Problem Hooves - Do You Really Need a Hoof Supplement?

by Judy Sinner ©2007, as published in Issue 8 of The Horse's Hoof Magazine (2002)

This is part of a series of articles presented to help you make more informed choices in your quest for a more natural life for your horses.

The market abounds in “Quick Fix” hoof supplements promising you the moon as well as a whole new foot in mere months. But do you really need one? Put on your Dick Tracy hat and find out everything you can about the horse’s total diet, including any supplements, mineralized blocks or salt licks, worming schedule, housing conditions, and shoeing/trimming. The bottom line is that a healthy horse has healthy hooves, so we need to figure out why the horse is not healthy and what is contributing to the poor hoof condition.

Bran and alfalfa: bad ideas!

Horses with poor hooves should not be fed bran, and that includes both wheat bran and rice bran. The top-heavy phosphorous level and phytates tie up calcium and zinc, and brittle feet or slow-growing feet are often a symptom of calcium and/or zinc deficiency. Likewise a straight alfalfa diet actually inhibits calcium absorption. When there is too much calcium circulating in the blood, the parathyroid shuts down the body's ability to mobilize calcium from the bones and tissues to protect from overload. This shutdown results in loss of ability to to mobilize the calcium in the diet efficiently, with resulting calcium deficiency. Feed top quality grass hay, with no more than about 10% alfalfa, or up to 20% alfalfa for a lactating mare. Consider the use of a free-choice calcium supplement, one that is balanced with the proper ratio of phosphorous for the hay that you are feeding.

Toxins in the feed and environment

Many pasture blocks and supplements containing only non-chelated (inorganic, largely indigestible) minerals are often treated like toxins in the body, along with heavy metals in the water supply or in vaccines, pesticides and herbicides on the feeds, chemical fly sprays, etc. Since the liver is the filter for the body, it becomes overloaded and stressed, and brittle hooves can be one result. Ideally, you are feeding a grain ration which is chemical-free, using natural fly sprays or natural fly control instead of toxic fly sprays, and checking with your hay grower to make sure he is not saturating your feed with chemicals and too much nitrogen. Nitrates in the feed will suppress vitamin A, which works with vitamin D to help absorb calcium, as well as being important in the formation of healthy skin and hooves. Donna Starita, D.V.M., recommends a quarterly liver detoxification program for horses (and dogs!) and there are herbal products and clays on the market that do a great job.

Overuse of chemical wormers

What on earth does worming have to do with crummy feet, you may ask. Well, listen up! Hopefully, you have internalized my recent column regarding the wisdom of worming only as needed, rather than daily or every 6-8 weeks. My experience in handling “problem hoof” calls throughout the years supports my philosophy that overuse of wormers contributes significantly to bad hooves and white line disease, and often to hypothyroidism and abscesses or even founder. Frequent chemical deworming is a common denominator. An “aha” of the month came in the form of a flyer containing the results of a study reported in the March, 1987, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. This study deals with low thyroid, and states that “only 18 percent of the total circulating T3 hormone is produced in the thyroid, while 82 percent comes from ... conversions of T4 to T3 in tissues other than the thyroid gland.” The primary organ for this conversion is thought for this conversion is thought to be the liver. What this means to me, in plain English, is that toxic liver equals reduced ability to convert thyroid hormone to the active form equals classic hypothyroid symptoms, one of which is dry, scaly skin and brittle hooves or nails. Incidentally, the T3 form of thyroid hormone is far more active than T4 - thyroxine - and yet T4 as a synthetic is the form prescribed by most doctors and veterinarians. Horses which are severely hypothyroid are under such metabolic stress that they may founder or experience separation of the white line, which can lead to seedy toe or white line disease. Often your farrier can tell you when you have dewormed horses recently, by the blood and little separations evident in the white line. And you don't think worming is a metabolic stress? Likewise vaccination is a big stress…use discretion.

Feeding Oils - not!

Pliable, healthy hooves require some fat in the diet. Note that this is fat, not oil! Horses do not have a gall bladder, the organ in humans and other mammals (deer being the only other exception) which produces bile that emulsifies fats and oils for digestion. Fats are assimilated directly by the lacteal ducts in the intestine of a horse, and since these are also the the means by which horses absorb the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), it stands to reason that if the ducts are clogged with oils, the vitamins are not absorbed. (This is the same phenomenon noted in humans, with the “fake fat” Olestra, and also in people who have had their gall bladder removed). So, there goes the time-honored but flawed practice of feeding oils to horses for coat condition! The suppression of vitamin A and D in the diet means even less calcium will be absorbed as well. In nature, horses are not high fat eaters. The seed heads of the grasses in the spring would be about the most fat that they would encounter, so they are not equipped by nature to deal with high fats in the diet. They are capable of forming volatile fatty acids in the hind gut when their digestion is not compromised by a lot of grain, or too much protein, or sweet feeds, wormers, antibiotics and the like. Supporting digestion with a good probiotic is a great investment in healthy feet and glowing coat. If you do choose to add supplemental fat for your horses, extruded full fat soybeans (preferably organic and non-GMO) would be a great source. This feed supplement contains the fat and protein still in the same package, not fractionated out as in the expeller or solvent extraction methods used to collect the oil, which leave the soybean meal only.

Zinc is important

Supplemental zinc is also important, preferably chelated to amino acids or even better, targeted by binding the zinc to the specific amino acids most prevalent in hoof tissue.. Biotin, a B vitamin, and methionine, an amino acid, seem to be the big buzzwords in hoof supplements. However, according to Kempson, S.A., 1987, only 5 percent of horses with poor quality horn respond to biotin supplementation. So zinc is the real key here, in balance with other minerals, making sure the others are chelated as well. Studies in cattle have also shown the effects of zinc supplementation on the shear strength of their hoof tissue, as measured by resistance to the cutting shears in testing.

Magnesium helps with circulation and calcium absorption

Magnesium is a miracle mineral, often lacking in the equine diet. Without adequate magnesium, blood vessels will constrict abnormally, often contributing to vascular deficiency in the extremities. Calcium requires magnesium in order to be absorbed, and high calcium (there is the alfalfa again…) contributes to magnesium deficiency. High estrogen in mares, especially when they are coming into estrus and during estrus, suppresses magnesium. The Mare with PMS…we have all been there! Hardworking and heavily-muscled horses are often magnesium deficient. Nervousness, tying up or EPSM symptoms, cresty neck and fat deposits, even shortened stride can all be indicators of magnesium deficiency. Look for a supplement containing chelated forms of magnesium (not oxide or epsom salts), and consider supplemental magnesium if the horse shows any of the signs mentioned.

Other factors contributing to poor hoof quality:
• emotional stress and poor teeth which hinder digestion
• unbalanced shoeing (or shoes, period!)
• incorrect trimming which comprises the energy meridians in the feet and affects organ systems
• negative earth energies & proximity to power lines
• lack of proper moisture levels
• inadequate exercise

So, don't just reach for that hoof supplement. Make sure your horses receive a balanced array of usable minerals including macro and trace elements, an overall protein level of not more than 12%, minimal grain, a good probiotic, and great grass hay. Use a hoof supplement only for a short while, and only if really needed to “jump start” the feet. Sixty to 120 days should be all you would need at most, then your balanced diet and regular daily supplements and probiotic program should maintain your horse beautifully.

Judy Sinner, Gold Director with Dynamite Marketing, Inc: dynamitemarketing.com - www.dynamiteonline.com

Judy Sinner ©2007, as published in Issue 8 of The Horse's Hoof Magazine (2002)

©2007 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.


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