Targeted hoof supplements rarely work alone. However, if you feed your horse an overall balanced diet, he will have the best nutritional conditions to grow strong, healthy hooves. Learn the basics of optimal nutrition to improve hoof quality and your horse’s general health and wellbeing, with tips from equine nutritionist Carol Layton.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Good health comes from within. That goes for your horse’s hooves as well as for the rest of his body. As such, many hoof issues could be an indicator of an imbalanced diet, and you should always start by looking at your horse’s diet, if you want to optimise the health of your horse or are transitioning him to barefoot, and want to support hoof rehabilitation through his diet.
Horses’ hooves are designed to constantly replace worn away tissue. So the horse needs a constant flow of nutrients to build these new layers of hoof and the quality of the new growth depends on the quality of the nutrients. While good quality hay and fresh grass contain all of the vitamins a horse needs, it generally doesn’t provide optimal levels of minerals. Zinc and copper deficiencies are particularly common in horses.
Zinc and copper are not only vital for your horse’s immune system, but also for the health of his hooves. Zinc deficiencies are associated with slow hoof growth, thin hoof walls and weak hoof horn. Low copper levels have been linked to cracked hooves, leading to issues such as thrush and hoof abscesses.
Vitamin E is needed to build keratin, which is the major structural protein in the horse’s hooves, coat and skin. As such, horses need quality sources of protein and vitamin E to maintain hoof growth and strength. Also fatty acids are important for healthy hoof growth, so balancing the ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in your horse’s diet will also be relevant.
Horse Hooves need a Balanced Diet to Thrive
Although some nutrients are more important for hoof health than others, they all work together. As such, you should be careful about adding extra targeted hoof supplements to your horse’s diet, as this could change the balance of the total intake of nutrients. Instead, it is much more effective to get his entire diet right, which will then be feeding his hooves as well as the rest of his body optimally.
As an example, a common targeted hoof supplement like biotin has shown little scientific evidence of increasing hoof growth if the horse isn’t in fact deficient of biotin to start off with. While biotin does support natural hoof growth, biotin will not necessarily make it grow faster. As such, adding extra biotin to your horse’s diet will most likely only be effective, if your horse actually has a biotin deficiency.
Carol Layton B.Sc M.Ed from Balanced Equine is one of the leading equine nutritionists in Australia. According to her, you shouldn’t consider hoof health as separate from the rest of the horse:
“An overall balanced diet will give the horse the best nutritional conditions for growing healthy hooves. It’s that simple. So, if you are feeding your horse to improve hoof health and hoof growth, you will inevitably be feeding for a sounder horse in general, because it’s all connected,” equine nutritionist Carol Layton said.
In the following, we will look at how you can provide your horse with a balanced diet that supports healthy hoof growth and his overall soundness and wellbeing. We will also look into which minerals you should be careful about over-supplementing and other tips for helping your horse build strong, barefoot hooves.
Why you should get your Horse’s Roughage Tested
The ground stone in equine nutrition is forage - good quality fresh grass and hay, which should always be the bulk in every horse’s diet. Forage does not only contain all of the vitamins a horse needs on a daily basis, but is also the best source of fibre, which is the most essential source of nutrients for a horse.
Apart from the nutrients in forage, grazing on grass or hay is paramount for your horse’s digestive system and his physical and mental well-being. Horses are designed to chew and take in small amounts of feed all throughout the day and should never go without feed for more than four hours at a time. Research shows that horses spend between 10-17 hours a day grazing, broken into 15-20 periods of grazing.
With forage being the bulk of your horse’s diet, it is well worthwhile getting it tested for essential nutrients, if you want to ensure your horse is getting what he needs. Many horse owners, however, are reluctant to test their horse’s hay and pasture, which makes Carol Layton wonder:
“Why wouldn’t you want to know what the biggest and most important part of your horse’s intake contains? The total content of your horse’s diet is bound to be inaccurate, if you rely on calculating the nutrients of a small amount of daily hard feed. You would never rely on only a small portion of a human athlete’s diet, in order to know what to supplement correctly,” Carol Layton said.
Testing your hay will also provide you with its sugar levels, which could be vital knowledge if your horse is insulin resistant or prone to laminitis. You should never let your insulin resistant horse munch away at rich, sugary grasses unrestricted, as this could lead to laminitis. Grasses that are poorer in nutrients are much healthier for horses. However, strip grazing or using a grazing muzzle can help restrict your horse’s intake while still allowing him to move around and graze, if you only have access to rich grass.
