Nutrition for Improved Hoof Health in Horses

If your horses have poor hoof quality, consider making changes to their diet to help strengthen their hooves.

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horse hooves growing fast; navicular syndrome; equine evolution
If your horse has poor hoof quality, evaluate his nutrition program to ensure his dietary needs are being met. | iStock

Q. My gelding has always had “bad” feet. Despite my farrier’s and my best efforts, my horse’s feet are generally soft, he struggles to keep shoes on, and even becomes foot sore occasionally. Is there something I can add to his diet to help improve the quality of his hooves and make him more comfortable?

A. As the adage goes, “no hoof, no horse,” and horse owners are always looking for ways to improve or better maintain their horses’ feet. Your horse’s hoof health status is influenced by several factors, including genetics, environment, other health issues, hoof management, and diet. No one single factor can compensate for issues with the others, but the good news is many are in your control, including the diet.

Before searching for a single supplement, you should first evaluate your horse’s overall ration as an adequate and balanced diet that optimizes his health; this is also what the hoof needs to maintain proper integrity and growth.

First, ensure your horse’s energy needs are being met. Research in growing ponies indicated that animals in a positive energy balance had increased hoof growth rates compared to those fed calorie-restricted diets. This is extremely important for horses with a low body condition score or for horses that do not have many fat reserves, such as growing animals. Conversely, overweight horses are more prone to metabolic issues that can negatively affect hoof health.

Remarkably, fats make up 3 to 6 percent of hoof tissue and are essential for retaining moisture, repelling water, and resisting environmental pathogens. Fresh pasture contains high levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids, but these are not retained in cured forages such as hay. Therefore, a horse consuming hay as their primary roughage source will benefit from omega-3 supplementation.

The hoof wall is primarily made of keratin, a structural protein. Proteins, in turn, are composed of many essential and nonessential amino acids. Sulfur-containing amino acids are a large and crucial part of keratin that enable it to provide both strength and flexibility to the hoof capsule. Some research has shown that diets that have inadequate amounts of protein reduce hoof growth and integrity and the amino acid profiles of unhealthy hooves are different than healthy hooves, highlighting the importance of protein availability and quality in the diet. For example, a horse consuming an all-forage diet consisting of moderate- to low-quality hay could be consuming adequate amounts of crude protein but not meeting his essential amino acid requirements. However, research in horses has yet to demonstrate that specific amino acid supplementation improves hoof growth and health.

Proper vitamin and mineral levels are also an essential part of a good hoof. Calcium is needed for proper cellular attachment in the hoof horn. Zinc and copper support hoof growth and along with vitamin A are important in hoof keratinization. Selenium and several vitamins, including A and E, work as antioxidants on the cellular membrane level. Selenium supplementation should be carefully monitored as the trace mineral can also be detrimental to the hoof when over-fed.

Biotin, a B vitamin produced by microbes in the hindgut, is the nutrient related to hoof growth and health that’s been studied most. Studies have produced mixed results based on a wide array of supplement amounts and conditions. There is no dietary requirement for biotin above what is synthesized by microbes in the gut, however, biotin supplementation may still be beneficial to some horses. This could be due to the location of the defect in the hoof wall. Researchers have reported that biotin supplementation improved hoof quality of horses with a defect in the outermost layer of the hoof wall but did not improve those with a defect in the inner layers of the hoof. Recommended biotin dosages range from 15-20 mg per day, and the NRC (2007) suggests a dose of 30 milligrams per day for a horse with poor-quality hoof horn. Horse owners should also note that supplemental biotin must be fed for a long period of time (six to nine months) to see results and, if improvement is seen, may need to be done on a continual basis.

Lastly, the length of time necessary for the hoof wall to grow from the coronet band to a weight-bearing surface is approximately nine to 12 months so, no matter if you add a dietary supplement or change the overall diet, be patient. Use a feed designed to meet the caloric and nutrient needs of your class of horse and complement your forage. Overall, ensuring your horse is eating a properly balanced diet can help him put his best foot forward.     

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Masa Williams, MS, PhD, says her lifelong love of horses and her insatiable need to ask “why” led her down the path to becoming an equine nutritionist. Prior to joining Land O’ Lakes, Williams spent 10 years as an equine specialist with Ohio State University Extension and teaching equine classes at The Ohio State University. In her current role Masa enjoys working with team members in research, formulation, manufacturing, and sales to bring the highest quality product available to customers and their horses. Masa says she can think of no better place to be where she can combine her passion for horses, teaching, and applied nutrition. Masa earned her BS in animal science from the University of Arkansas, her MS in animal nutrition from the University of Kentucky, and her PhD in animal nutrition from The Ohio State University. Masa’s doctorate research focused on the effects of energy source and amount on nutrient digestibility and prediction of digestible energy in horses.

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