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Should I Feed a Hoof Supplement?
Before we answer that question, we must ask a few others.
  1. Why would you want to feed a hoof supplement in the first place?
  2. What do you expect it to do?
  3. What is the science behind supplementing?

If your horse has good solid feet, there is no need to waste your money on hoof supplements. What defines “good solid feet”? Feet that hold shoes well. Feet that don’t self destruct when they do lose a shoe. Feet that your farrier doesn’t complain about. Basically – feet you don’t have to worry about.

If your horse has poor quality feet that are shelly, soft, and weak, feeding a hoof supplement may be warranted. But before you make a trip to the feed store, look a little deeper into the problem.

Genes and Diet

The first thing to understand is that no supplement is going to work miracles. If you have a Thoroughbred with small, soft feet, don’t have images of your horse running barefoot over the rocks of the great Southwest. Some improvement may be possible, and it may be remarkable. Sometimes, on the other hand, very little will help. If your horse has bad genes, supplements aren’t going to do much good. Diet is one of the basic building blocks for good feet. If your horse’s diet is on the questionable side, feeding a hoof supplement won’t help much. A few grams of vitamins won’t make up for poor groceries, and good feet are made with good groceries.

Ok, so what’s a good diet? First and foremost is the quality of hay and pasture your horse eats. This should be the foundation of your horse’s diet. The less of one, the more of the other he will need. Good hay should smell sweet and fresh when you crack open a new bale. It should be green (although straw colored on the outside is ok if it has been exposed to sun, but not moisture). It should be of a soft and fine consistency rather than coarse and stemmy. There should be little if any dust. If you have questions about the quality of your hay, consult your vet, farrier or other knowledgeable person.

A word about alfalfa: alfalfa in large quantities does not do your horse’s feet any favors for two reasons. The mineral balance of alfalfa is not very favorable to horses, and alfalfa creates a great deal of ammonia in the urine. Ammonia destroys horse’s feet. If your horse is stalled, so that he has no choice but to stand in the wet he produces, then a grass hay is a much better bet for maintaining foot health.

Next on the grocery list is in the feed bag. If your horse is eating the equine equivalent of tube steaks and french fries, you have a problem. There is a rule of thumb about feeding horses: the more expensive the feed is per bag, the cheaper it will be to feed. This sounds strange until you understand why. The cost of a bag of feed is directly proportional to the goodies in it. Cheap feed has cheap ingredients. USDA label laws require the feed to meet certain requirements – the nutrition content must match the label. But how the feed mill meets those requirements is up to them. If they can substitute pig feed or chicken feed leftovers (or sometimes even animal by-products) to meet these requirements they will, if the feed is cheap enough. Prices on these commodities change almost daily, and often so does the content of the feed bag. They will use the cheapest ingredient they can get to meet the label requirements. Many of the ingredients in cheap feed are not very digestible to horses. The end result is that you have to feed a lot of the stuff to get any results. That costs money. On the other hand, if you feed top quality feed, the manufacturer has a reputation to uphold and the price reflects that. They pay for good ingredients that your horse can digest easily. Bag to bag the feed is of consistently high quality. If the bag says fresh oats, then you know there are fresh oats in there, not left over oat husks from making oat flour for the bakery down the road. The end result is that you feed far less top quality feed than cheap feed by volume, and you get better results and a healthier horse, quite often for the same or even less money.

Another aspect of feed is the vitamin/mineral pack that is added to the grains. Take calcium for example. One feed may use ground limestone to meet the calcium requirement, while another may use bone meal, or better quality calcium. Horses cannot digest rocks and don’t do real well with bones either. If the calcium and other minerals are chelated, they are very absorbable but cost more. The vitamins and minerals may be in the the feed, but if your horse cannot process them, they go to waste. No volume of poor quality feed can fix that. So before you go out and spend money on a hoof supplement, make sure your horse is getting good groceries.

What Other Variable Should I Look At?

Now, if your horse is eating the equine version of filet mignon and fresh-picked salad, and still has bad feet, you should look to the quality of your farrier’s work before starting a supplement. Along with diet, good farriery is the building block for good feet. Poor farriery can cause bad feet. Horse's feet are designed by nature to deal with stress and load in certain ways. If your horse's sneakers are preventing his feet from doing what Ma Nature designed them to do, they may fall apart. Long toes and low heels will contribute to this problem. So will lack of heel support. If the shoe does not reflect the shape of the hoof, but instead, the hoof reflects the shape of the shoe, this can also cause hoof problems. Flares that get out of control can redirect stresses to the wrong places, causing cracks and splitting. Too small or too narrow a shoe can lead to bruising and other problems.

Well, He Eats Better Than I Do and My Farrier is Great....

If you are sure your horse is getting good farrier care and food, and he still has bad feet, then it's time to look into feed supplements. There are biotin supplements, vitamin supplements and combinations of both.

Biotin has been proven to improve the quality and quantity of hoof growth. It's the sulfur that does it. Biotin is a very good source of bioavailable sulfur. But biotin needs some help. Horses need extra zinc, copper, manganese, methionine, lysine and cystine to process biotin properly. If you feed a supplement that has only biotin in it you will get iffy results. So look at the label.

How much do you feed? Follow the directions on the label. Most hoof supplements have at least 15 mg of biotin per dose. More is better if the other ingredients are there to back it up.

A general vitamin supplement sometimes does the trick. Even if your horse is on the best feed, perhaps he's an easy keeper and doesn’t get that much. No feed, no vitamins. You may need to supplement with a top quality balanced product. Ask your vet for recommendations. Supplements cost too much to try the “Jane used it and Flipper looks great” method of research. Talk to someone who knows.

Another avenue to explore is MSM. Methylsulfonylmethane, as your pharmacist would call it, is the primary metabolite of DMSO, dymethyl sulfoxide. DMSO turns into MSM when it gets inside your horse. The sulfur in MSM is very available to him. MSM, along with a good vitamin supplement, or enough of a high quality feed can help grow good feet too.

Most bad feet can be improved to some degree. The bottom line is that you have to use something consistently and for a long time. It takes about three shoeings for any of these suggestions to start to produce results. Be patient. It’s best stick to one plan for at least six months to be sure of the results. If they are good, keep it up. If not, try something else. Keep your farrier and vet informed of what you are doing and ask them to keep an eye on things from their perspectives. Team work is the best way to solve any problem.

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