The hoof wall is made of connective tissue—similar to skin, except much harder, like human fingernails. And also like fingernails and skin, hoof horn must contain a certain amount of moisture to remain resilient and pliable, says Goodness. Too much moisture and the horn becomes soft and wears away quickly or won’t hold nails. Too little moisture and hooves become brittle, chipping and cracking.
You can’t add moisture to a hoof because moisture comes from a healthy blood supply within, says Goodness, but you can apply a good hoof coating to help retain moisture that’s already there. The hoof’s natural protective coating, the waxy periople protecting the outer surface, can become damaged not only by wet/dry cycles but also by urine and manure (acid in manure eats away the coating, and ammonia from urine-saturated bedding breaks down horn tissue). A hoof dressing can serve as a temporary covering to protect the horn and minimize moisture loss, says Goodness.
A hoof sealant can help if continual moisture changes have caused tiny surface cracks in your horse’s feet. Hoof sealants keep external moisture from damaging the hoof, keep internal moisture from evaporating, and counter the effects of the aforementioned environmental changes.
Follow label directions for proper application and frequency of use, as products contain a variety of ingredients that affect the tissues in different ways, and some stay on the hoof longer than others.
If your horse is ever at risk of bruising, you can apply “toughening” products to the sole, frog, and heel bulbs to help harden these tissues and prevent bruising and soreness, says Goodness. Some products even form a living pad over the bottom of the foot.
Feeding for Good Feet
“Optimal hoof health depends on a balanced diet and a steady stream of nutrients,” says Goodness. “Although it’s fairly easy to provide adequate levels of nutrients, overfeeding any one of those can have a damaging effect—and not just on the feet but on the horse in general.”
For most horses, green pasture is the ideal meal, containing protein, vitamins, and minerals, generally in proper balance (unless soils are extremely deficient in copper, selenium, iodine, or other trace minerals—which you can check using a soil test).
While we try to mimic nature as much as we can, not all horse owners have the ability to keep a horse at pasture full-time (and some horses have metabolic conditions that preclude this). So when supplementing with harvested feeds, such as hay and grain, make sure they supply a balance of the appropriate nutrients. “This will vary from region to region,” says Goodness, adding that harvest conditions and timing of cutting (maturity) can also significantly affect hay’s quality and nutritional content.
“If you think the horse’s feet may be suffering from improper nutrition, it’s often worth consulting with a professional,” Goodness says. And before you reach for one of the many hoof-oriented supplements out there, talk to an equine nutritionist about its nutrient content and whether your horse really needs it. Because there is such a thing as “overdoing” certain nutrients.
Also monitor your horse’s body condition, particularly if he’s an easy keeper. “As Americans we tend to overfeed our animals. If a horse is overweight, this puts extra stress on joints, feet, etc.” says Burns.