Guest Author - Susan Hopf
Much like our own finger nails the health of your horse’s hooves must begin with good nutrition. Malnourished, aged and metabolically challenged animals will have a more difficult time maintaining a healthy hoof wall and sole. A basic, nutritionally balanced feed program is essential, with good quality hay and pasture making up the majority of the rations; concentrated feeds and supplements should be assessed carefully and included in the feeding of only those animals that require such.
Shelly, cracked, thin and otherwise compromised hoof wall and sole can often be improved with a critically improved feeding program. Concentrated feeds and supplements need to be fed on an individual needs basis but should include a balanced combination of carbs and protein that serves the energy needs of each horse without overloading them on either. Supplements should include high levels of fat from natural sources such as flax and rice bran. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to be quite beneficial not only for the health of coat and feet but for anti-inflammatory properties as well so is a good addition to any feed program. These fatty acids are easily found in a good quality flax product.
Supplements that target hoof health are quite plentiful and it can be difficult to choose the correct product. There is no silver bullet but whatever you choose should include biotin and dl-methionine as a start. The assorted additional ingredients are designed to both better deliver the active ingredients as well as entice you toward certain products by including new (sometimes fashionable) supplements of recent discovery. I advise you to think of your horse’s precise needs, such as being underweight, aged or recently diagnosed with Cushing’s, and then research the latest information regarding that particular physical stressor as it relates back to hoof condition and feed and supplement accordingly.
Topical hoof dressings will not improve the quality of any hoof. It may however help maintain the quality already at hand. Application of hoof dressings can be over done and create a problem where none existed previously so please use these products with caution. If the weather has created a wetter atmosphere than usual I would avoid all such products. If things are drier than usual then a good natural oil based product may help the hoof retain some of the moisture lost due to the dry air and ground. I would refrain from using any oil-based products on the frog or sole as these anatomical structures need to be firm and tough in order to resist impact trauma – their particular function.
There are also “sealers” on the market – those products that are designed to seal the hoof wall and thereby prevent moisture loss. Some also claim to toughen the hoof wall itself. I am skeptical of these products and do not use them myself. I feel that repeated use of such products actually tend to dry the hoof too much and defeats any benefit derived.
Blood flow is paramount in keeping healthy hooves. Regular exercise and turnout is a must. At times when turn-out is limited even aged horses can be hand-walked in order to keep their circulatory system in good stead. The more blood flow the better the delivery will be of all the good stuff you’re spending a fortune on in feed and supplements.
Timely and correct farrier work is vital for the maintenance of healthy hooves. Trims should occur every 5-8 weeks depending upon your horse’s needs. A good farrier will know just how much to trim away and more importantly what not to trim away. Your farrier will often find bruising or the beginnings of an abscess so make sure to schedule and keep your regular appointments. Some folks feel they can do this job themselves but I believe you are missing a vital ally in the battle of healthy hooves if you do not leave this to a professional.
To shoe or not to shoe – that has been an on-going debate for a few decades now. There can be no one correct answer for this question. The argument in favor of barefoot purports that horses were meant to go barefoot – it is natural. However this argument does not often take into account that we humans have, for centuries now, intervened in the breeding and keeping of horses and that very little of what was natural now exists in the life of domesticated horses. For example – I have been in the horse business for over 30 years and have never seen a Thoroughbred successfully kept barefoot. I have tried to do so only to see a fairly healthy hoof go from bad to worse in the matter of months. This has little to do with hoof quality alone but has everything to do with genetic make up. Thoroughbreds tend to have low heels and thin soles. Despite the theory that states given time these horses’ feet will toughen up I have yet to see it happen. It is quite difficult to watch a horse walk on eggshells with pain shooting up their leg as they step on the smallest of stones, day after day, when all they need is a shoe to keep their sensitive sole off of the ground a bit.
As with everything you must make informed decisions about hoof health based on the needs of individual horses. Ask your vet and farrier for advice, research even their advice and keep in mind that it takes over 6 months to see improvement in the quality of each hoof.