Guide to a Balanced Horse Diet
As the table above shows, horses that are not doing much more than being horses, don't need many supplements - if any at all. However, domesticated horses usually have less of a feed variety in their paddocks as compared to in the wild, where horses will forage on a range of vegetation like herbs, berries, nuts and tree bark, as well as finding minerals in the soil as they graze through various landscapes.
We also generally want our horses to do better than merely survive. And performance horses in particular require more nutrients than a horse in the wild. As such, the National Research Council (NRC) has calculated the Nutrient Requirements of Horses adjusted to their weight, workload and stage of life.
Following this research, most horses won’t get the optimal amount of each essential mineral from grass and hay alone and need to be supplemented. Note that many commercial all-in-one vitamin/mineral supplements have levels of minerals that are too low to make a difference or in ratios that are incorrect.
Instead, these products often include a long list of vitamins and other ingredients that your horse doesn’t really need if he’s on a good forage based diet, although most horses would benefit from supplementation of vitamin E. So make sure to read the labels carefully. If you’re in doubt, ask a qualified equine nutritionist for advice.
Horses that have access to fresh, actively growing grass and quality hay should also be well covered for essential amino acids and protein. However, horses on heavy grain based diets are often lacking some of these, because most grains contain very little protein. As such, if your horse needs hard feed on top of his forage, go for legume based feeds, which are high in fibre or quality proteins such as soybean, lupins, beet pulp and faba/tick beans.
You can base your horse’s diet on the following simplified 4 steps:
- Let your horse graze on fresh grass and/or good quality hay as his primary feed.
- If your horse needs extra calories, top up with fibre/legume based hard feed.
- Add salt and other minerals needed to balance the diet of hard feed and grass/hay.
- If your horse is stressed with travelling, competing and hard work, he could need additional vitamins (particularly vitamin E) to what his grass/hay provides him with.
The Risks of Under- or Over-Supplementing your Horse
Equine nutritionist Carol Layton also uses the data from NRC when she customises diets for her equine clients. In particular, Carol emphasises getting the so-called ratios balanced, which refers to how certain minerals should be rationed according to each other.
“Many minerals compete with each other, so the ratio is extremely important to get right. Otherwise some of the most essential minerals might not even be absorbed by the horse, even though you are supplementing them,” Carol Layton said.
Especially the ratio between calcium:phosphorus and zinc:copper are important. Ideally the horse should have slightly more calcium than phosphorus, but if the horse has too much calcium - for instance through a large amount of lucerne hay on top of a concentrated calcium supplement - it will inhibit the absorption of phosphorus. Likewise, too much phosphorus will inhibit your horse’s calcium absorption.
Horses only need relatively small amounts of the trace minerals copper and zinc. However, also here it is important to get the ratio right in order to avoid one mineral inhibiting the uptake of the other. Ideally, the horse should have three times as much zinc as copper. In this case, it is also relevant to keep an eye on how much iron is in your horse’s feed, as excessive amounts of iron could reduce the uptake of zinc.
Many all-in-one vitamin and mineral supplements include added iron, which you should be cautious about. Horses rarely need iron supplemented except for those diagnosed with chronic blood loss. Excess iron has been linked to liver disease, joint pain, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, and even hoof issues such as abscesses and laminitis.
Hoof showing healthy new growth after the diet was balanced with sufficient zinc and copper. Photo courtesy of Hoof Care Professional Maja Stocker and Carol Layton/Balanced Equine.
The three keys to healthy barefoot hooves
As we’ve discovered, improving hoof health begins with getting your horse’s diet balanced. However, diet is only the first step to helping your horse grow strong and healthy hooves, because even the best of diets can’t make up for poor trimming or lack of movement to condition and stimulate your horse’s hooves:
“You can put your horse on the most perfectly balanced diet, but his hooves are unlikely to be the best they can be, if they aren’t conditioned through exercise or trimmed correctly to encourage correct movement,” Carol Layton said.
As such, once you have your horse’s diet on the right track, you will also need to get a hold of a qualified barefoot trimmer. Ideally, your trimmer would also be able to help with correctly fitted hoof boots, if your horse is transitioning from shod to barefoot, or is rehabilitating from laminitis or other hoof issues.
And then it’s time to get your horse moving! Depending on the state your horse’s feet are in, he should be encouraged to move as much as possible. Walking on various surfaces is paramount to hardening up your horse’s hooves naturally and stimulating his frogs. Apart from riding or walking your horse in-hand, he would also benefit from a paddock setup that imitates life in the wild like the "paddock paradise".
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has two: Pannigan, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and Audrey, a Shetland pony, who are both bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.