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My horse has a balanced diet but his hooves are still crap!

Some horses may have a greater nutritional demand due to factors such as genetics or the environment they are kept or work in.

Hooves in the air

Multiple factors influence the quality and health of our horse’s hooves and hoof issues are extremely common. Focusing on hoof health is extremely important and some horses may have a greater nutritional demand due to factors such as genetics or the environment they are kept or work in.

Although a balanced diet will generally provide all of the nutrients a horse needs in a quantity that supports the hoof and sole quality and integrity, this is not always the case. It is critical to apply an approach that analyses each horse or pony’s individual needs to provide them with the best opportunity to have the healthiest hooves possible.

The environment the horse is kept in will affect the structure of the hoof. Dry conditions are associated with brittle, cracking and chipping hooves while excessively wet conditions are detrimental to the soles and increase the risk of white line disease (Hampson, B.A., Laat, M.A., Mills, P.C., & Pollitt, C.C., 2012; O’Grady & Burns, 2021). A constantly wet environment can also weaken the connective bonds in the keratin causing it to lose its protective qualities and strength. Creating a pebble yard or higher area within your paddock where you horse can be put for periods of time to dry out their feet can be a solution to wet and muddy environments. Routine trimming and regular cleaning will also be helpful in supporting hoof health.

The internal health of the horse’s hooves is affected by nutrition and genetics.

Some horses seem to have naturally strong and healthy hooves while others struggle. There are several breeds that have thinner hoof walls and soles and poor-quality horn in general (Josseck, H., Zenker, W., & Geyer, H., 1995). For example, hot-blooded horses, like Thoroughbreds, have thinner skin, hoof wall and soles to help dissipate heat and lighten their body mass to run more efficiently, while others breeds are seemingly predisposed to poor horn strength.

Horse rolling in grass

The key to growing strong, healthy hooves is a balanced diet.

The National Resource Council's Nutrient Requirements of Horses (NCR 2007) states “A balanced diet ensures all required nutrients are consumed in appropriate quantities to meet demand but not impair the absorption or function of other nutrients, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies”. However, ascertaining the nutrient level of pasture and hay can be frustrating. Many areas of pasture and crops have been affected by both drought and the recent flooding in Australia. Nutrients in the soil have been removed and the hay and pasture do not contain the nutrient level of a normal season. Many horse owners buy hay and grain in smaller quantities than is feasible to analyse regularly and are often unable to ascertain which area feed comes from when purchasing on a weekly/fortnightly basis.

So… what if you think the diet is already balanced and your horse or pony still struggles with weak hoof horn and has slow hoof growth?

The answer can be to provide certain nutrients at higher levels to help to produce that strong hoof structure. The benefits of feeding these nutrients will take several months – not because they do not work but because the rate of growth in a horse’s hoof is approximately 8-12mm per month and changes in hoof quality may take 9 months or more to be seen (Frape, 2010).

The nutrients required are:
Biotin is a B vitamin and although the biotin requirement for normal horses is 1-2 mg per day, studies have shown that supplementing the horse with 15- 25 mg of biotin per day significantly improves the hoof wall tissue Josseck et al. (1995).

Biotin plays an important role in cell-to-cell adhesion, therefore strengthening the hoof wall when supplied in adequate quantities. It is advised that horses who have weak hoof structures are fed a long-term supplementation of Biotin as the hoof may deteriorate if the Biotin is removed or reduced (Geyer and Schulze, 1994)


However, as biotin needs several other nutrients to carry out its role, specifically zinc and methionine, supplementation needs to be balanced and in conjunction with these other nutrients.

Zinc and Copper must be supplied in the correct ratio to each other and to iron. The National Resource Council's Nutrient Requirements of Horses (NCR 2007) recommends that Zinc and Copper be fed in a 4:1 ratio (4 parts Zinc to 1 part Copper) for mature horses to ensure proper absorption of both minerals.

Zinc is essential for the immune system as well as bone, cartilage and hoof formation and the integrity of skin. Zinc is a component of enzymes necessary for the synthesis of keratins that contributes to hoof strength and function (Kellon, E.M., 1998, 2019).

Copper influences the strength and rigidity of the outer hoof wall and is an important component of antioxidant enzymes that protect cell membranes. Copper nails are now being used by some farriers due to the potential antibacterial effect of copper. An increased incidence of thrush and abscesses can also show a possible Zinc and Copper deficiency (Kellon, E.M., 2019) while horses supplemented with a higher level of zinc and copper experienced less likelihood of white line disease (Higami, A., 1999).

Zinc and copper are involved in many processes and if either, or both, of these trace minerals are deficient then slow hoof growth or poor-quality hoof horn will eventuate.

Methionine is the most important of sulphur based amino acids and is absolutely essential to give strength to hoof horn, hair, skin, tendons and ligaments.

Methionine needs to be fed (the horse cannot produce it) and as plant material is declining as a source of this amino acid, a deficiency of Methionine is often pinpointed as the cause for crumbly, cracking and poor growing hoof walls (Kellon, E.M., 2019).

If your horse has outward signs consistent with a deficiency it is recommended to supplement with 2500 to 6000mg of methionine per day.

In summary, many of us believe we are feeding a balanced diet but recent weather events have compromised some of the nutrient levels in pasture and hay. Adding to this, there are weaknesses and abnormalities in the hoof health due to environment, genetics and other factors. It is clear that some horses have higher nutritional demands and require an additional supply of certain nutrients through supplementation to improve and maintain healthy hooves.

Frape, D. (2010). "Equine Nutrition and Feeding", 4th Ed. Wiley- Blackwell, UK.

Geyer, H., & Schulze, J. (1994). "The long-term influence of biotin supplementation on hoof horn quality in horses". Schweizer Archiv fur Tierheilkunde, 136(4): 137-149.

Hampson, B.A., Laat, M.A., Mills, P.C., & Pollitt, C.C. (2012). "Effect of environmental conditions on degree of hoof wall hydration in horses". American Journal of Veterinary Research, 2: 435-438. doi:10.2460/ajvr.73.3.435

Higami, A. (1999). "Occurrence of white line disease in performance horses fed low zinc and low copper diets". Journal of Equine Science. 10: 1-5. doi.org/10.1294/jes.10.1

Josseck, H., Zenker, W., & Geyer, H. (1995). "Hoof horn abnormalities in Lipizzaner horses and the effect of dietary biotin on macroscopic aspects of hoof horn quality". Equine Veterinary Journal, 27(3): 82-175. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.1995.tb03060.x

Kellon, E.M. (1998). "Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals: A Guide to Peak Health and Performance Through Nutrition". United States of America, Breakthrough Publications.

Kellon, E.M. (2019). "Feeding for Horse Hoof Health by Dr Kellon". Published on the Internet; https://forageplustalk.co.uk/feeding-horse-hoof-health-dr-kellon/. [Accessed 30 March 2021]

Kellon, E.M. (2020). "Methionine Supplementation may be Critical by Dr Kellon". Published on the Internet; https://drkhorsesense.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/methionine-supplementation-may-be-crucial/
NRC (2007). Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th Ed. Washington, USA, The National Academies Press