequence of how he's stabled, plain old water will help. You can
- treat your horse to a nice foot bath in a stream or a pond
- get your horse to place his feet in a bucket of water – and remain standing there for at least 15 minutes
- apply moisturising hoof packs – for this you don't necessarily need to buy water boots; disposable nappies soaked in water or wet facecloths covered with clingfilm also work well.
Important: Watering your horse's hooves with a garden hose will have the opposite effect! This will cause the external layer of horn to swell and contract too quickly, leading to the formation and expansion of cracks. "Foot showers" must last about 30 minutes to get the desired effect on all four hooves!
Do lubricants help?
Hoof oil and hoof grease are said to stimulate hoof growth. Moreover, oiled hooves look great!
For improved hoof quality, apply hoof oil after watering the hooves! On damp hooves, high-quality hoof oil helps to retain moisture and keep them elastic.
Important: Applying hoof oil or hoof grease to dry hooves will impede moisture absorption in the hoof walls!
A traditional component of quality hoof care products is bay leaf oil, which has disinfecting properties. Applied to the coronet, bay leaf oil promotes blood flow and hoof growth. Clove oil promotes the formation of a durable barrier layer on the hoof.
Important: Never apply oil or grease to the underside of the hoof, as its sealing effects make the sole and frog susceptible to anaerobic bacteria!
(Hoof) beauty comes from the inside!
The nutrients that promote the formation of hoof horn from skin cells must be obtained through diet. An ample supply of specific minerals, trace elements, vitamins, and essential amino acids promotes hoof growth and improves hoof quality.
Trace elements for good hooves
Zinc and copper are good for the skin. It is not the absolute amount of these two inorganic substances that the horse ingests that is important, but rather the correct ratio. Too much copper will impair zinc absorption! Zinc supports keratin formation, whilst a deficiency results in hoof horn that is too soft. Good mineral mixes will contain a balanced ratio of copper and zinc.
Selenium will also affect hoof quality. In horses, a selenium deficiency will result in skin problems as well as hoof issues. Your vet can take a blood sample to determine if your horse has a selenium deficiency.
Important: Pay attention to the composition of feed products that contain selenium, because an oversupply of genetically engineered selenium (selenium yeast) can have serious consequences! Excess inorganic selenium or sodium selenite is eliminated through the bowel and will not harm the horse.
Essential amino acids
Essential amino acids must be taken in through the horse's feed. Methionine is an especially important amino acid for healthy horn growth. It provides the hoof with sulphur, which, together with biotin, is used to generate keratin. Methionine is an important component of high-quality mineral mixes.
Vitamins for better hoof quality
A deficiency in vitamin A or its precursor beta-Carotene can lead to loosened, brittle hoof horn. Beta-Carotene is found in ample quantities in pasture grass and can be stored in the horse's liver over long periods. Horses with no access to fresh forage in the winter months can generally still get enough vitamin A through good quality hay. However, a horse that is fed only old hay and straw will use up his reserves of vitamin A within two months.
Tip: Feeding your horse two or three carrots every day in the winter is a good way to keep him well supplied with vitamin A. Rose hips also contain vitamin A and many horses like to eat them as treats!
What does biotin do?
Biotin, a water-soluble B vitamin, has been shown to improve hoof quality. It is also called vitamin B7 or vitamin H. This substance is instrumental in keeping the hoof elastic and makes hoof horn strong and resilient. Your horse's biotin requirement will normally be met through fresh green forage. Fresh grass contains ample amounts of biotin. However, supplements may be advisable for horses that are fed hay with a one-sided composition and for horses with poor horn substance.
Important: Do not give your horse biotin long-term, but rather as a treatment over several months. The equine organism is actually able to produce biotin itself, and the constant feeding of biotin will disrupt this synthesis.
What does healthy digestion have to do with hoof quality?
Biotin is formed from roughage by gut flora in the digestive process. This formation requires a healthy gut microbiome. If your horse has soft hoof horn, is prone to horn cracks, and also suffers from intestinal complaints like watery stool and diarrhoea, the first thing you should do to improve hoof quality is to give his digestive system some support!
In addition to examining the feed ration, the supplement of selected herbs is recommended to soothe the irritated mucous membranes of the stomach and gut and promote healthy gut flora.
- Marsh-mallow contains mucilaginous substances that cover the mucous membranes, acting like a protective film and soothing irritation.
- Yarrow contains bitter substances and essential oils that relieve digestive problems.
- Peppermint relaxes the smooth muscle of the digestive organs.
- Oak bark soothes inflamed mucous membranes and impedes the growth of harmful bacteria.
Which feeds help to improve hoof quality?
- Brewer's yeast contains the vitamins B2, B3, B5, and biotin. The addition of brewer's yeast can improve the hardness and elasticity of hoof horn.
- Linseed oil is high in unsaturated fatty acids and good for the skin and hooves.
- Microalgae are rich in essential amino acids, vitamins, and trace elements which promote hoof regeneration.
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- Helmut Meyer, Manfred Coenen: Pferdefütterung, 4. Aufl., Berlin 2002
- Bianca Patan: Saisonaler Einfluss auf Hornbildungsrate, Hornabrieb und Hornqualität in der Hufwand von Przewalskipferden (Equus ferus przewalskii), Diss. Vet.med. FU Berlin, Berlin 2000
- Michael Schäfer: Handbuch Pferdebeurteilung. Franck-Kosmos, Stuttgart 2. Aufl. 2007
- Lucile Vigouroux: Feeding the Foot: Nutrition of Equine Hoof Health, Aug. 2020