Are your trail horse's hooves brittle and chipped? Here are four tips to help you keep his hooves strong and supple.
Chip Tip #1: Schedule Regular Trimmings
Proper and timely trimmings are crucial. Letting a barefoot horse go too long between trims increases the risk of chipping and breaking.
Here's why: As the hoof wall grows, it also extends further forward in relation to the bones of the leg and foot. When the hoof lands, the bones stay in the same location, connected to each other, but the hoof wall expands. This causes stretching and eventually crumbling of the white line, the layer of hoof wall that connects the outer wall to the sole and live tissues of the hoof. It also contributes to chips/flaps developing in the hoof at ground surface.
Another common mistake with barefoot horses is leaving the hoof edge sharp where it contacts the ground, instead of gently rolling the edge of the hoof. This rounding can greatly help to prevent chipping.
Chip Tip #2: Avoid Chemical Drying
Brittle hooves are sometimes blamed on periodic exposure to high moisture, e.g., turning horses out in early morning dew. But the truth is that shouldn't bother a healthy hoof.
Research has shown that the normal hoof wall actually takes up very little moisture, even if soaked for long periods of time. However, if hoof quality is poor, moisture soaks in much deeper and can cause loss of minerals and electrolytes from the cells.
Overly dry conditions also may be blamed for hoof-quality problems. But as with moisture, if the hoof wall is of good quality to begin with, this won't be a problem.
One thing that even a high-quality hoof won't be able to withstand is chemical drying. Overuse of lime, or stall-drying products that contain lime, can dry the foot at ground surface and predispose it to chipping. Overuse of harsh shampoos or coat cleaners can strip the protective fats and oils from the hoof surface.
Chip Tip #3: Dress With Care
When your horse's hoof is dry, brittle, chipped and cracked, it sure sounds like a good idea to "treat" it by painting something on. Plus, these products are advertised to moisturize and even help heal/repair damaged hooves.
Unfortunately, there's really no replacement for the natural protective barrier in a hoof. Excessive use of dressings and oils can oversoften an already damaged foot. And horses with deep cracks can have sensitive tissues exposed to potentially irritating ingredients.
If you want to try a hoof dressing, ask your veterinarian and farrier what products they'd suggest.
An increasing number of vets and farriers are turning to hoof-sealant products, such as SBS Equine's Hoof Armour, as a way to protect damaged feet from further chipping or cracking while they grow out. These products dry to form a hard, protective shell that can last for weeks.
Other culprits include drying hoof dressings and polishes, polish removers, and rasping off rings, which removes the hoof's natural protective barrier.
Chip Tip #4: Address Cracks
Hoof cracks also plague some horses. Cracks can appear for the same reasons that chipping occurs. They also can start at nail holes, especially when the shoes have been on too long and the holes widen, creating a local defect in even a healthy hoof wall's normal barrier to moisture and drying.
If your horse repeatedly gets hoof cracks in one location, check for trimming problems; his weight load might not be correctly distributed.
For example, horses with under-run heels and long toes may develop heel cracks, toe cracks, or both. Horses that don't have their point of breakover correctly positioned directly in front of the tip of the frog are prone to toe cracking.
Note that shoes won't help protect against these types of mechanical cracks. In fact, they often make them worse by concentrating all the weight bearing on the hoof wall.
Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD (www.drkellon.com), is a Staff Veterinarian for Uckele Health and Nutrition, Inc., and is the owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, a nutritional consulting firm. An Honors Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, Dr. Kellon completed her internship and residency in Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at the renowned University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center. Her book, Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals, is available on HorseBooksEtc.com.