Overfeeding the Hoof Ever wondered if there’s anything you can feed your horse to help improve his hooves? Jayne Hunt, Equine Podiatrist from the UK, offers a viewpoint on how your horse’s hooves can be directly affected by too much of a good thing. Hoof wall cracks, persistent hoof infections such as thrush or white line disease, unexplained sensitivity on stones that comes and goes, heels that keep wanting to collapse, toes that your farrier always battles to keep trimmed back, growth rings, flat soles. Would you believe that all of these hoof issues can be signs of nutritional imbalance? The equine hoof is a wonderful barometer of the horse’s overall health. A horse may look glossy and bursting with energy, but does that mean he is truly healthy? A glance at the hooves may well provide the answer – if you know what to look for. Horse owners today are bombarded by a plethora of feeds and supplements which claim to cure every ill from itchy skin to poor coat condition, to weak hooves. Ask some horse owners what they feed their horses and they reel off a long list of products which they are hoping will improve their horse’s health and performance. But are these feeds giving your horse a balanced diet, or are you in fact unbalancing his nutrition simply by feeding too much of everything? In the wild, a horse’s natural diet consists mainly of dry grasses and herbs, bark and small tree branches which are grazed on slowly throughout the day as the horse travels with the herd. This natural diet is very high in fibre, low in starch and protein, varied and available in fairly sparse supply. It is a far cry from the lush, green pastures that we consider to be the best for our domesticated horses. They lack adequate fibre, usually have an unbalanced vitamin and mineral content (particularly if they have been fertilised), are usually far too high in calories and available in abundance. It’s a bit like asking a human to live only on cake. In contrast, some areas of South Africa are jut too sandy or rocky to provide adequate grazing, so the horses are fed hay. This is higher in fibre, but is likely also to have an unbalanced vitamin and mineral content (due to having been fertilised in production) and lack variety (for instance, oat hay or lucerne). Therefore, the horse’s diet is supplemented with a concentrate feed to make up for any lack of vitamins or minerals. There’s another problem. Everyone assumes that when we say a diet is unbalanced that we mean it is lacking something, but a diet can also be unbalanced due to it having far too high levels of certain nutrients in it, and supplementation only makes matters worse. I’ve lost count of how many horses I see who seem fit and healthy, but when you look at the feet, the picture tells a different story. Often the poor farrier gets the blame when the feet start to develop long toes, or the horse begins to lose shoes, or is footsore straight after a trim, but often the problem lies not with the farrier, but with the owner – or more accurately, the person who decides what to feed the horse. Poor hoof horn quality is often blamed on the environment, the weather or genetics, but a healthy hoof wall is pretty impervious to anything – repelling moisture and infection beautifully. Many people still believe that hooves need to be moistened daily to keep them healthy, yet studies show that the healthy hoof wall is very good at repelling moisture. Therefore, when cracks start appearing in the outer wall, painting hoof preparations on the surface, or soaking the feet every day is unlikely to make much difference – the moisture contained in hoof horn comes from within. Genetics do play a part – they dictate how thick the walls will be or what shape the hooves will be, but they don’t dictate poor horn quality. Similarly, the environment can affect hooves, but only if the hoof quality is weakened in the first place by poor nutrition. I wish I could give you a list of symptoms to watch out for in your horse’s hooves, then tell you what nutritional imbalance that relates too, but as with all things, nothing is ever that simplistic. When bruises appear in the walls of white hooves, hard ground or trauma is often blamed, yet it is far more likely to be a calcium deficiency – especially if the horse is grazed on Kikuyu which inhibits calcium uptake. However, sometimes it’s an imbalance between vitamins A and D or sometimes it’s a sign of a completely different problem – too much starch. White Line Disease, where the bugs that live in the ground begin to munch their way into hoof horn is a major problem in South Africa. Often the owner is instructed to paint all sorts of preparations onto the hoof horn to kill off the bugs, but sadly the infection keeps recurring. This is because the bugs are only able to eat into the hoof wall when the proteins that bind the hoof horn molecules together have been weakened, and the cause of that is often too much starch, too much protein, too little fibre – or all three. But, I hear you cry, if the rest of the horse looks fit and well, surely they can’t have a nutritional deficiency – right? Well, nutritional overload is just as much a problem as deficiency. I see countless horses with glossy coats and muscly bodies, only to find they have low grade laminitis, or severe white line disease, or cracked, flared, broken feet. The feet improve immeasurably if dietary imbalances can be pinpointed and corrected, but there is still so much we don’t know, and the owner is often limited by what they can do to change their horse’s diet because of the restrictions of keeping their horse at livery. But there is still a lot you can do. First of all, gather up whatever information you can about how much your horse eats. I’m not talking about the 5% of his diet that goes in his bucket, but the 95% that’s in the field or in his haynet. For how long does your horse graze in the paddock every day? Does he have access to grass, or is he in a sand paddock with haynets? When he’s in his stable, how much/how often is he given a haynet? Does he stand for long periods of the day with nothing to eat? Horses are trickle feeders. They are designed to slowly browse and munch for 20 hours per day. The rest of the time they are sleeping, playing, socialising, or in the case of the wild horse, travelling on to pastures new. If the horse is standing around with nothing to eat for several hours a day, stomach acid builds up and gastric ulcers start to form. Cracks, flaring and growth rings can start appearing in the hoof wall and the horse will go intermittently footsore as imbalances in the hind gut will cause low level inflammation in the hooves. Once you’ve examined whether your horse is getting enough grass or hay, you then need to look at whether he’s getting enough variety. Look at the grass in his paddock. Are there plenty of different grasses and herbs for him to pick at, or is it mainly Kikuyu (a calcium inhibitor which can contribute to bruising in the hoof walls or swelling in the coronet band), or is it regularly fertilised with nitrates, phosphorous or potassium (all known magnesium inhibitors which also unbalance sodium levels and can cause low level inflammation in the hoof)? The same goes for his hay – how much variety is he getting in his haynet? Is it all oat hay (high starch which can cause cracks to form in the hoof wall, letting infection in), or Lucerne (high protein which can make the horse’s toes run forwards and cause him to be sensitive on stones). Too many succulents are also an issue. In the UK when the apples start falling off the trees, the rate of laminitis goes sky high because horses are not very good at processing sugar, and apples are full of it. Carrots too can cause major problems, not only with the horse’s behaviour, but with the quality of hoof horn too. Nobody will begrudge a horse the odd carrot, but feeding several a day can cause hoof walls to literally fray from the bottom upwards. So rather than panicking about what to put in your horse’s feed bucket, play much closer attention to his forage – after all, it should form the bulk of his daily feed. Variety is the order of the day. Too much of anything will unbalance your horse’s diet, and there is no concentrate in the world that can redress the balance if the horse is getting too much of something.
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