The winter poses tough challenges even for those with healthy hooves, and this winter has been no exception. Persistent rainfall has resulted in muddy, waterlogged fields for those living out/ have access to turnout. The inevitable result being soft feet, thrush, lost shoes and foot abscesses. Good external hoof care remains the cornerstone of managing these problems, but is there anything else we can do? How can nutrition be of benefit to hoof health?
Many owners will recognise the rate of new hoof growth seems to slow down over the winter months, or perhaps it is easier to notice the sudden increase in hoof growth seen when the grass starts to come through again in the spring. This variation suggests that nutrition may play a role in hoof growth. Maintaining hoof growth is really important, not only does it allow for plenty of fresh horn to nail shoes to, but also means any problems encountered (abscesses, splits, broken hoof wall), grow out quickly. However, fast growing hoof is not enough. Without the correct balance of nutrients you could end up with fast growing hoof that is brittle, which will not resolve previous issues.
So what nutrients are needed for healthy hoof growth that is both strong and fast? It should be said that healthy hoof growth requires an appropriate, well-balanced diet for the horse’s workload, in respect of calories, proteins, fats and fibre as well as vitamins and minerals. If the foundation of the diet is correct, and problems still persist then supplementation of some key nutrients may be useful. Here, we are going to have a look at commonly supplemented nutrients in more detail.
Biotin is a vitamin which is needed for a large number of cell pathways involved in energy and metabolism. It is also thought to play a vital role in cell proliferation, which is needed for growth. Biotin may also improve hoof strength, because it seems to improve the production of the glue which sticks cells together.
Biotin can be found in some feed materials, but of greater importance, is it is made by the microbes which inhabit the hindgut. A study which looked that the biotin content of feed material as it passed through the digestive tract of the horse found levels were 38 times higher in the large colon than they were in the small intestine. This increase is as a result of the gut microbes making biotin, which can then be absorbed by the horse.
Research suggests that the amount of supplementary biotin fed will dictate whether improvements in both horn quality and growth rates are seen. For improvement in hoof quality 15mg/500kg horse are needed, whereas for improvement in hoof growth 60mg/500kg are needed.
While there is good evidence for supplementation of biotin, it may also be worthwhile supplementing the horse with probiotics. The aim being to improve the natural production of biotin in the hindgut. As yet, there is no evidence to support this as a method of increasing biotin.
Sulphur is found in all body tissues. It is especially important in the context of the hoof because it is needed to bond keratin fibres together in the unique way thatwhich gives hoof its unique hardness and flexibility. Nitrogen and sulphur are closely connected in nature. Meaning that food sources rich in protein are also rich in sulphur, example being microniszed linseed. MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) is the most commonly used source of sulphur used in supplements.
Methionine is an essential amino acid which contains sulphur. If a horse is being fed a good quality protein feed, or high quality forage it is very likely that their methionine requirements are being met.
Methionine is important for hoof health because it is readily converted to cysteine in the body, an amino acids used to build keratin.
Keratin is a structural protein produced by certain cells of the body (hoof, hair, skin). As keratin is produced the cell is made hard and waterproof, making it a barrier between the inside of the body and the outside world. Keratins can be loosely grouped into two types, soft keratins and hard keratins. The hoof wall contains hard keratins, whereas the heels of the foot contains soft keratins. Soft keratins are not as strong, but instead are more elastic and able to absorb shock.
Trace elements are essential minerals which are only required in very small amounts. Zinc is a trace element that can be deficient in forage based diets if no mineral balancer is fed. Zinc is incorporated into numerous enzymes within the body. As part of these enzymes it plays a key role in cell division, which is needed for growth. Zinc deficient diets cause a reduction in keratin production.
Copper is another trace element, which is commonly found in low levels in forage based diets. Copper is essential to build the sulphur bonds between the amino acids in keratin, which give it its amazing strength in hoof horn.
Zinc and copper appear to use the same binding sites for absorption in the small intestine. Therefore, it is important that trace mineral supplementation is done at the correct ratio, or trace mineral deficiencies may be enhanced.
You can now appreciate that the growth of strong healthy hoof is complex and the secret is not as simple as one magic nutrient. A well balanced diet should always be used as a sound foundation, before supplementation is considered. This includes ensuring adequate provisions of calories and quality protein for the workload of the horse in addition to vitamins and minerals. Variations in age and genetics amongst other things will result in individual variation in requirements between horses.
If the foundation diet is adequate and additional nutritional support is required, choosing a well rounded hoof supplement is recommended as hoof growth is complex and not simply down to one key ingredient. A combination of biotin, a sulphur source, and trace elements provides additional nutritional support for horses or ponies who struggle with hoof quality. Bear in mind, it takes between 8-12 months for new hoof to reach the bottom of the foot and for this reason signs of improvement may be slow to materialise.
Looking for a hoof supplement? Browse our 4Feet range here.