It takes between six and twelve months for the horn to grow from coronary band to ground, depending on the nutrition of the horse and the health of the foot. Nutrition interventions will need to be done for many months before results become evident.
Hoof horn composition facts:
- Hoof horn is mostly keratin, which consists of strong fibres embedded in a matrix held together with sulphur cross links
- Sulphur-rich cysteine (an amino acid made in the body from methionine) makes up a quarter of the amino acids in keratin
- Keratin goes through a cornification process making it one of the toughest biological materials known
- As well as amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals including zinc, copper and calcium, biotin and vitamins are important to hoof horn growth
- Hoof horn is about 25% water, the sole about 40% and frog about 70%
The Problem Hoof
Hooves can be affected by a variety of problems, which compromise their ability to absorb concussion and can lead to lameness and time off work:
- Poor quality, dysfunctional hoof horn e.g. crumbling, hoof cracks
- Corns (bruises)
- Seedy toe and white line disease
- Sheared and/or collapsed heels
Building a strong hoof
There are limitations to healthy hooves! The primary one is genetics, and some horses are ‘born’ with poor feet, and another is past injury e.g. of the coronary band, which affects hoof horn growth.
Factors that can be remedied with good nutrition and management and can have a huge impact on hoof health include:
- hoof imbalances / poor trimming / infrequent farriery cycles
- poor environment especially chronic wet and muddy conditions
- nutrient deficiency
In some cases, horses can benefit from extra supplementation at ‘supraoptimal’ levels (higher than those of a normal balanced diet) of certain nutrients. These supplements need to be fed long-term for results to be obtained.
‘Feeding’ the feet
Deficiencies of nutrients – especially zinc, calcium, copper and sulphur-containing essential amino acids e.g. methionine can lead to hoof horn problems. Inadequate intake of the nutrients that are essential for hoof horn production will disrupt the cornification process and weaken the ‘glue’ that holds the horn together, resulting in weak, poor quality hoof horn. Horses with poor hoof strength and quality had lower zinc levels in their bodies including their hooves compared to horses with normal hooves.
Excessive intake of water soluble carbohydrate (WSC – sugar and fructans) and starch can compromise hoof health. This may be due – at least in part – to laminar attachment failure within the capsule resulting from endocrine disturbances including hyperinsulinaemia. Reducing obesity and exercise are both helpful interventions.
The diet should be balanced first. Then, extra supplementation can be added which gives extra support to the hooves. A combination of nutrients should be added for best effect, rather than biotin alone.
A well-balanced diet is important to hoof health as any essential nutrient deficiency could cause suboptimal hoof health. Nutrients which are key for healthy hooves include:
- the sulphur-containing essential amino acid methionine
- the minerals zinc and copper, which may need to be supplemented in supra-optimal amounts
- biotin – this B complex vitamin has been shown to improve hoof horn growth and quality, including hardness when supplemented at a supra-optimal level
Check List (boxed)
1. Feed a well-balanced diet and include a vitamin and mineral supplement if fortified compound feed isn’t necessary (forage-only is not balanced)
2. Restrict WSC and starch intake and restrict grass access if necessary
3. Add a specific hoof supplement which should supply methionine, zinc, copper and biotin, e.g. Equestrizone Hoof Power Xtra
4. Start early with hoof supplements because results can take many months to be seen!
In summary, keeping hooves healthy involves maintaining good balance with appropriate shoeing and/or trimming, an appropriate environment, a balanced diet and healthy body weight and, in some cases, supplementing with extra nutrients. Supplementation needs to be made long term for results to be seen, so get started now for strong hooves this winter. Hampson, B. (2011) The effects of environment on the horse’s hoof. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 31(10): p609.  Zeyner, A. & Harris, P. A. (2013) Vitamins. In Geor, R. J., Harris, P. A. & Coenen, M. (Eds) Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Saunders Elsevier, Edinburgh.  Huntington, P. & Pollitt, C. (2005) Nutrition and the Equine Foot. In Pagan, J. D. (Ed) Advances in Equine Nutrition III. Nottingham University Press, Nottingham.  Huntington, P. & Pollitt, C. (2005) Nutrition and the Equine Foot. In Pagan, J. D. (Ed) Advances in Equine Nutrition III. Nottingham University Press, Nottingham.  Zeyner, A. & Harris, P. A. (2013) Vitamins. In Geor, R. J., Harris, P. A. & Coenen, M. (Eds) Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Saunders Elsevier, Edinburgh.  Huntington & Pollitt, 2005 cite Coenen & Spitzlei, 1997  Patterson-Kane, J. C., Karikoski, N. P. & McGowan, C. M. (2018) Paradigm shifts in understanding equine laminitis. The Veterinary Journal, 231, pp 33-40  Geor, R. J. & Harris, P. A. (2013) Laminitis. In Geor, R. J., Harris, P. A. & Coenen, M. (Eds) Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Saunders Elsevier, Edinburgh.