While some horses float over specially prepared arena footing day after day, your trail horse carries you over hill, dale, rock, and stream. And what carries him over such rugged terrain? His hooves.
As a concerned horse owner, you're wise to keep a close eye on your trail horse's hooves. But when you spot a hoof problem, don't assume the trouble lies just in the hoof and immediately reach for an over-the-counter supplement. What you see could be indicative of another, deeper problem.
Just as your skin and hair says a lot about your general health, your horse's skin, haircoat, mane, tail, and hooves give you clues on how he's functioning inside. They're like border crossings, where internal functions meet the outside environment.
The hoof capsule, the hoof's outer portion, is part of your horse's integument system, his outer covering. That tough hoof wall is really just an adaptation of skin, much as your fingernails relate to your skin. The blood supply that serves your horse's skin and coat also sends nutrients to his outer hoof.
Therefore, your approach to fixing the problem needs to be well thought out, and done so in conjunction with your veterinarian.
Ask your farrier if he or she has seen similar hoof problems in your area, and what the outcome has been.
Also work with your veterinarian to make sure that your horse's digestive system is working properly, he's parasite free, you're feeding good-quality hay, and he's getting enough water. No supplement can make up for substandard forage. You'll waste a lot of money if your unabsorbed scoopful of feed supplement is excreted in runny manure.
If your horse has a hoof condition, a simple dressing that coats, rather than soaks, the hoof wall can help. But stay away from petroleum-based products if you see hoof cracks and chipped walls. Hoof walls are many layers thick, but he may have a superficial condition that has nothing to do with nutrition.
Hoof antiseptics are mild antifungal agents that can help overcome surface fungus. You can spray it on the sole, frog, and wall, particularly if you're experiencing damp weather or your horse is turned out in mud.
Give it Time
If your veterinarian or farrier agrees that hoof supplements will likely help your horse's hooves, it's important to understand how such supplements work.
First, supplements don't "fix" the hoof. There's no way to fix a poor-quality hoof wall - your horse has to grow a new one. This growth takes two things: stimulus and time.
Hoof supplements may help provide that stimulus, but then be patient. Once you put your horse on a supplement program, you must give it time to work.
Many impatient horse owners begin a supplementation program then abandon it, leaving a half-full bucket or bag in the feed room.
Get smart. Purchase at least a 60-day supply of your chosen supplement, and follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter. When you reorder, order the same supplement, and continue to follow the dosing instructions.
Keep in mind that it might take four to six months to see the results of a good hoof supplement. Your farrier might notice that the hoof wall isn't as spongy in the nippers as it was during the previous trim. He or she might notice that the wall is getting stronger or that the white line looks tighter.
Then your farrier will gradually rasp and nip away the old crumbly wall and sole. When healthy new wall is in the jaws of those nippers, it feels like hitting pay dirt.
Plan of Action
To make the best choice about whether or not to use hoof supplements, start with an honest evaluation of your horse's problem. Consider the answers to the following questions:
• What's wrong with your horse's hooves? Common hoof problems are chipped walls, slow growth, a soft, spongy hoof wall, and a dry flaky hairline. Or, your horse may be recovering from a hoof wall injury or surgery.
• How old is your horse? Horses are prone to different hoof problems at different life stages.
• Is this a new problem? When did you first notice your horse's hoof quality was deteriorating?
• Have the problems happened before? Did you try supplements when a previous problem was a concern? If so, how did they work?
• Has your horse's environment changed recently? Moving your horse from a dry region to a humid region (or vice versa) will require some metabolism adjustment; his hoof quality may change radically, but temporarily.
• Have you changed your horse's diet? If you've changed hay suppliers, your horse's grain/supplement mix, or feed amounts, you may see a resulting change in his hooves. Make sure your horse is eating his ration and doesn't have access to outside feed sources, such as leaves and berries.
• Has your horse been on medication or been ill? Has he been under unusual stress? Such underlying factors will likely impact hoof health, and point to a plan of action that goes beyond hoof supplements.
• Has your horse's work schedule changed? Is he in a stall most of the day, or does he get turnout time? Does he stand in dirty, ammonia-soaked bedding? His environment affects his hoof health.
• Is there any irritating chemical on the ground or in the water in your pasture? Did a stream flood into your pasture recently? Do you ride your horse in a dry, sandy riverbed or in an arena with an abrasive footing mixture? Was your horse property recently sprayed for insect control? All of these factors affect his hoof health and need to be considered.
• Did you recently change your horse's bedding, such as to a new pelleted bedding or straw? His hooves will need time to adjust.
• What's your horse's hoof-health history? If your horse is new to you, ask the previous owners if his hoof quality changes seasonally, or if he has trouble with lost shoes.
Once you've evaluated the above factors, call your veterinarian, and make an appointment for him or her to examine your horse. Ask for an overall comment on your horse's condition, including weight, haircoat, and degree of alertness.
If your horse has had any problems, such as loose manure, nasal discharge, runny eyes or a fungal infection, tell your vet about it. Poor hoof condition may be part of a bigger picture.
If you can rule out a serious health problem, talk to your vet about hoof supplements. Ask him or her which supplements tend to be effective in horses with similar diet, lifestyle, breed, and work level to yours.
Note that many vets are hesitant to recommend products by brand name; others will refer you to their clinic, where clinic-selected special supplements may be sold.
Choosing a Supplement
When choosing a hoof supplement, decide whether you should buy a pelleted or powdered formulation and whether it should be targeted or broad spectrum in nature.
• Pellets vs. powder. To choose between pelleted and powdered formulations, consider how and where you feed your horse, and what his habits are.
