There is an undeniable connection between diet/ nutrition and the health of equine hooves (and we’ve all heard the saying ‘no hoof, no horse’). The connection is one that many people find a little mysterious but it can be simplified for easy understanding.
The most common and well known connection between diet and hoof health is laminitis and it makes and excellent example of how profoundly the nutrient intake/ diet of a horse can damage the health of the hoof. Laminitis can be crippling and of course fatal. Research has shown a direct link between raised insulin levels and laminitis (You can read my article on how to effectively manage laminitis here). By the time laminitis is presenting, the metabolic system is already in complete chaos. We know that to avoid laminitis and structural damage to the hoof, sugar levels in the diet must be managed and should preferably stay below 5%.
Other problems that present in the hoof are varied and can be very complex. They include: cracks, thrush, abscesses, navicular, poor growth and renewal, seedy toe etc. The causes of those conditions are just as varied. There are key nutrients however, that can help maintain the health of hooves, support their growth and boost their strength.
Fibre – One of the best ways to support healthy hoof development, growth and renewal is to feed ample fibre. Ensure that your horse has access to ad-lib roughage and you’ll find that hoof health will improve rapidly.
Zinc – Zinc is involved in the formation of keratin and important for the growth of strong, health hoof walls.
Biotin – A B-vitamin that is produced naturally in the gut by micro-organisms. It is important in protecting the hoof from thin soles, brittle, thin walls and helps to ensure good, strong growth and renewal. Because microbial activity in the gut produces biotin, deficiency isn’t as common as is assumed. If a horse has adequate roughage intake, it very unlikely that they will be deficient in biotin (you can read more about this in my post on B-vitamins here).
Essential fatty acids – We all know how important omegas are and how beneficial they are for the coat and skin. They’re also important for hoof health as they have a protective effect on the hoof wall, sealing in necessary moisture and simultaneously keeping out water, which would disrupt the balance of the hoof and lead to weakened outer layers.
Methionine – A sulphur that makes up an important component of protein structure and which contains essential amino acids. It is important as a building block of hoof structure.
Calcium – Calcium supports the strength and growth of bones and structures such as hooves. It functions in a very close relationship with phosphorous. Therefore, the ratio of calcium and phosphorous must be correct to ensure that the body can adequately absorb calcium needed for healthy hooves. The calcium to phosphorous ratio of the diet should be 2:1 to ensure adequate calcium intake and absorption.
All of the above mentioned nutrients should occur in a well-balanced diet. If you feel that the health of your horse’s hooves is lacking then the first course of action is to increase roughage (feed as much as they will consume) and ensure that the calcium to phosphorous ratio of the diet is at least 2:1 (in the UK, roughage almost always has a suitable calcium to phosphorous ratio, so check any concentrate feeds you give for their Ca:P ratios). If you’re concerned and think it’s necessary to supplement the diet to support the hooves, the first thing you should do is boost the level of omega fatty acids in the diet (chia seeds are a great option for this and have a fantastic nutritional profile to boot!) and beyond that supplement with zinc. A good way to do this is to offer a free choice mineral lick for your horse to take in minerals on their own accord, as needed.
If you’re tempted to supplement with biotin, it’s important to consider why the horse would be deficient in something it should be producing internally for itself. Getting to the root cause of the gastrointestinal imbalance will rectify a vitamin B deficiency and allow the body to do it’s own work in keeping the hooves healthy.
How do you support hoof health? What are your experiences with the connection between diet and hoof health? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences – share them in the comments below!