A: When you look at the hoof supplements at your local feed store or do online comparisons you will typically find that they provide sources of zinc, copper, methionine, lysine, biotin, and fatty acids. The reasons why these are typically included in hoof supplements is that each plays a role in healthy hooves.
Lysine and methionine are both essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Lysine is most commonly the limiting amino acid in the equine diet. Since hoof horn is made up of a number of keratinized structures—and keratin is a protein—if a diet does not provide adequate lysine then keratin generation might be negatively impacted.
The keratin-associated proteins of the hoof contain large numbers of sulfur containing amino acids. Therefore, should a deficiency in sulfur amino acids exist the structural function and strength of the hoof could be compromised. Methionine is an essential amino acid that contains sulfur and can be used to create another sulfur-containing amino acid called cysteine.
Zinc is a key mineral involved in the health of epithelial cells of which the cells of the hoof wall are examples. Zinc is used in their repair, maintenance, and reproduction. Additionally zinc is vital for keratin protein synthesis as well as forming the lipoproteins that cement the cells of the hoof together. Copper is necessary for the formation of the disulfide bonds in keratins. Ultimately these bonds impact the rigidity of the outer hoof wall.
Biotin, a B vitamin, helps stick the cells of the hoof together. Like zinc it plays a role in the lipoprotein of the extracellular matrix.
Hoof supplements usually also contain fats in some form. In general the reason for adding fats to hoof supplements is that if hooves are too rigid then they risk cracking. Fat is thought to add pliability to the hoof so that it can expand when weight bearing without cracking.
Lecithin, a phospholipid that occurs in plants and is a rich source of choline (which helps maintain cell pliability), is a common ingredients in hoof supplements. Sometimes an omega-3 fatty acid source is also added to hoof supplements.
All these ingredients play important roles in other functions within the horse’s body. For example, copper is necessary for collagen formation and zinc is involved in immune function. Biotin might improve coat characteristics.
Selecting the Right Hoof Supplement
So how do you choose a hoof supplement if they all look similar? I would argue that, in some cases, you don’t. If your horse’s hooves need help, then it’s worth stepping back and assessing the entire diet, because a hoof supplement might not be the best solution. Instead, poor hoof quality could indicate that the overall diet has deficiencies or is unbalanced. A hoof supplement will certainly go a long way to helping, but it might not offer the optimal solution.
For example, supplementing high levels of individual amino acids might impact the overall amino acid balance in the diet, causing other issues. Therefore, improving the overall protein profile in the diet by improving protein quality might provide a better benefit. Horses consuming predominantly forage-based diets might require copper and zinc supplementation. In fact, these horses might need more copper and zinc than a typical hoof supplement offers.
Often, when I analyze diets of horses with hoof issues, their vitamin E levels are low too, more omega-3 fatty acids are needed, and their calcium phosphorous ratio is less than ideal. Rather than needing a hoof supplement, these horses might better benefit from a ration balancer, which not only provides a source of quality balanced protein and guaranteed levels of amino acids but is also highly fortified with trace minerals, and an omega-3 fatty acid source.
The Importance of Following Feed Instructions
Often owners use senior or performance feeds at levels below the manufacturers’ recommended daily intake, and then feed an additional hoof supplement because their horse has poor hoof quality. This is the big problem with using commercial feed incorrectly.
When fed correctly, they are designed to provide your horse with all the vitamins and minerals needed outside of forage. However, feeding below recommended levels can leave your horse with a number of key deficiencies, which might show up as hoof-quality problems. By using a ration balancer instead of the incorrectly fed performance feed, I can often fix all these issues with one product rather than just fixing certain pieces with the hoof supplement or having a diet made up of multiple feeds and supplements.
This is not to say hoof supplements aren’t useful. Some horses do require a high level of supplementation in these key nutrients. I just prefer to insure that the whole diet is balanced first, and then add a hoof supplement if, after a period of time, I’m still not getting the results I want.
Also keep in mind that some horses just have genetically poor hooves. For these horses even the very best diet might not give them hooves as nice as the horse in the stall next door. However, you can ensure that your horse has the nutritional pieces necessary to have the best hooves he’s genetically capable of having by feeding a correctly balanced diet.
If you’re unsure whether your horse’s diet is balanced and meeting his needs, a qualified equine nutritionist can help you by evaluating the current diet, identifying deficiencies, and suggesting feed fixes.