Some horses are messy eaters that knock over a feed tub or bucket, spilling the contents onto a stall floor or the ground. These horses will waste a powdered supplement, but they'll probably clean up a spilled pellet. Most pellets have an alfalfa or apple flavor that will entice your horse to forage for the spilled bits.
You can also hand feed your horse's daily dose of pelleted supplements as a treat.
A powdered supplement is a great choice for a horse that receives direct care, such as a stall-bound horse with laminitis or a leg injury.
You can feed a powdered supplement in a wall-hung feeder, or mix it with some applesauce, put it in a medication tube, and push the plunger right in your horse's mouth.
• Targeted vs. broad spectrum. Next, choose whether you'll supplement with a targeted, specific element or a broad-spectrum formula. This is the biggest argument in hoof nutrition and overflows into differences of opinion with overall horse nutrition.
Many equine nutritionists and veterinarians simply state that overfeeding a single nutrient can be more dangerous for a horse than underfeeding it. If you're already feeding your horse a general vitamin supplement or a fortified grain product, he may be receiving plenty of the nutrients he needs. Therefore, avoid piling on a single ingredient, such as the amino acid methionine, zinc, or biotin.
If you feel that you must supplement an individual nutrient, do so with the help of an equine nutritionist to determine the proper dosage. He or she will take into consideration your horse's size and weight, as well as his overall nutrient intake.
Now let's take a look at the three most common ingredients found in today's hoof supplements: protein; minerals; and vitamins (including biotin).
• Protein. Vegetable-based protein is a quirky diagram of building blocks called amino acids. Each is there for a reason, and each serves a function. They're usually in ample supply in horse feeds in the form of soybean or cottonseed oils.
Two types of amino acids dwell in those building blocks. One type contains sulphur and one does not. The conventional wisdom for stimulating hoof growth is to feed sulphur-based amino acids (such as methionine), because the hoof wall is constructed of the protein keratin, and keratin contains sulphur-based amino acids.
However, this isn't always a successful approach, because the building-block diagram calls for a balance between all the protein elements. If your horse is deficient, feeding just the right amount may help, but that's a gamble.
And keep in mind that most things in nature have a yin-yang relationship: Pumping up a single nutrient will affect another nutrient.
• Minerals. The biggest source of minerals in your horse's diet is the soil in his pasture and in that bale of hay you just dragged down from the loft. Like other nutrients, minerals need to be in balance.
The principle minerals to look for in a hoof supplement are calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, and chromium. Again, work with an equine nutritionist to determine the right mix if you really believe targeted supplementation will help.
Caveat: Watch your horse's selenium intake. Selenium, a mineral, adversely affects your horse whether there's too much or too little in his system. If selenium is plentiful in your local soil, steer clear of hoof supplements containing selenium. (Also avoid feeding an antioxidant supplement with selenium.)
Signs of selenium toxicity include ridged hooves that eventually lead to severe lameness and detachment of the hoof wall from the hairline. This is a very painful condition and can be fatal.
• Vitamins. Many have suggested that horses with wall cracks, slow hoof growth, or spongy hoof walls need the vitamin biotin. Research studies clearly have shown that horses do respond to a target addition of biotin to the feed. Studies in England and Austria have clearly demonstrated biotin's benefits.
But just as clearly, research has shown that some horses with hoof-quality issues don't respond to biotin. There's also the question of how much biotin to feed.
Biotin is sold as a supplement, but is also manufactured in the horse's hind gut. There's no question that biotin is a key nutrient for proper hoof metabolism at the cellular level. But don't be surprised if your horse doesn't respond after a few months. It might be better to feed a broad-spectrum hoof supplement that contains biotin, among other nutrients.
Also look for hoof supplements that contain Vitamin B6 and folic acid for horses with hoof problems.
Some of the new supplements touted for hoof improvement contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Some are extracted from fish oil, while others are from flax seed. Since the hoof wall contains these fatty acids, balancing them out is critical to good hoof health.
If your horse has a serious hoof problem, such as laminitis, your veterinarian may suggest a particular supplement, such as one high in antioxidants or magnesium, that might be overkill for a healthy horse. Also, supplements for laminitis may have other purposes than to treat the hoof.
The goal of a supplement is not just to increase the rate of growth, but also to improve the quality of the new growth. Some supplements promise a growth spurt, but that may not be what your horse needs.
Before you begin feeding your horse a hoof supplement, accurately determine your horse's weight. Don't guess. Use a weight tape or better yet, a livestock scale.
Then educate yourself on the proper dose for your horse's weight. Consult the manufacturer's literature and website. Some supplements have a loading dose and a maintenance dose.
Here are several tips for supplement success:
• Mark your calendar. Put an easy-to-read calendar in your barn or feed room. Mark the date you began your supplementation program, along with the name of the supplement and amount given. Every week, mark any progress you see.
• Use a special scoop. To assure the correct dosage, use the scoop supplied by the manufacturer, or use one that's the same measure. Mark the scoop with your name, your horse's name, and the name of the supplement. Put the scoop on a string so it won't be lost.
• Get on a schedule. Feed the supplement at the same time every day, so your horse gets the correct dose over 24 hours, and stay on schedule. If it helps, write a big red checkmark on your calendar every time you dose your horse.
• Make it easy. Check with Smart Pak Equine (800/461-8898; www.smartpak equine.com) to see whether your chosen supplement is available in pre-measured packets. Such packets enhance ease of dosage and are handy when you go on an overnight camping trip.
• Watch your horse eat. Is he eating around the supplement? If so, change to a more palatable formulation
Fran Jurga is editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and writes the informational Hoof Blog, www.hoofcare.blogspot.com.