If your horse has “good feet”, it’s easy to overlook potential issues when they start to develop. If you have struggled with any sort of hoof issue then you already know how much time and energy it can take to keep your horse’s feet in top shape. With dozens of hoof-specific supplements on the market, it can be incredibly frustrating if you don’t see results, even after following the directions and waiting the recommended amount of time. So, what gives?
What’s in a Hoof?
Horses are known as Perissodactyls. This essentially means they are single-toed animals, as opposed to other ungulate mammals, such as cattle and goats, who have two toes. Your horse’s hooves, much like your own fingernails and toenails, are made up of proteins called keratins. These proteins develop a thick, protective layer around the inner structure of the hoof. Obviously, a horse’s hooves are like singular, giant toenails. Each of their hooves has to support a great deal of weight and take an enormous amount of pressure and impact. Because of this, it’s essential that the keratin wall is as strong as possible while maintaining some flexibility to prevent splitting or fractures.
A Gut Feeling
Hoof health, just like every other part of your horse’s body, begins in his gut. His health is directly related to how well he can digest his food and assimilate the nutrients released from that feed. Regardless of whether you’re feeding an all-forage diet or mix it up with some concentrated feeds (such as sweet feed), his ability to absorb and utilize the different components of that food depends wholly on his overall gut health. By the time his body gets to his hooves, there may not be adequate amounts of nutrients available to build and maintain strong, healthy hoof tissues.
There are many reasons your horse may not be able to absorb the necessary level of nutrients. He may have active ulcers or a subclinical ulcer condition that is keeping him from being able to completely digest his feed. There could be damage to the digestive tract from a previous illness or he didn’t receive adequate colostrum as a foal. The possibility of a burgeoning parasitic load could be keeping him from receiving nourishment. Regardless of the reasons, one of the first places you may see the effects of poor absorption is in his hooves. At this point, the most important thing is to get his digestive system in top shape.
Developing a Healthy Digestive System
Before you start throwing money at numerous expensive “hoof health supplements”, there are several things you can do to help improve your horse’s gut health and thus, his hooves. Here are some things you can do to combat poor nutrient absorption.
- Feed only high-quality forage. Forage includes things like hay or alfalfa. If your horse is on pasture, have your grass tested to make sure it is nutritionally balanced. Your veterinarian can help you determine your particular horse’s health requirements.
- Use a dewormer as directed by your vet. Some regions of the U.S. experience much higher incidences of intestinal parasite infestation than others. If you are unsure about whether or not to have your horse on a regular deworming rotation, consider having a fecal analysis done to determine if there is an existing worm burden.
- Don’t overfeed concentrated feeds. Your horse’s digestive system is not set up to handle large amounts of concentrated feeds such as grains. Use only what is needed to help maintain his health. If there is no need for concentrated feeds but you enjoy giving him treats, consider cutting the amount back significantly, or switch to pelleted alfalfa or horse-specific treats, given in moderation.
- Rule out ulcers. If your horse is in poor body condition but is receiving adequate nutritional support, consider having ulcers ruled out. A horse can have subclinical ulcers, meaning that there are no outward signs but they can still be wreaking havoc within. Even if there are no ulcerative lesions, if your horse produces an excess amount of stomach acid, it can affect the gut flora and fauna balance, making digestion and absorption less effective.
- Use a feed additive that will balance gut pH. Just as in humans, a horse’s gut is very sensitive to pH levels. If the pH is off in either direction (too acidic or too basic), it can disrupt the ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients. A feed additive that focuses on keeping an ideal pH will go a long way towards improving gut permeability and allowing nutrients to be properly absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Make sure there is adequate, clean water available at all times. A horse’s digestion depends on access to clean, fresh water at all times. Horses require up to 10 gallons of water per day (depending on the size and activity level of the animal; some may require even more).
There is obviously more to hoof health than just good nutrition but it is the most important place to start. Other considerations should include footing, exercise and bedding conditions. If you suspect your horse has hoof issues, always consult with your veterinarian and farrier. They may be able to pinpoint the exact issues and get your horse on the right path to hoof wellness.