"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 for one of our horses, our Kelso, he was in Last-Chance-Hoof-Corrall. But - before anyone groans (I promise this isn't a Carol-banging-on-about-barefoot), 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 is because I found myself on the steepest learning curve about all things hoof, how to maintain hoof-health (shod or not), and most importantly how essential it is to look after hooves.
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 barefoot for.
So let's talk Hooves, a bit on Barefoot if you're interested, 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. Key nutrients for hoof health include omega-3 fatty acids, quality protein (methionine), minerals and the B-Vits, including that old standby, Vit.B7, aka Biotin.
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, feeding 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 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 know only too well how serious the consequences can be.
Everything we feed our horses contains vitamins and minerals, yet we need to feed additional minerals to maintain the correct mineral balance. Why? Horses eat grass, the mineral content of which varies with the seasons - 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.
Then there're the EFA's - essential fatty acids, aka the omegas. Come summer and the omegas are pretty much in balance with each other; come winter they're gone. Summer grass also gives our horses sufficient Vit.E - by winter, again, it's gone.
And all this doesn't even cover the deficiencies - and imbalances - in other key minerals such as copper, zinc and phosphorous, or essential amino acids, i.e. lysine and selenium etc. 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.
So let's keep it simple. Horses, and their hooves, need extra mineral supplementation added to their diet, to compensate for the deficiencies in their forage, both grass and hay/haylage, 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 nutrient-rich mineral forage balancer, on which you can find much more info, with our EquiVita range of appropriately balanced mineral supplements, in our MINERAL SOLUTIONS page.
Diet is paramount
Generally, a horse with poor hoof wall and sole integrity is probably eating a poor or inappropriate diet and lacking key minerals. Once this has changed, the changes in hoof health can be significantly improved, and quickly noticed.
As for diet, it's all about keeping it as clean - and natural - as possible. All processed compound feed bags, unless labelled organic or Non-GMO (which is rare, or very expensive) 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, we've rapidly moved on from this thinking. The reality is that its likely GMO (80-90% of today's soya is grown GMO), 100% guaranteed chemically sprayed with Monsanto's Glyphosate (RoundUp weedkiller), has been linked to an increase in allergies and many other conditions, contains ‘anti-nutrients’ which cause disruption in protein digestion, 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.
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.
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.
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 real truth behind many of today's feed fillers and poor quality ingredients.
To achieve perfect performance hooves, the diet, environment and exercise regime must all be addressed - and balanced - to ensure healthy hooves. Keep it simple and straightforward - having a healthy gut to digest, assimilate and absorb the nutrients from a forage-based diet, with balanced vitamin/mineral supplementation to fill in those nutritional gaps, will help ensure your horse stays healthy, with strong, robust, performing hooves.
A quick word on Abscessing
Abscessing is worrying enough, and repeat abscessing can drive a horse carer to despair. So let’s talk abscessing, and it’s all about immunity. As I say in our C.A.R.E. Immunity Programme section, Without nutrition, you're fighting with no weapons. Without an Immune System, you're fighting with no army.
If your horse is experiencing non-healing multi-infections, the root cause is, quite simply, poor immunity. The only way to good health is via a strong immunity – in theory, a healthy body has a strong immune system and won’t get sick. If the body’s sick, the immune system is sick - the only permanent way to good health is via the immune system, and the only way to a healthy immune system is via a healthy microbiome - more on the wonder that is the microbiome on our dedicated The Microbiome page - it's enlightening stuff.
In the case of repeated abscessing, the immune system hasn’t been strong enough to kill off the various bacterium, and as a result they continue to re-multiply back to an established infection site. Not that I’m wishing to imply that any abscessing horse’s system is immunodeficient – they wouldn’t be abscessing if they were, but for sure their immune system won’t be firing on all cylinders, which means their body’s not producing enough killer-army white blood cells (lymphocytes), which fight infection.
The problem is that no matter how well we feed and how healthy we keep our horses, overall we live in a very contaminated world - chlorine and fluoride in our water, crop-spraying, chemtrails, electro-smog – think cell phones and their towers which emit radiation. The air is contaminated and our soil is sick from all the decades of chemical sprays and treatments. And so the list goes on.
Beyond what we feed, this is all beyond our control, especially if we live in a highly sprayed crop area. These are all artificial toxins that us, and our horses, are not even intentionally ingesting. The long and short is that these environmental toxins damage the microbiome, which weakens immunity and damages the gut lining, leading to Leaky Gut syndrome, which overburdens the body’s natural detoxification centre, what I call the Three Amigos – the liver, kidneys and lymph nodes. These three organs are the body’s natural filtration system, and if they’re overwhelmed with toxicity, they become sluggish and struggle to cope. Cue a wide open door allowing infection taking hold.
Which means … we need to clear out the bad stuff and fortify with good healthy stuff, and the only way to do this is by focusing on the health of the microbiome to reset the immune system, alongside heaps of good nutrition and … the magic word, ‘Detoxing’, or make that two magic words: Regular Detoxing. More on detoxing on our dedicated Detoxification page.