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 Hoof Nutrition

Your horse’s hoof is a window into your horse’s overall nutritional state.  Your horse’s nutritional state can be modified by genetic factors and the environment, but if several minerals, proteins and vitamins are missing or is out of proportion with another, your horse’s hooves will suffer.

Unfortunately there is no single ingredient for maintaining health hooves and little scientific research to suggest that adding additional vitamins, amino acids or minerals will maintain a healthy hoof to an already balanced diet.

Small imbalances in nutrition and structure can lead to big problems in your horse’s hoof.  Imbalances in nutrition and structure can cause issues in hoof function and integrity.  Over feeding nutritional supplements can create toxic effects in your horse if given in excess.

Let’s start with Biotin, one of the B-group vitamins.  Biotin is synthesized in your horse’s intestinal tract by the bacteria present.  Biotin deficiencies are very rare in any species and Biotin deficiency has never been reported in a horse.  Even if Biotin deficiency was suspected, it would take 6 – 9 months to produce results.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in cell integrity and cell differentiation. Inadequate levels of Vitamin A may result in hoof dryness.

Looking at the chemical makeup of the hoof, once you remove water, the hoof is almost 99% protein.  Keratin makes up the majority of the hoof’s protein makeup, which is insoluble in water.

There have been studies showing that protein deficient diets can affect hoof growth.  The building blocks of proteins are amino acids.  There is a plethora of scientific studies showing that amino acid concentration is associated with good quality hoof formations.  Deficiencies in sulfur containing amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine are particularly likely to affect hoof growth, connective tissuehoof care structure and skin health.  There is a linear correlation between the amino acid cysteine and hoof harness.

Before we discuss the role of minerals in the development of quality horse hooves, let’s remove the belief that, “if a little is good, than more is better”. Feeding too much minerals and/or amino acids such as phosphorus, selenium and methionine can have a detrimental effect on the growth and quality of the hoof. While these substances are essential in the diet, in excess they can lead to poor performance and lameness.

The essential amino acid methionine has been shown to cause depletion of iron, copper and zinc if fed in excess. The effect of excess methionine will also progressively cause degeneration of the hoof, starting at the white line. Affected horses can exhibit intermittent lameness with “sore feet”.
Copper absorption can be inhibited by high levels of iron (usually found in hay) and zinc.  Zinc deficiency is one of the most common mineral deficiency problems in horses.  Zinc is important in the keratinization processes which are needed for strong hooves.

The proper ratios of Copper and Zinc are not the only worry among horse owners.  Phosphorus and calcium also are bound by a specific ratio for proper hoof growth.  Phosphorous can block calcium absorption causing a disease called Bran disease.  Bran disease leads to weak and abnormal bone growth.  High levels of phosphorus or calcium can block the absorption of the other.  The correct ratio of phosphorus to calcium is 1:1.6.  Phosphorus in grain products is also known as Phytate.

Calcium plays a large role in not only bone density, but cellular fat metabolism.  Fats are essential for maintaining the cellular membrane, especially the membrane around the hoof horn, sole and frog.  Without this membrane fungus and bacteria can penetrate

Excess levels of selenium in the diet can also cause problems in the keratin fibers of the hoof wall.  Selenium is substituted for sulfur leading to loss of structure integrity of the hoof wall.

Nutritional problems are often the basis for hoof problems.  No single amino acid, vitamin or mineral is at the root of most hoof issues, but after careful investigation, multiple nutrients are the cause.  Using multiple supplements can lead to imbalances over the course of the year.  Your best bet is to choose one high quality supplemental feed in addition to the hay or cubes your horse is currently eating.

Environmental factors can also affect your horses hoof horn, sole and frog.  The hoof’s frog area is a modified sweat gland.  The frog excretes a slightly acidic sweat which protects against infections like thrush.  Alkaline will neutralize the acidic excretions of your horse’s frog gland.  Ammonia is alkalinic and long term exposure to high levels is detrimental to your horse’s horn and allows for the introduction of thrush to your horse’s sole and frog.  A clean stall in a barn, gives off 12 times more ammonia gas than is recommended for people.  Poorly maintained stalls in turn give off more ammonia gas and are more detrimental to your horse’s hoof.

Performance and soundness are optimized when your horse’s hoof is balanced.  Balance is most easily seen by the measurement of the toe angle.  Lower toe angles can lead to musculoskeletal problems and increased toe angles can lead to suspensory failure. 

Conclusion:  Besides a balanced diet, horse owners should consider one source for the horse’s entire mineral, vitamin and amino acid supplement.  By choosing one source for your supplement, you are insured of a proper balance and ratio of your horse’s nutrients.

By: Greg Deskin

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