A more apt title would be ‘how to feed your horse’ as feeding for hoof health is the same as feeding a diet with sufficient nutrients for the whole body. A horse requires a range of nutrients; proteins including essential amino acids that must come from the diet, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and a very small amount of fatty acids.
Some of the nutrients come from the activity of microbes fermenting the otherwise indigestible fibre, for that reason a high fibre diet with grass and/or hay should make up the bulk of the diet.
Photo by Sarah Kuyken
Keeping in mind what is needed for great hoof quality and growth is the same as what is needed for a healthy coat and a robust immune system, let’s have a look at the key ingredients:
Keratin is an extremely strong protein and is the major component in skin, mane and tail, hooves, and teeth as is the case for us with our skin, hair and nails. Keratin is made up of a chain of amino acids with unique properties depending on the sequence; it can be inflexible and hard like hooves or soft as is the case with skin depending on the levels of the various amino acids.
Many of the amino acids that are needed for keratin are never deficient; horses can manufacture them from other amino acids. One that has to come from the diet is methionine as it cannot be manufactured from other amino acids. Methionine has a sulfur bond which has confused some people into thinking that sulfur should be supplemented in the diet. There is no recommendation to supplement sulfur on it's own and can be harmful. Horses do have a small requirement for sulfur but it’s easily satisfied by pasture/hay and other feeds as part of amino acids with sulfur bonds. Feeding sulfur doesn’t create more methionine, fortunately methionine is in grass and hay and is unlikely to be deficient unless the horse is on a high grain diet with little forage.
The periople consists of dense keratin and fatty acids. Most people can recognise the periople at the top of the hoof wall at the coronet band at the transition between soft skin and the hoof but it actually extends all the way around the hoof wall providing a protective outer layer. The periople seals moisture in the deeper parts of the hoof and keeps water out.
Fat is never deficient in the diet if grass is the predominant forage, there is no necessity to supplement more fat. A horse’s natural diet is grass which is less than 6% fat and contains the anti inflammatory omega-3 and pro inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, both have very important roles to play in the immune system. However, if a horse was on hay rather than grass then a small amount of fat supplementation is necessary as the curing process destroys these fragile fatty acids. In grass the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is about 4:1 to 6:1. If we want to ensure more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids are in the diet then avoid vegetable oils like rice bran oil or canola oil and seeds like black sunflower seeds.
Most vitamins like vitamin A and the B vitamins like biotin, folic acid and B12 are plentiful in grass and hay or are manufactured by microbes in the gut so are unlikely to cause hoof problems. Most hoof supplements contain biotin as some studies found that supplementation did improve hoof quality but in others there was no improvement. If not deficient then more is not better, any excess is excreted. Biotin supplementation is advised for horses on high grain diets with little forage.
Vitamin E is an important antioxidant and one of it’s roles is to protect fats. Not likely to be deficient in horses on grass or hay but if the horse is in regular work then supplementation is a good idea.
First of all, a diet with all the mineral requirements covered is essential for all processes in the horse’s body, not just what is happening in the hooves. But it isn’t just enough to have levels of minerals satisfied, it’s also important to have the minerals in the right proportions to each other to prevent one mineral interfering with the absorption of another.
It’s known that too much zinc in the diet interferes with copper absorption and it’s strongly suspected that the reverse situation applies as well, something to consider if you are adding copper sulphate to a feed without knowing what the zinc intake is.
Copper and zinc are the most likely trace minerals to be deficient in the diet, especially copper as plants have a lower requirement for these minerals compared to horses. Both are involved in many processes, especially enzymes which must be present for chemical reactions to occur. Little wonder then if either or both are deficient that slow hoof growth or thin walls are the result.
Sulfur interferes with absorption of copper and is suspected of hindering other minerals, for example it has been used as an antidote for selenium poisoning. Too much phosphorus in the diet will hinder the uptake of calcium and too much calcium will hinder the uptake of phosphorus. Feeding a correctly mineral balanced diet including correct amounts and proportions of essential fatty acids and adequate quantity and quality protein will support optimum hoof growth and quality.
To sum up, poor hoof quality could be caused by:
inadequate protein in the diet
methionine deficiency – unlikely on a pasture and/or hay diet. Horses on a high grain diet with little hay or grass may need supplementing
a lack of fatty acids in hay diets – freshly ground linseeds or cold pressed linseed oil is the best source of the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the same ratio as grass. See the article called ‘Linseed, is it safe?’
biotin deficiency – less likely on a high forage diet
vitamin E for horses in work
a deficiency in minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and selenium but particularly copper and zinc either caused by insufficient amounts or in the wrong proportions.
If you think your horse's poor hoof quality is due to a deficiency in biotin, it can be purchased here.
This article is based on Dr Eleanor Kellon's VMD Feeding the hoof
To learn how to balance your own horses’ diets enrol in the NRCPlus course run by Dr Eleanor Kellon VMD
Pete Ramey Feeding the hoof