Horse Nutrition and Hoof Care – A Healthy Horse Has Healthy Hooves

So, what can we feed our horses that’s good for their hooves? This question should more accurately be, what can we feed our horse that’s good for THEM?

What’s good for the hoof is good for the whole horse. Feeding the hoof is no more or less complicated than simply feeding the horse well and providing all they need for optimal tissue growth and repair. If your horse is getting a quality balanced diet with adequate amounts of trace and major minerals, the right kind of fats and oils, good sources of antioxidants, vitamins and quality proteins with adequate amino acid profiles, then you will have a healthy horse and a healthy horse has healthy hooves.

Poor hoof quality is one of the most obvious outward signs that your horse is not healthy on the inside. This is because the hoof tissue is highly metabolic, meaning it grows fast! It continually replaces itself as the hoof grows downward and wears away (actually it continually grows downward even if it DOESN’T wear away… ). This means that health issues, changes in diet, sickness and even changes in workload, can all be seen in the quality and form of the hoof wall.

Adequate nutrition is the foundation for excellence in health and performance. If you’re having a problem with your horse, whether it be his hooves, dull coats, her moods, recovery problems or immune dysfunction… you can bet there’s a nutritional component.

So what are some of the most common deficiencies that are lacking in our horses’ diets that lead to health problems and poor quality hooves?

Skin, coat and hooves are all made of the same major structural protein, keratin. Keratin, like all proteins in the body is made up of a strand of amino acids, some of which are non-essential (alanine and glycine, the horse’s body can manufacture these from within) and essential (cysteine – produced from methionine, the horse can’t make these, it is ‘essential’ that they are included in the diet). Therefore, poor quality protein with imbalanced essential amino acid profiles, may lead to hoof structure problems.

The hoof wall contains a variety of fats and waxy substances that provide a barrier against the outside world. They also help to contain moisture within the hoof wall. Like a waxy layer of skin, they keep the water out and the moisture in.

These waxy, oily substances fill the microscopic spaces between the keratin proteins, they give the hoof wall it’s shiny, sleek look.

Generally, horses on predominantly pasture diets will have no need for additional fats. Horses who are on restricted diets, are fed lots of grain, don’t have much access to pasture or who mainly get fed hay, may need supplementation.

When supplementing fats in the horse’s diet it’s extremely important to keep the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio around what it would be in the horse’s natural diet. The omega 3s are known to be anti-inflammatory – in other words they help resolve inflammation in the body. Whereas the omega 6 is known to be pro-inflammatory, meaning they can worsen inflammation. Therefore a ratio of between 4:1-6:1 is ideal. The best way to do this is to feed ground linseeds (flaxseeds) as they have the closest to ideal ratio of omegas. Between 100-180g per day would be a standard dose, however it does need to be ground directly before feeding to ensure optimal absorption and freshness.

Horses that are being fed products that contain high levels of omega 6 will also need supplementation to balance out the ratios. Some feeds that are high in omega 6 would include corn, rice bran, canola and vegetable oil and black sunflower seeds.

Vitamin E is important as an antioxidant to protect the fats in the hoof wall. As are the B vitamins, with Biotin receiving the most attention due to some positive research.

Calcium is important for the activation of enzymes involved in the production and binding of the keratin cells of the hoof wall.

Zinc is also essential for hoof wall tissue as it is involved with the production and multiplication of these same keratin cells as well as being involved with cell growth and proliferation. Therefore zinc deficiency could show up as poor quality and thin hoof wall, slow growth rate and poor connection.

Copper is another extremely important trace mineral when it comes to hoof horn quality. It is essential for the production and activation of enzymes that help form and hold the hoof wall cells together.

Selenium, involved with the formation of hoof horn and acts as an antioxidant to protect the fatty protective layer. This is particularly relevant to horses living on Victorian pasture and hay diets, as our soil profiles in the south east are known to be low in selenium.

Not only is it important that the minerals in the diet are present in adequate amounts, it is just as important to ensure they are there in the correct ratios. This is because some minerals interfere with the absorption of others. For example, too much zinc has been shown to reduce copper absorption. An excess of iron does the same thing.

If the hoof wall is weak at a cellular level, it will be weak at the physical and structural level. This leads to the breakdown of the cell structure and a weakening of the waxy, fatty barrier. Micro cracks and weaknesses can occur letting microbes and infection into the hoof.

So, does your horse need a hoof supplement… ? No, your horse just needs a balanced diet in order to maintain and support healthy body functions at a cellular level.

Lucky for us, it’s easy! What’s good for the horse, is also good for the hooves… and the coat… and the skin… and the immune system… and I could go on and on!

The ultimate and only 100% way to balance your horse’s diet is to test your pasture and hay. This enables you to determine what is already in your horse’s diet, therefore allows you to accurately determine what is lacking. If you’re interested in this option, please contact me for more details.

For those of us who are not in a position to test our pasture and hay – perhaps you are agisting or buy small quantities of hay at a time – there is a custom mix called Missy’s Bucket. This mix is formulated to supply the most commonly deficient minerals in the average pasture and hay diet. It is tailored specifically for horses living in the south east region of Australia. When you can’t test your forage, this is the next best option.

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