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Equine Science Matters™: Nutrition for hoof health

Equine Science Matters™: Nutrition for hoof health

Multiple factors influence the health and quality of our horse’s hooves, and as the old phrase goes “no hoof, no horse”. A survey conducted by Thirkell & Hyland (2017) shows that hoof issues are extremely common, with 89% of UK horses experiencing hoof problems in the last 5 years, therefore it is important to focus on hoof health. The external environment of the hoof influences its structures, with excessively dry conditions being associated with brittle hooves that are prone to chipping and cracking, whilst excessively wet conditions are associated with soft soles. A wet environment does not appear to influence the moisture level of the hoof wall but is thought to increase the incidence of white line disease due to the effects on the sole (Hampson et al., 2012; O’Grady & Burns, 2021). Providing access to a dry area where your horse can spend some of its time is helpful in supporting hoof health, alongside regular cleaning and routine trimming by a qualified professional.

farrier and hoof

Image: Farrier trimming horses hoof

Hoof quality and growth is influenced internally by the horse’s genetics and the nutrients it consumes. Genetics are difficult to influence, although some issues such as hoof wall separation disease (HWSD) that affects Connemara ponies, can be reduced by testing for the genetic mutation and not breeding affected animals (Logie, 2017). We know that  some  horses  seem  to  naturally  have  strong  healthy  hooves whilst others struggle with poor hoof quality, with some  breeds  seeming  predisposed  to  inferior  hoof  horn  quality (Josseck et al., 1995). Aside from genetics, the key to growing strong healthy hooves is feeding a balanced diet that  provides  all  the  components  required  by  the  body  to  make the hoof structures. However, for horses and ponies that  struggle  with  weak  hoof  horn  or  that  have  slow  hoof  growth, providing certain nutrients at higher levels can help the body to produce strong hoof structures. The beneficial effect of feeding such nutrients on hoof quality may not be seen for several months, not because they have no effect, but because mature horses’ hooves grow relatively slowly at   a   rate   of   8-12mm  per  month,  meaning  it  can  take  9  to  12  months   for  changes  in  hoof  quality  to  be  seen  (Frape, 2010).


A  balanced  diet  means  your  horse  consumes  all  the  nutrients its body requires to maintain health and perform any  physiological  functions  required,  such  as  repair  of  tissues, growth, exercise, or reproduction. 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  (NRC,  2007).  Nutrients  are  classified  into six  main  categories:  water,  fats,  carbohydrates,  protein,  vitamins,  and  minerals.  To  survive  the  horse  needs  to  consume specific nutrients from each of these categories, plus  energy,  although  energy  is  not  classed  as  a  nutrient  as  it  is  gained  from  the  processing  of  carbohydrates,  fats  and proteins (McDonald et al., 2011). Vitamins are organic substances  which  can  be  found  in  the  horse’s  forage  and  concentrates,  and  minerals  are  inorganic  elements  that  come from water and soil that are then absorbed by plants and  consumed  by  the  horse.  Minerals  can  be  categorised  into  macro  minerals  and  micro  minerals  (also  known  as  trace elements), based on the amount they are required in the diet (McDonald et al., 2011).

It is the balance and the combination of these nutrients that will improve hoof health and growth, as some nutrients in  excess  can  be  detrimental  to  hoof  development.  Table  1  shows  the  nutrient  requirements  for  a  500kg  horse  at maintenance  consuming  10kg  of  food  per  day  (as  dry  matter), equivalent to 2% of its body weight. The stated requirements  are  the  minimum  values  for  a  balanced  diet  to keep the average horse healthy, with nutrients that play a key role in the health and growth of the hoof shown in bold. We will take a look at these nutrients in more detail.

