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Hooves

We all know the saying, "No hoof, no horse." Then it became "No gut, no hoof, no horse." These days? "No microbiome, no gut, no hoof. Then definitely no horse."

Image of Maisie's front hooves, an adorable, very undernourished pony who was abandoned during the winter of 2017/18 and needed serious support to get healthy again. We were very much involved in her refeeding programme, and her owner kindly allowed us to do a Case Study on her on the website.

Spot the tighter hoof/pastern angle 😉

"A healthy galloping horse exerts a force of around 1000kg to his front feet at the mid-point of each stride. The forces of evolution have produced in the equine foot a miracle of bio-engineering. Light in weight and flexible, the foot is nevertheless able to withstand the tremendous forces exerted upon it. Despite being a success in its natural environment, the equine hoof becomes a common sight of disease and injury when subjected to the demands of human domestication." Prof Chris Pollitt, Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit, University of Queensland

In 2007 I took all four of my horses barefoot because one of our horses, our Kelso, was in Last-Chance-Hoof-Corrall. But - before anyone groans (I promise this isn't a 'Carol-banging-on-about-barefoot' sermon), first off a quick reassure that this chapter is about overall hoof health - 'No hoof, no horse' applies whether the hoof has a shoe on it or not.

The main reason I briefly mention my own barefoot experience (although there's a whole separate chapter attached to this section if anyone's interested, link below) is because I found myself on the steepest learning curve ever about all things hoof, how to maintain hoof-health (shod or not), and most importantly how essential it is to look after hooves - there really is no doubt about it; the equine hoof is a miracle of natural-world engineering, and trust me when I say us humans really know how to f*** them up ☹

I still can't claim to know all-things-hoof, but compared to what I thought I knew, after several decades of horsemanship, frankly I was clueless, so I have a lot to thank going barefoot for.

So let's talk Hooves, a bit on Barefoot if you're interested in a separate chapter, and probably the most dreaded symptom of the metabolic horse, Laminitis.

Hooves are dynamic, living structures ...

... and can change overnight depending on diet, environment, exercise, weather conditions, and for the better or worse. My Murphy's (unshod) hooves are a great example of this; regular as clockwork, year in and year out, he has great winter hooves with plumptious frogs, great concavity, and sound on all surfaces. However, come spring his feet go splat and footy. With him it's all about the grass so I have to micro-manage every part of his regime from the first hint of the new spring grass shoots.

Many hooves in today’s domestic and competition world, whether shod or unshod, need help to maintain hoof health. There's a brilliant video on FB which shows just how flexible hooves are - I don't know how long this link will be available, but here it is for now: https://www.facebook.com/alHHHC/videos/846776945485820/ It's 20-minutes long-ish, but within just the first 5-minutes you'll be amazed. It's almost painful to see the immense force on the hoof and pastern area in a galloping horse.

So, let's talk hoof

Hooves are made of a hard, crusty protein called keratin. You can't add keratin by painting it on – it's produced by specialised cells within the hooves called keratinocytes, which rely on a nutrient-rich blood supply. And when I say nutrients, I mean key nutrients for hoof health - specifically the essential fatty acid omega-3; quality protein by way of amino acids, i.e. methionine and lysine; absolutely critical minerals, specifically magnesium, phosphorus, copper and zinc.

There's also the all-important B-Vits, including the well-known vit.B7, aka Biotin, but ... these shouldn't be added into the diet because first up, any supplemented vitamin will be synthetic, which for the sake of the gut and liver we need to avoid because the gut receptors don't recognise - or know what to do with - synthetic nutrients (all explained in our Blog Post - Minerals, & It's All Change). Rest assured the B-vits are covered because the equine gut produces all its own B-vits, provided the gut system is fed appropriately and therefore functioning properly. If there's dysbiosis/SIBO - when that very fragile microbe balance within the gut microbiome environment is disrupted and the biome ratios are not what they're supposed to be anymore - leading to hindgut acidosis, and especially if there's a presentation of faecal water syndrome/diarrhoea, then we do need to supplement with a B-vit formula and essential amino acids for a short period until the gut function is reset.

One thing you may not know is that as far as your horse is concerned, hooves are low on their list of priorities. Top of their list is S-U-R-V-I-V-A-L, which means available nutrients will be used for survival first and foremost, to feed the vital organs, i.e. heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and glands. If there are any nutrients left, they'll then be used to feed hoof tissue as an afterthought - unhealthy hooves can be a great indicator that there just aren’t enough nutrients to go around.

Lack of appropriate minerals and nutrients, as well as imbalances of the same, seriously affect hooves, and I can't stress this enough; it can cause everything from painful sole-sensitivity to loss of hoof-wall/laminae connection, which as we all know is critical when it comes to grass-growing time. The laminae have only one job to do and that's to keep the coffin bone in place. If that vital connection is compromised, we all know how serious the consequences can be.

So why do we have to supplement extra nutrients into the diet? Horses eat grass, which grows in nutritionally-depleted soil, so this i reflected in what grows in it - here's a mind-boggling statistic - 50-years ago, carrots contained 75% more magnesium than today. The chemistry/mineral content in our UK grasslands also changes with the seasons which directly affects the chemistry of the horse, i.e. come spring, or any time the grass flushes for that matter, the potassium levels increase but sodium levels don't, two key minerals which have to be in balance with each other.

Same with calcium and magnesium - calcium needs magnesium to control the energy load in the muscle cellular mitochondria. Come spring, calcium levels rocket but magnesium doesn't, yet they both need to be balanced in the correct ratios to each other for healthy cellular exchange. This is why horses seem wired, like Tigger but not in a good way, in spring.

