Keeping a horse's hooves in good condition is essential and knowing what type of nutrients are needed to ensure they stay healthy means taking a close look at your horse's diet. You need to make sure a horse is getting everything needed to keep all the connective tissues, cartilage, bone and nerves that make up hooves so they stay strong and healthy throughout the season whether you plan on competing or not.
A horse's genetic make-up plays a crucial role in the quality of their hooves, but this is closely followed by nutritional needs after which exercise and the time of the year comes into the play. Farriers also play an essential role in keeping the condition and health of a horse's feet as good as possible. Certain breeds inherit very strong hooves from their lines whereas other breeds are known to have far weaker feet and therefore they need more in the way of looking after. This is where diet plays an important part because if any nutrients are lacking, it will have a serious impact on their quality and if a horse would survive a season without suffering issues with their feet.
Horses at rest or in low work are able to tolerate deficiencies much better than those in full work or when being used for breeding purposes. With this said, any horse can be susceptible to imbalances and deficiencies at some stage in their lives which is where good husbandry comes into play because recognising there may be a problem early makes it so much easier to make things right again.
Older horses may not be able to absorb nutrients as they once did simply because their digestive systems are not as efficient and therefore they don't produce the right amount of nutrients in their hindgut which includes the valuable B vitamins. The only way around the problem is to supplement their feed with the missing nutrients in order to reduce the risk of them developing a deficiency or imbalance that could affect the quality of their feet as well as their overall general health.
Protein and energy are the building blocks of good hoof health and this includes both fatty acids and glucose because the structure a horse’s feet is made up of protein and keratin. Equine nutritionists recommend that horses be given good quality protein and this has to include all ten of the essential amino acids because by just providing a few of them, it can cause an imbalance which can then lead to other issues.
When it comes to vitamins, most are produced by a horse's body with the exception of A and E, but good quality green forage provides a horse with the following vitamins:
Providing adequate levels of vitamins in crucial to maintaining the integrity of a horse's feet, but they are also essential for a horse's overall well being. A deficiency in Vitamin A which is fat-soluble is thought to contribute to coronary band issues involving inflammation. It is also thought that a deficiency in Vitamin A goes hand-in-hand with a zinc deficiency.
Biotin is a much favoured supplement that many horse owners give to their horses. It is water-soluble and horses produce it naturally in their hindgut. It is the “glue” that holds everything in the hoof together. However, although biotin remains a popular supplement, studies have shown quite different results as to how effective it is when given to horses that have less than good quality hooves. Some research suggests that it interferes with horn elasticity and that it can take anything up to 9 months for any improvement to be seen in weaker and misshaped hooves or where the hoof horn has crumbled. Equine nutritionists do not believe that a biotin supplement does actually benefit most horses although a few might show a little improvement in the quality of their hooves. Natural sources of biotin can be found in bran, yeast and grains.
A horse also needs to get the right levels of minerals which help bond the keratin found in their hooves. The good news is that most natural feedstuffs contain copper, but the bad news is this is not often in the amounts needed for horses. However, modern equine commercially produced feeds do contain the levels needed to meet a horse’s daily needs. Naturally, this means a horse would need to be fed hard feed to ensure they get the right amount of copper because hay alone just does not provide enough.
Other important minerals that help maintain the integrity of the hoof include the following:
Zinc – needed to maintain and repair hooves
Mananese – needed to maintain joint cartilage which goes a long way in maintaining internal structures of the hoof
Selenium- needed to maintain and protect cell membranes found in a horse’s hooves – however, care has to be taken so that a horse is not given too much which could result in selenium poisoning
Calcium – needed to maintain hoof horn
Fats are essential because they help create a barrier which prevents moisture from entering into the hoof. However, specific fatty acids requirements in a horse’s diet which could help maintain strong hooves is not really well defined as yet as more research needs to be done.
Making sure a horse’s diet contains all the right nutrients and at the correct levels goes a long way in maintaining healthy hooves whether a horse is in hard work or not. However, if you are planning on competing throughout the season your horse may need a bit of help. Discussing things with an equine nutritionist and your farrier could help ensure your horse doesn’t suffer any deficiencies and imbalances which would not only affect the quality of their hooves, but their overall general health too and which could impact their performance a little further down the line.