Hoof Care - Inside and Out
Most horse owners are familiar with the old saying, "No foot, no horse." Whatever style you ride or how you use your horse, you're not going to get far on poor-quality hooves.
But how do you get a good foot in the first place? And how do you maintain your horse’s healthy feet? Genetics do play a role, but hands-on horsemanship is essential when it comes to keeping hooves in the best possible condition.
Routine attention by a hoof care professional is essential, whether it involves trimming the barefoot horse or keeping a horse properly shod.
Daily care and observation by the horse owner goes a long way. Feet should be picked out every day — not just when you tack up to ride. If you notice something unusual or have questions or concerns, bring them up with your farrier.
Address the Outside
There are many topical products designed to help hoof quality and health, but how do you know if your horse needs one?
"I often have clients tell me, 'Oh, my horse has good feet; I don't need to use anything,'” says Robert Gomez, DVM, a farrier based in
Ocala, Florida, who works on high-end performance horses in multiple disciplines. “So, they wait until there's actually an issue, but the best way for hooves to maintain good condition is to keep a regular routine with hoof care."
He encourages horse owners to use topical hoof products year-round rather than waiting until an issue develops. He's found that regular use of hoof products as part of the grooming routine helps hooves stay in the best condition, and this applies whether a horse is barefoot or shod.
"Hoof products won't help fix a condition immediately, so that's why I like to use them regularly, instead of waiting until you 'need' them,” says Gomez, who has been a farrier for over two decades. “Just make this part of your grooming routine to keep a nice hoof year-round."
That's not to say the same topical product should be used all year. The specific product may change depending on weather, environment and what the horse needs. "What you want to do is create a healthy balance in the feet so they're not too dry and not too wet," says Gomez.
"When the weather is dry, the hoof gets harder, and using a hoof moisturizer can hydrate the feet so they’re less likely to crack. Also, for horses with really hard feet any time of year, hoof dressing can make the hoof more flexible by moisturizing it," explains Gomez.
"When conditions are wet, you want to prevent all that water from entering the hoof," he adds, noting that a good topical product can be a barrier to protect hooves from absorbing too much moisture, which can make them soft and more susceptible to issues such as abscesses, bruises and even thrush.
Many of Gomez's clients travel seasonally for competition, and the differences in location—including climate, footing and stabling—can impact hoof health and quality.
"Some of my clients will say, 'My horse doesn't have these issues when I'm up north," says Gomez, "but when you change environment, this can affect the horse's feet. Changes in feed will also show up in the horse's feet, as well as his whole system."
Your hoof care professional is the best person to advise which products are needed and when, so don't hesitate to ask questions.
Feed Hooves From the Inside Out
Even with regular use of topical hoof products, some horses will especially benefit from the addition of a nutritional supplement designed for hoof health.
Gomez will recommend the use of a hoof supplement for a variety of reasons, especially when he sees the following:
- thin hoof wall
- poor hoof growth
'These are characteristics of compromised hoof quality, and there's no question, some horses have less healthy hooves than others,” notes Randel Raub, PhD, an equine nutritionist whose consulting business, Equine Nutrition Innovation LLC, is based in Minnesota. “For those horses with hoof quality challenges, a hoof supplement is a viable option to assist in supporting normal growth and quality."
Protein, biotin and specific amino acids make up a significant concentration of the equine hoof. Ideally those components will be supplied by the horse's diet, but they aren’t always.
"In the horse's hind gut, the microflora population produces biotin that is absorbed and utilized by the horse, so most horses shouldn't be biotin deficient if they’re on decent forage and a commercial balanced diet," explains Raub, "but when a horse has poor hoof quality, you need to consider his overall diet. For example, a protein deficiency can contribute to poor hooves."
Horses in the same barn can be fed the exact same diet but have very different hoof quality, so Raub notes that you need to consider each individual horse. Horses with less healthy hooves may benefit from biotin, which is a key ingredient in a good hoof supplement. "Biotin is the main nutritional driver for any type of hoof response," says Raub, who finds that 20 to 25 mg of biotin per day is a good target amount for horses with hoof challenges.
Always read the label and follow directions for the specific supplement, as some have both a "starting" dose and a "maintenance" dose. It's also important to use a palatable supplement to ensure the horse consumes the entire amount, says Raub. Check the feed tub/bucket to be certain the horse is eating all of the product.
Just as with the use of topical products, a supplement won't bring about changes overnight, so ongoing daily use is necessary. Be patient — it can take months for nutrition to make a difference in hoof composition. "Sometimes you won't see benefits until down the road, so you need to stay the course for six to 12 months," notes Raub.
"When you start using a hoof supplement, that's not a reason to stop use of a topical hoof product,” says Gomez. “Combining their use will give you better results. And if you continue using a supplement, you can help reduce the chance of hoof issues in the future."
Just because your horse is good when you pick out his feet, this doesn't mean he will stand quietly when the farrier show up. For practical advice, we turned to performance trainer Richard Winters, longtime clinician and 2009 champion of the popular colt-starting competition, Road to the Horse. A certified farrier, Winters once made his living shoeing horses, and still does all his own horses. He says a good farrier will often help you work with your horse's feet. “When I was shoeing, I used to charge an hourly fee on top of the shoeing fee if an owner wanted me to work on the horse to help with handling,” he notes.