What to do about BRITTLE HOOVES

Photo from Equisearch

Hello from Eastern Connecticut!  We made the move. We're settling in and FINALLY, I have internet service!  Yay!  But so much more to do and cram into the days. Pretty soon I'll be able to breathe again, I hope. 

Our horses were transported from SW Florida up to Massachusetts (not far from our new farm), in May and they are THRIVING!  Fresh, green grass paddocks with sand, rocks and gravel. Those hooves that were like steel and impossible to trim without a grinder are shaping up beautifully!  No more dry, dry, dry ground. They are trimming themselves very nicely! And the one whom I have to tend regularly, well, let's just say it was a whole lot easier to trim that hoof up here in New England than down in SW Florida!  Now, don't get me wrong. I do love hard, tough, rock crunching hooves on my horses but when they get to the point where my brand new GE Nippers won't cut through the walls then let's just say those hooves are not chipping, cracking, breaking, self-trimming. They just keep growing - until the rainy season and then they begin to shape up. Needless to say, TOO much rain and water on hooves is not good either. However ...  

With those environmental and terrain changes one would think that the hoof walls would start to peel and crack and become brittle. 

Nope, nope and nope. 

Why?  How is it that our horses can make a drastic change in environment and NOT have their hooves affected with all of the above?

Well, the one consistent has been all along, ... no processed feed for them!

You see, they are horses. Horses are created to eat forages -- lots and lots of the time. Grasses of different types, weeds, flowers, herbs, leaves, bark, roots, cacti, seaweed and more as their particular environment allows. 

There isn't a single wild horse in the world that has access to daily pounds of processed grains loaded with artificial colors, odors, flavors plus all the additives to keep the grain fresh and palatable.

The majority of our domestics are plied with all sorts of artificial this or that or the other. They get limited forage (hay) that is doled out in X-number of "flakes" or "biscuits" of carefully grown and dried hay with an average of 5 - 10 pounds of "grain" a day. Usually, the number of times the horses are fed is about twice a day. Sometimes a third feeding is added in. Now remember, this is "generally speaking". 

It seems that many have forgotten that horses are created to eat a little bit alot of the time ... a minimum of 18 hours out of every 24 hour period of time. 

There are a few things that happen when horses are allowed to go with nothing in their stomachs for hours. 

One thing is that their bodies produce stomach acid (Hydrochloric Acid) 24 hrs a day regardless as to whether or not there is food in their gut. Only the bottom half of the stomach is protected with a thick membrane covering to guard against this gut acid. When a horse is exercised on an empty stomach the gut acid is splashed up onto the bare stomach causing sores and ulcers. It is said that over 80% of all race horses have ulcers. Well, now we know why (besides being under tremendous stress).  

Emotionally/mentally, a horse that is not grazing or allowed free access to forage goes into a state of stress. Negative stress causes excessive Adrenalin to surge through the body. Adrenalin is commonly known as the fight or flight hormone. Key actions of adrenaline include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupil in the eye, redistributing blood to the muscles and altering the body's metabolism, so as to maximize blood glucose levels (primarily for the brain). Cortisol and Norepinephrine are also released in the body when it is under stress. 

The primary role of norepinephrine, like adrenaline, is to cause a more aware, awake, and focused state of mind. It also helps to shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the skin, and toward more essential areas at the time, like the muscles, so you can flee the stressful scene. This takes away from the hooves. 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone and is produced by the adrenal glands. When stress is continous, the body continuously releases cortisol, and long term chronic elevated levels lead to serious issues such as increased blood pressure, excessive sugar and can even cause skin issues and contribute to obesity.

Now, given a horse that is stressed from not being able to graze and eat as created to do, just imagine what all this does to the hooves. Decreased blood circulation, skin issues (hooves are 'tissues') ... as I've said before, "What goes in, grows out in the hooves."

Now I'm sure the move was stressful for my horses BUT, they are normally NOT stressed by either their way of living or by their food. Therefore their bodies and hooves are more apt to be ready to endure ACUTE stress (vs chronic) and handle it well - which they did. 

Apart from diet, environment plays a big role in the overall health of the hoof as does proper trimming for optimal form and function. 

As much varied terrain as possible over which the horse can travel miles a day would be incredibly beneficial for them. Horses are also animals that move - alot. Up to 20 and 30 miles a day. And it's over varied terrain. This keeps their minds happy (lowers stress) as well as keeps the circulation going through their hooves bringing good oxygen and nutrients for new, healthy horn growth. A horse that is standing much of the day in one wet spot or one dry spot is not going to be afforded that optimal hoof "feeding" as the hooves are constantly loaded with the weight of the horse causing drastic impediment for proper circulation. 

Now, in constant wet conditions, if the horse is going from wet to dry stall with pine shavings, the shavings will draw the moisture out of the hoof in about 10 minutes. So wet to dry to wet to dry to wet to dry can cause major issues with the horn of the hooves. That will cause brittle hooves and can also cause shelly hooves and peeling hooves. (Please note: the FIRST thing I think of when I see shelly or peeling hooves is SUGAR! Too much sugar in the diet ... most likely in the form of processed feed!) 

So, if you've heard that X causes brittle hooves and you need conditioners (see my article on hoof conditioners here: "On Hoof Dressings" that can also cause brittle hooves! ) but diet, terrain, environment, stress and ground condition are not also mentioned you are only getting a small part of the cause for brittle hooves. You need to take a look at the WHOLE horse - from head to hooves and evaluate what might need some change. 

Change those things that you can change about your WHOLE horse and do what you can to improve the other conditions that might be causing your horse's brittle hooves. 

Lastly, but certainly not least - CORRECT TRIMMING of the hooves is imperative to overall hoof health. Many horses can self-trim as they have all the other pieces in place for total healthy hooves but many need assistance from a good hoofcare professional. Whatever the season - be sure you have proper care for your horses' hooves. 

Coming to you from Beautiful Eastern Connecticut, USA ... I wish you blessed and many Happy Trails on Healthy Hooves to come! 



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Gwen Santagate is the author of "10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves" . For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She keeps a small herd of her own equines and continues to offer consults for horses in need.