My horse has problems with her hooves. They seem to be brittle—they crack and tend to split. She never acts like they cause pain, and she walks and trots just fine. But the way they look concerns me enough that I’ve tried a couple of different hoof dressings. Is there anything more I can do? Is it an inherited trait? Could it be a deficiency in her diet?
Name withheld upon request
The most important point you mention in your letter is that your mare is never lame. This tells us that her hooves are functioning well for the environment that she lives in. Chances are, the cracks you are seeing are primarily a cosmetic issue.
The hoof wall is not a solid structure; it flexes every time it hits the ground. This movement will cause small cracks to develop around the bottom of the hoof, especially as the wall grows longer before the next trim is due. These small cracks are common, and they are not considered abnormal unless they become larger or compromise the function of the hoof.
That said, there are a multitude of reasons why one horse’s hooves might be more prone to crack than another’s. Here are some points to consider:
• Genetics. Certainly some horses grow stronger hooves than others. The durability and thickness of a horse’s hoof walls can be an inherited trait, and very thin hoof walls tend to crack more than thicker ones. Despite the well-known saying, white hooves aren’t necessarily any softer than dark ones, but the cracks may be more easily seen in lighter feet.
• Diet. A horse needs adequate amounts of good-quality protein to support healthy hoof growth. Some horses may benefit from a hoof supplement as well. The nutrient biotin, in particular, is often fed to horses to try to increase hoof growth rate and hoof strength. Ask your veterinarian to review your horse’s diet and recommend any changes that might improve the health of her hooves. Keep in mind that it can take up to a year for new hoof horn to grow in, so it may be some time before you see results from dietary changes.
• Environment. A horse’s living conditions can play a huge role in the quality of his hooves. Lots of ammonia from urine in stalls will damage the wall and may result in poor hooves. Very hard or rocky ground can cause mechanical cracks and chips. Very soft, wet environments do not allow the hoof to wear normally and may predispose the foot to infections.
Finally, research suggests that nothing you can paint on the outside of a hoof will affect the moisture content or flexibility of the wall. If you choose to use a hoof paint, be aware that you are getting only a cosmetic effect.
Bruce A. Connally, DVM, MS
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #378)