Q. I’m hoping you can help resolve a debate between a friend and me. I feed my horse mostly hay, a couple of cups of senior feed, and a hoof supplement at the recommended intake levels. My horse is in good condition with ideal weight feeding this ration. However, his feet do not have the best integrity. A friend of mine feels that I should get rid of the hoof supplement and instead feed a ration balancer at between 1-2 pounds per day. She says I won’t need my hoof supplement then. I don’t want to feed “grain,” and I’m skeptical, because ration balancers aren’t specifically for hooves and my horse really needs better hoof quality. Is she right?
A. Your friend is quite possibly right. While most horses, especially those in no work or in light—and at times moderate—work can maintain their condition on forage alone, forage, especially hay, can be missing some key nutrients. If the horse’s diet is mostly hay, it might lack a quality protein source; have an imbalanced macro mineral profile; be deficient in copper, zinc, and possibly selenium; and lack adequate vitamin E.
Quality protein (more specifically, the essential amino acid methionine), copper, and zinc all play important roles in hoof integrity. As a result, they are the major components of many hoof supplements, often combined with biotin (a B vitamin that helps glue the cells of the hoof wall together) and fatty acids.
Looking at multiple popular hoof supplements, the range of copper and zinc they provide per serving varies from 50 to 100 milligrams of copper and 150 to 400 milligrams of zinc. Biotin might be as low as 7.5 milligrams (well below levels shown to be potentially beneficial in research) to 35 milligrams (within the range of documented therapeutic levels). The most commonly deficient amino acid, lysine, is present from 850 to 2,000 milligrams, while methionine is higher at around 1,300 to 5,000 milligrams.
Meanwhile, many senior feeds contain copper and zinc at around 50 ppm and 200 ppm, respectively. This equates to the number of milligrams of these minerals a horse consumes when eating 2.2 pounds of the feed. The amount you’re feeding isn’t clear from your question. However, I would estimate 2 cups of many senior feeds to be around half a pound. If this is the case, you would be adding another 34 milligrams of zinc and 11 milligrams of copper for a combined total of 61 to 111 milligrams of copper and 184 to 434 milligrams of zinc.
Lysine runs around 0.7% and methionine around 0.2% for a total of about 1.6 grams of lysine and 0.45 grams of methionine in the small amount of senior feed being fed. Added to the lysine and methionine in the hoof supplements, this results in a total of 851.6 to 2,001.6 milligrams of lysine and 1,300.45 to 5,000.45 milligrams of methionine in addition to whatever the forage provides.
How does this compare to your friend’s recommendation of feeding a ration balancer instead? Ration balancers typically contain between 200 and 300 ppm copper, 500 and 1,000 ppm zinc, 2.5% lysine, and 0.7% methionine. If fed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations at 1.5 pounds per day, this falls within the amount typically needed for an average sized horse—1 to 2 pounds per day. Feeding 1.5 pounds would yield 136 to 204.5 milligrams of copper, 341 to 682 milligrams of zinc, 17 grams of lysine, and 4.8 grams of methionine.
As I think this makes clear, the ration balancer brings greater quantities of the nutrients important for hoof health to the ration than the hoof supplement, except for biotin, which might not be guaranteed in feeds or not provided at therapeutic levels. Ration balancers have the added benefit of being designed to complement a forage diet and typically provide other nutrients that might also be missing in a forage diet or that need to be added to correct balance. For this reason, I always start by assessing the whole diet and implementing a broad-spectrum approach to correcting deficiencies and improving balance. Many times, this is enough to correct most minor hoof insufficiencies. However, in cases where a greater level of fortification is required, owners can add a hoof supplement to a ration balancer.