Growing healthy feet is a little like making a cake. It takes multiple ingredients. Some ingredients are needed in large amounts. For feet, that’s protein. Others ingredients — the trace minerals and key vitamins — are required at lower levels but play indispensable roles as catalysts.
On a larger scale, the condition of the horse’s feet is a sensitive indicator of overall health and adequate nutrition. Pumping the horse full of high doses of a single vitamin or nutrient is not likely to get the job done. You need to identify problem areas and pick a product that will address those needs without causing imbalances in the overall diet. But remember, genetics also plays a role in determining foot quality.
Is It Diet Related’
The first step in sorting things out is to be sure the problem is truly diet-related. Both low-grade laminitis and overly long toes can lead to white-line separations and chipping hoof walls.
Fungal or bacterial infections can also interfere with the effectiveness of a supplement program. Studies have shown that horses with brittle, cracking/peeling feet are at high risk for bacterial invasion along the white line.
Dr. Frank Gravlee of Life Data Labs reports that electron microscope studies of hoof trimmings from horses who did not respond as expected to a nutritional program revealed that the structure of the hoof tissue was normal, but the horses all had extensive fungal or bacterial infections and collections of inflammatory debris that were degrading the hoof. Treatment consists of a program using a topical hoof antiseptic.
Note: Wet pastures and/or urine pooling in stalls will increase the likelihood of this problem. However, age-related changes and/or compromised immune status combined with borderline nutrition will likely be present as well. Appropriate dietary adjustments and/or supplements should be used concurrently.
The Basic Diet
To build a strong foot, the diet must contain high-quality protein, adequate amounts and correct ratios of trace minerals in an absorbable form, and proper vitamin levels. If you are feeding your horse unsupplemented grain and borderline-quality hay, deficiencies are virtually guaranteed. The chart on page 6 lists some common diets and areas of deficiency for a horse at maintenance.
By using a 12% protein, supplemented grain mix, fed at five pounds per day, you can greatly decrease or eliminate most of these common deficiencies, at least to the point of having your basic diet measure up to the National Research Council’s minimums. It is important to realize that grain mixes formulated/supplemented for horses are usually designed to complement grass hays.
When making supplements, manufacturers will look at the most common deficiencies in hay-only or hay-and-grain/supplemented grain diets. This is why you will see the combination of zinc, lysine and methionine (with key B vitamins) showing up so often. While these nutrients are critical to hoof health, they are also the ones most likely in short supply in terms of overall nutrition.
1. Biotin: Biotin is a B vitamin known to be essential for health of skin, hair and hooves. Once biotin was confirmed by equine studies to improve hoof quality, the market became flooded with biotin supplements, with or without other ingredients, and there continues to be a huge array of these hoof supplement products.
Biotin appears to be specifically involved in the production of keratin — the protein in the hard, horny outer layer of the hoof. Studies on both normal and abnormal feet have contradictory results. While biotin is essential in the production of a healthy hoof — and biotin supplementation alone will almost always provide improvement — it is not a cure-all.
Biotin is available in the diet from grains, although we don’t know how well the horse utilizes this source. It is also manufactured by the organisms of the intestinal tract but only in significant amounts in the large intestine, where absorption is highly questionable. In short, it is reasonable to assume that most horses are getting less than optimal amounts of biotin. Minimal requirement for maintenance of healthy feet is about 1 to 2 mg/day, while consistent therapeutic effects in some types of hoof wall problems generally require a dose of 15 to 20 mg/day.
2. Protein: The hoof wall is 90% protein and a sensitive indicator of protein status. The essential amino acid lysine plays a key role in growth and maintenance of all tissues, and horses on grass-hay-based diets are likely to be deficient in lysine. Methionine is a sulfur-containing amino-acid precursor of cystine, the major amino acid involved in the structure and strength of keratin. Unless the diet is properly supplemented to contain adequate amounts of these amino acids, you are not going to get far.
3. Zinc: Zinc is one of the most pervasive mineral deficiencies in all types of equine diets and is essential for both the utilization of amino acids and creation of the sulfur bonds that give the foot its strength.
4. B6: Vitamin B6 appears with increasing frequency in foot supplements for good reason. Proper protein utilization demands adequate levels of this vitamin. Most diets are likely to be borderline at best in vitamin B6.
The Comprehensive Approach
In addition to an effective nutritional approach, fighting poor hoof quality must address all the potential roots of the problem. Thyroid insufficiency, protein deficiency, major and minor mineral imbalances and inadequate vitamin C levels may all play a role. Supplements that take a more comprehensive approach can often be used as the sole supplement.
Choosing A Supplement
When dealing with poor feet, or any other problem suspected of having a nutritional component, the first step must be to take a look at the overall diet. Ideally, you should use analysis of your hay and analysis of grain or information provided by the manufacturer to determine where deficiencies lie. Remember, too, that overfeeding a specific vitamin, mineral or amino acid can be just as bad as a deficiency, as it can result in under absorption of other key nutrients. This is especially important in supplements that are going to be fed for prolonged periods — like hoof supplements, which are generally required/recommended to be used for at least 12 months.
