A proper diet is vital for any domesticated animal. Like any other animal, horses need the right amount of nutrients in their food to promote good health from the tips of their manes down to their hooves.
But hoof quality is also influenced by many factors such as the environment and genetics. These are two things horse owners have no complete control over. However, you can control what your horse eats. And a good balance of nutrients in their daily meals can help to ensure the health and quality of their hooves.
Listed below are examples of hoof disorders your horse might experience if they have a nutritional imbalance.
Common Hoof Issues
Any horse lacking proper nutrition will be more susceptible to illness and adverse health conditions than a horse who eats regularly and well. The minerals required by horses should therefore be maintained to ensure their overall well-being and function.
An inadequate supply of vitamins and minerals can contribute to poor-quality hoofs. In the same way, too much of a given mineral can also cause problems and issues. An imbalance of nutrients may contribute to some of the more common hoof issues that horses experience:
An abscess usually forms from a wound in the horse’s hoof, whether that wound is a puncture or even a micro-abrasion. Lameness is one of its most notable symptoms, and a sure sign that your horse is feeling pain in the affected area when they have this condition.
Horses who have strong hooves in the first place tend to experience fewer abscesses. Splits and cracks can form on weaker hooves, allowing bacteria to seep in and multiply. Foods rich in zinc, biotin and iodine are ideal for a horse who's prone to abscesses, since these minerals promote keratin growth.
Founder or Laminitis
If the laminar connections of the hoof’s wall and the coffin bone get damaged, this may result in founder or laminitis. When this happens, the coffin bone can rotate or sink, which can be very painful for your horse. The structure of their hoof could change permanently if not treated immediately.
Horses who feed on too much grain or grass from large pastures may easily contract founder. The high sugar and starch level could burden your horse's small intestine, which causes the overproduction of lactic acid released into its bloodstream. Endotoxins formed due to a compromised intestinal lining may also affect the laminae.
If your horse has this condition because their diet is mainly composed of grain, consider altering their food. The best forage option for a horse with a founder is good-quality hay because of its low starch and sugar content. You can still feed your horse grain as long as you balance it with hay to maintain their intestinal and hoof health.
These conditions are only two of the possible issues a horse with poor hooves can face. While you may not be able to do much about the genetic factors that determine the quality of your horse's feet, by feeding a balanced diet, you can give your horse their best shot at keeping their hooves strong and healthy.
Slow Hoof Growth
Horse hooves are made of keratin, much like the hair and nails of other mammals, including humans. Lack of vitamin and mineral intake can hinder keratin production, which can contribute to poor and slow hoof growth.
Zinc is the main mineral responsible for keratinization. Horses with enough zinc in their system show better horn hoof strength. Meanwhile, calcium helps form firm attachments among a hoof’s horn cells. It’s almost like the ‘glue’ that keeps a horse hoof together. On the other hand, magnesium promotes proper nerve and muscle function and protein synthesis.
Nutrient-rich forage will help a horse maintain healthy hooves. Your horse’s food should contain the following nutrients aside from calcium, zinc, and magnesium:
Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin produced in a horse’s digestive system. Most people know it as vitamin B7. Supplementing with it doesn't always make a difference in all horses, but it may result in better-quality hooves in some.
Horses with brittle and cracking hooves could benefit from extra biotin. There are very few cases of horses having severe biotin deficiency. At the same time, biotin is a safe vitamin to administer and there are also no real dangers of biotin toxicity. Excesses of the vitamin will be safely excreted through the urine.
If your horse has poor hoof health despite a clean and disease-free environment, you can add a measured amount of biotin to its diet. Always consult a veterinarian before adding any health supplements to your horse's diets.
Fats help to create a healthy periople, which is a protective layer that extends from the coronary band down the outer hoof wall and prevents the wall from drying out. The added protection also prevents bacteria and fungi from entering the hoof through minor cracks.
Omega 3 and 6 are well-known fatty acids that promote overall cell health. You could consider including this component in your horse’s diet to try to improve the quality of their hooves. However, take note that too much could do more harm than good. High levels of omega 6 could potentially increase inflammation and constrict blood vessels.
Horses should consume enough protein from their diet while still young to encourage their hooves to grow well, since weight gain directly affects hoof growth. Protein deficiency can decrease the strength and quality of your horse’s hooves. Proper intake of protein should help keep their hooves healthy.
Take care not to offer your horse too much protein-rich food to avoid excessive weight gain.
Hoof Problems That Can Indicate a Nutrient Imbalance
Many horses can contract specific conditions that, while they aren’t life-threatening, are a sign that something is amiss in your horse's diet. When you see these issues with your horse’s hooves, you should check your feeding program, since there could be too much or a lack of some nutrients they need:
- Hair-like projections: this condition happens on hoof walls or the sole of the foot, indicating a vitamin A imbalance.
- Hoof wall peeling: biotin deficiency, though rare, may occur in horses. It manifests through thick and hardened tissues peeling off a horse’s hoof wall.
- Rapid growth: excess zinc may cause the hooves to grow too fast. This condition leaves hooves of poor, unhealthy quality despite the growth speed.
- Brittle wall: lack of zinc also affects keratin levels in horse hooves. Not having enough keratin makes hooves’ outer layer brittle.
When feeding your horse to keep it healthy, ensure it eats a balance with the right kind of nutrients. That's actually simpler than it sounds. If your horse is eating enough good-quality forage, they're not likely to suffer from nutritional issues. You can feed a commercial grain in addition to hay, and that grain is also highly unlikely to cause nutritional imbalances. Don’t forget to offer your horse enough water to keep it hydrated throughout the day.
As a horse owner, it’s your responsibility to ensure your horse’s well-being. Feeding your horses a nutritional meal every day will keep them happy and strong all year round. It also keeps their hooves in top condition for work or other daily functions.
Written by: Lucas Calloway
Lucas Calloway from Wyoming has been a horse breeder for more than ten years. Apart from his career, he enjoys photography, mountain biking and kayaking.