The old adage of ‘no foot, no horse’ is as true today as it was a hundred years ago, and I believe it will still be true in a hundred years’ time. If you have ever owned a horse that has poor horn quality, you will know all too well the frustrations and struggles associated with it. No one wants to have a horse that they can’t ride because it has thrown a shoe…again! Modern life is tough for shod horses and their hooves need to be strong and resilient to cope with the pounding. If hooves are tough, the job of your farrier will be made so much easier, and we will all be a lot happier.
Hoof horn is composed of a specialised skin derivative like your nails. It is composed of two layers, which get their blood supply and nutrients from the tissues beneath them. These layers have no blood or nerve supply of their own which is why a horse feels no pain during the process of shoeing. The hardness of the hoof is created by keratin, a complex protein identical to the substance that makes human fingernails and hair. The hoof is bound to the internal structures of the foot by the finger-like projections, known as laminae, which interlock and attach the hoof wall to the
pedal bone. In laminitis these laminae are the structures that are damaged, lose their strength, and this in turn allows the pedal bone to become detached and rotate within the hoof capsule.
The outer layer of the hoof wall is covered by the Periople, a protective covering, which helps to minimise the evaporation of moisture. This is important because moisture loss will make the hoof dry and brittle, which, in turn means that it will crack and crumble, especially around the nail holes. Excessive drying in the summer months or from being stabled, or too much rasping will damage the Periople. Maintaining the correct moisture balance will enhance hoof elasticity and strength, and may also promote hoof growth. Supplements and moisturisers will help the Periople stay in good condition.
Regular shoeing, good farriery and management will support the condition of your horse’s hooves, but nutrition is of course what drives good hoof growth. Perfect nutrition provides perfect hoof growth. If your horse is receiving a correct well balanced diet, they should be getting all they need to maintain hoof health; however, this is rarely the case. Experience suggests that if horses are allowed to graze freely over unlimited grazing they can pick out exactly the right food and herbs for their own good hoof growth. On the other hand, even if it was possible to feed horses perfectly, horses are individuals with different digestive systems and some will just not absorb the perfect food or ingredients like biotin that they are fed. Very absorbable supplementation with the right type of ingredients is needed to cope with these variations of digestive ability.
Research has shown that biotin in its basic form does not need to be just fed at the required amount for it to have a positive effect but it must be fed at what would appear to overdoses, in order for it to be of benefit. This is not the case if the biotin is naturally present in plant material that is part of the horse’s diet however. Biotin is also a water-soluble vitamin, and this means that it is not stored by the body and any excess that is not required is simply excreted in the urine. Research has shown that a 500kg horse needs 15-20mg Biotin per day to have a positive effect on hoof condition, whereas the daily maintenance requirement is estimated to be just 2mg per day. Biotin is particularly recommended for thin brittle hooves, with crumbling edges and tender soles. It can take six months for a visible improvement, and up to two years to increase the hoof tensile strength. However if a good combined and highly absorbable supplement is used that contains natural Biotin, visible differences can surprisingly often be seen at the top of the hoof in around a month.
The best form of Biotin is that that is naturally present in plant material so that it is naturally absorbable. Some herbs and feeds do contain naturally high levels of biotin such as Cissus quadrangularis, brewer’s yeast, carrots and leafy greens.
Traditionally, Biotin was the only nutrient recommended for hoof strength, but it is now known that Biotin must work in conjunction with other essential nutrients for maximum effect:
1. METHIONINE The amino acid Methionine is converted by the body to cystine, which in turn, is used to create keratin. This process requires Vitamin B6. Cystine is not a suitable feed supplement, so it is important to feed methionine and vitamin B6 for its production.
Methionine is available in a highly absorbable form in some select tropical herbs and is present at high levels in oats (which may not be ideal for every horse!)
2. MSM The sulphur bridges used to hold the keratin tightly together, can be provided for by MSM. Sulphur is one of the major minerals in the body, and unlike other sources, methylsulphonylmethane (MSM) is readily absorbed by the body.
3. ZINC is an important mineral for growth and strength. A zinc deficiency will lead to poor growth, and in order for it to work efficiently there must be sufficient copper in the diet. Research has shown that if chelated zinc is used, there will be greater accumulation of zinc in the hoof structures than any other part of the body. This chelate can therefore target the exact area we are looking to support.
4. CALCIUM is important for holding the keratinised cells of the hoof wall together. But as calcium utilization is linked to phosphorus availability, these two minerals must be provided in the correct ratio, approximately 1.5: 1 (calcium: phosphorus). Some plants and herbs such as Cissus quadrangularis that are fed to your horse can greatly increase the uptake of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. This achieves the perfect balance of such minerals.
A balanced ratio and absorbable form of all the above ingredients is crucial if you want to improve the growth rate and quality of your horse’s hooves. Feeding a supplement can really make a difference to your horse’s hooves and this involves feeding much more than just biotin which in its straight form is not very absorbable. The natural horse has evolved to eat a wide range of herbage, including seeds and berries and herbs, but on modern pasture its diet is being unnaturally restricted to just a few species of grass; it is therefore important to provide ingredients that the horse would have naturally selected for themselves in the wild. This is possible if you select your supplements and food sources well.