It is rare to see problem feet in a horse receiving a quality, vitamin/mineral-added supplemented grain mix or one that regularly receives a multivitamin/mineral supplement. There is no special secret to supplementing for feet beyond meeting the horse’s needs for essential nutrients.
If your horse is already receiving such a diet, consult a nutritionist before adding a hoof supplement. There may be an overabundance of one or more nutrients or other elements in the diet causing an absorption problem, infection in the hoof horn, external causes or a genetic component, and none of these will respond to a supplement.
There are also times when a diet that appears to be adequate on paper (usually by NRC standards) may actually need boosting in one or more vitamins and minerals. Older horses, growing horses, pregnant/breeding/lactating animals as well as those under constant stress from chronic illnesses, lameness or heavy exercise often have increased nutritional needs that are not well understood.
If hoof-quality problems develop — especially if the horse also shows other possibly nutrition-related problems like skin and coat dryness/infections, allergies, chronic cough, weight loss or tying-up — he needs supplementation regardless of what the numbers say.
If you are not already using a supplement or supplemented grain, look for a product that will meet all your nutritional needs, rather than focusing on one just for feet. A complete vitamin-and-mineral supplement may meet your hoof-related needs and provide additional nutritional “insurance” as well, or you may choose to go w ith a foot supplement that meets those needs and will usually provide extra biotin.
Growing healthy hooves is a complex process that can’t be accomplished by focusing on only one or two vitamins, minerals or amino acids. If external causes (trimming/shoeing, genetic factors, infection, ground conditions) have been ruled out, poor feet are a red flag the diet is inadequate. A comprehensive hoof supplement should be used for best results, unless ration analysis can pinpoint specific needs that make a more limited supplement the obvious choice.
Picking a “best” comprehensive formula hoof supplement is a tough job — there are several good ones. We also have to tell you most horses will respond well to any of the comprehensive formulas.
Our overall choice is Biotin II 22X pellet from United Vet Equine. This product contains effective amounts of biotin, pyridoxine and essential amino acids and a balanced trace-mineral profile compatible with a wide variety of diets. It can be used as a general supplement and also has excellent price and quality control.
Limited-ingredient/biotin-based supplements are most appropriate when a specific deficiency has been targeted by ration analysis and/or when supplemented grains or other vitamin/mineral supplements are already being fed. We don’t recommend feeding biotin only, unless all other involved vitamin, mineral and amino acids are confirmed to be present in the diet in more than adequate amounts. Our choice here is Vita-Key’s Biotin ZM-80, which contains excellent levels of biotin, methionine and zinc, is compatible with a broad range of properly supplemented/fortified rations and with a price and quality control that are unsurpassed.
If the diet checks out to be more than adequate for all key minerals and amino acids, don’t waste your money on other ingredients. Gateway’s Su-Per Biotin is an economical source of pure biotin.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Nu-Hoof Maximizer, 800/648-0950, www.selectthebest.com; Horse Shoe, Finish Line, 800/762-4242; Farrier’s Formula, Life Data Labs, 800/624-1873; Gen-A-Horse, Nickers International Ltd, 800/642-5377, www.nickint.com; Hoof And Coat Conditioner, Hoof Bio Plus, Nu-Solutions, 800/500-3421; Biotin ZN-80, Vita-Key, 800/539-8482, www.vita-key.com; Bio-Zin, Super Bio-Zin, Bio-Zin Geniune Draft, Mobile Milling Service Inc, 800/217-4076; Su-Per Farrier’s Supplement, Su-Per Bitoin, Su-Per Hoof, Su-Per Gelatin, Gateway Products, 800/421-2828; ABC Hoof, Advanced Biological Concepts, 800/584-0303; Biotin 240 With Methionine, Equine Products Inc., 800/821-5363; Winner’s Daily, Pro-Formula, 800/525-3007; Nu-Foot, J. Mitton &Assoc, Inc., 717/354-4822, www.equips.com; HB15, Farnam Companies Inc., 800/234-2269, www.farnam.com; Grand Hoof, Grand Meadows, 800/255-2962, www.grandmeadows.com; Biotin Gold, Sure Nutrition, 800/789-0146, www.sure-nutrition.com; Equi-Marine Plus, Biotin II, Biotin II 22X, United Vet Equine, 800/328-6652, www.unitedvetequine.com; Focus HF, Source Inc, 800/243-6999; Cell Mass, Uckele Health & Nutrition, 800/248-0330, www.uckele.com.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Read Labels Carefully.”
Click here to view “Freshness And Potency.”
Click here to view “Comparison And Evaluation Of Hoof-Supplement Products.”
Click here to view “Understanding Compatible Diets.”
Click here to view “Feet And And The EPM Horse.”
Click here to view “Natural Marine And Mineral-Deposit Supplements.”
Click here to view “Gelatin For Hooves.”