Other key minerals, copper and zinc, are critically deficient. The EFA's - essential fatty acids/aka the omegas 3 & 6 - come summer and they're pretty much in balance with each other at a ratio of 4:1; come winter they're gone. Summer grass also gives our horses sufficient Vit.E - by winter, again, it's gone. Then there are essential amino acids, i.e. lysine and selenium - deficient. And for those of our horses who can't go near grass for metabolic reasons? A whole different nutrient story, as those fragile omegas and vit.E degrade in hay. Trust me, I know only too well how much of a minefield it can be to understand, as I was once in the same boat, with a horse with crumbling hooves that couldn't keep a shoe on back in the mid 2000's.

Keeping it simple

Horses, and their hooves, need extra mineral supplementation added to their diet, to compensate for the deficiencies in their forage, whether grass and hay, as the nutrient levels rise and fall. Which means, pulling this all together, if there was one supplement to feed over any other, it would be a mineral forage balancer, on which you can find much more info regarding our EquiVita range of correctly balanced mineral supplements, in our Mineral Solutions page.

Let's hop back to Maisie's hooves as a perfect example. Once we got involved with her refeeding programme to bring her back to health, one of the biggest areas of improvement was her hooves.

You can see the profound changes in her hoof to pastern angles, with the new, stronger capsule taking shape above the very obvious old hoof, all engineered and energised by our EquiVita forage balanced minerals.

As her new, tighter hoof capsule grew down it naturally shortened her toe to where it should be. This allows the whole hoof to be more supportive of the pedal bone and limb.

Diet is paramount - but isn't it always?

We've already established that poor hooves are directly connected to lacking key nutrients/minerals in the diet. However, it's a bigger picture than this - a horse with poor hoof wall and sole integrity is probably eating a low-quality, inappropriate diet. Once this is switched up to species-appropriate, the changes in hoof integrity can be significantly improved, and quickly noticed. For starters you'll notice a tighter, straighter hoof/pastern angle appearing literally within a couple of weeks.

As for diet, it's all about keeping it as clean - and natural - as possible. All ultra-processed compound feed bags, unless labelled organic or Non-GMO (which is rare) contain ingredients which are likely GMO and have been treated with a cocktail of chemical processes, and in some cases (more than you'd imagine) include many un-nutritious ingredients, i.e. NIS (nutritionally improved straw), oatfeed, wheatfeed, soya and so on, which are then glued together with molasses. Not healthy.

Soya is another negative creeping out from the woodwork - you'll often see it on feed bag analyses detailed as HiPro Soy. Once thought of as good protein source for horses, science has rapidly moved on from this thinking. Soya has been linked to an increase in allergies and many other conditions, it contains ‘anti-nutrients’ which cause disruption in protein digestion, it contains phytates which prevent the absorption of important minerals essential for optimal biochemistry in our horses, and has toxic levels of aluminium and manganese, to name a few. Avoid. At all costs. We've got a separate page on the perils of soya in our 'Feeding our Horses/Why what we feed has to be right' section: https://equinatural.co.uk/i/soya-not-the-nutritional-magic-potion-we-thought-it-was

If you're going to feed from a feedbag, check the analysis - not the ingredients list as this can be misleading and confusing - the analysis list is usually a scrappy piece of paper sewn into the opening end. Make sure sugar levels are low, ideally below 5%, avoid molasses, flash-dried forages and bagged chaffs with molassed coatings and chemical mould inhibitors. Many horses also struggle with alfalfa which can cause foot pain, so best avoided. We've got a separate page on the perils of soya in our 'Feeding our Horses/Why what we feed has to be right' section:

Also, check for the lowest iron/manganese levels - preferably avoid any feeds that list them as added ingredients, although you may see the text 'naturally occuring' against these two minerals on an analysis, which simply means the levels of natural iron etc., in the forage used in the feedbag - infinitely better than added extras of both. Our UK grasslands are already high in both of these which act as antagonists and block the uptake of beneficial nutrients.

A quick mention of the B-vits

Now a quick mention of the B-vitamins/hoof connection. Since all of the B vitamins are involved with protein, fat and carb metabolism and interactions, they play a very important role in hoof health. The B-vits are super important – healthy metabolism wouldn’t exist without them because their primary role is catalyzing energy production in the body, as in they activate the important enzymes that break down fats, carbs and protein, and ... the hoof wall has a high protein concentration.

A horse on a quality forage-based diet is unlikely to be deficient in B vitamins, as the equine gut manufactures the full B-complex range, with B6 and B12 created in the hindgut. However, our UK grasslands and hay are notoriously low in nutritional value, so it isn’t too off the mark to suspect our forage is low in the B’s, considering the general nationwide poor-hoof-quality reputation. Hence, because of the high concentration of protein in the hoof wall, and if you think your horse has poor hoof quality, we have our own B-vit complex supplement that you can add separately to support protein metabolism.

NB - if your horse has Mallenders/Sallenders, our EquiVita-M&S range excludes the Biotin.

Summary

Basically, keep it simple. Aim for as high-fibre diet as possible, i.e. grass and hay, but not lush spring or summer grass. Much more on all things feed in our Feeding our Horses chapter, and specifically the Why What We Feed Has To Be Right page, which gives you the dark truth behind many of today's feedbags' poor quality ingredients.

To achieve perfect performance hooves, the diet, environment and exercise regime must all be addressed - and balanced - to achieve healthy hooves. Keep it simple and straightforward - a healthy gut able to digest, assimilate and absorb the nutrients from a forage-based diet, with balanced mineral supplementation to fill in those nutritional gaps, will help ensure your horse stays healthy, with strong, robust, performing hooves.