Table 1. Nutrient requirements for a 500kg horse at maintenance fed at 2% body weight

Hoof graph

Calculations based on NRC (2007) recommendations


All horses are recommended to be fed 2% of their body weight daily on a dry matter (DM) basis, with at least 1.5% of  their  body  weight  being  fed  as  forage,  although  higher  forage  intakes  are  ideal  for  general  and  digestive  health.  Feeding  less  forage  than  this  is  likely  to  cause  problems  such  as  gastric  ulcers  and  colic,  and  could  be  detrimental by way of lack of correct nutrients for hoof health. If horses are  in  negative  energy  balance,  either  purposefully  due  to being on a diet, or due to an inappropriate food intake, they will first utilise their body fat stores with the potential of  then  using  their  protein  stores  to  provide  energy,  thus  reducing the availability of protein to support hoof health, which can have detrimental effects on hoof health as we will later discuss. A study by Butler & Hintz (1977) showed a  50%  greater  growth  in  the  hoof  wall  with  ponies  fed  a  positive  energy  balance  compared  to  those  on  restricted  diets. Such findings indicating that equids on a restricted diet may benefit from feeding additional nutrients. 

A study using 48 horses by Ley et al.  (1998)  over  a 12-month  period  showed  that  seasonal  movements  and  nutritional  regimes  significantly  affected  the  strength  of the  horses’  hoof  wall  as  well  as  its  mineral  composition.  Horses  fed  a  more  balanced  diet,  according  to  the  NRC  recommendations  at  the  time,  had  greater  hoof  tensile  strength,  showing  that  a  forage-only  diet  is  unlikely  to  provide the horse with sufficient nutrients for a balanced diet,  and  that  horse  owners  should  consider  ways  to  feed  nutrients  that  will  optimise  hoof  growth  rate  and  quality  horn production.

In a study by Jancikova et al. (2012) horses supplemented with vitamins, minerals and amino acids had 22.3% higher hoof  horn  growth  with  sufficient  quality,  than  a  control group  of  horses  not  being  fed  the  supplement.  These  findings  support  an  earlier  study  Butler  &  Hintz  (1977) which  reported  a  50%  increase  in  hoof  horn  growth  rate  when ponies were fed an ad libitum pelleted feed compared to  those  with  a  restricted  ration.  Although this type of feeding may not be appropriate for all horses and ponies, it does lead us to believe that those on a restricted diet would benefit from supplementation of certain nutrients.

oiling the horse's hooves

Image: Oiling the horse's hooves


The hoof comprises mainly of keratin, a protein made of amino  acids  which  contributes  to  the  durable  structure  of  the hoof wall (Frandson & Spurgeon, 1992). As the horse is not able to produce all the amino acids it requires, some amino acids must be supplied in the diet, these are referred to  as  essential  amino  acids.  Amino  acids  are  the  building  blocks of protein, with Lysine being the first limiting amino acid, meaning  it is the amino acid that is likely to first become  deficient  in  the  horse’s  diet  (McDonald et  al., 2011). When Lysine is deficient, the synthesis of proteins within  the  body  is  limited,  even  if  all  other  amino  acids  are  present  in  adequate  amounts.  As  such,  it  is  essential  to  provide  adequate  Lysine  in  the  diet,  with  some  good  sources  being  Soya  bean  meal,  Spirulina  and  Fenugreek  seeds.  Providing  Lysine  alongside  amino  acids  Threonine and Methionine within the diet will aid keratin synthesis and optimise hoof quality.

Methionine is frequently recommended and can be found in many feeds (alfalfa, sugar beet pulp, rice bran) and supplements.  Methionine is important because the horse converts it to Cystine, an amino acid which provides keratin with its structure and durability, however Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) must also be present in the diet to allow this to happen (Kellon, 1998).  Methionine and Cystine are Sulphur-containing amino acids, a macro mineral also required for keratin growth (Jancikova et al., 2012). Care must  be  taken  not  to  over  supplement  the  horse’s  diet  with  Methionine  as  it  is  possible  that  this  may  reduce  the  absorption of Copper, Zinc and Iron (Anon, 1998), leading to white line disease and degeneration of the hoof wall.

A diet that is protein deficient can lead to a slower rate of  hoof  growth  as  well  as  cracking  and  splitting  (Lewis,  1995; NRC, 2007). It is unlikely that a UK forage only diet, especially if limited or no grazing is offered, will provide sufficient levels of Lysine and Methionine, which is where a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement/balancer, or  a  specifically  designed  hoof  supplement  containing amino acids can help to meet the horse’s requirements. Such products are often low in calories making them suitable for those prone to gaining weight. 



Omega fatty acids are long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms that form polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that give  structure  to  the  cell  walls  in  the  body’s  tissues  and  aid the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K (NRC, 2007). Fatty acids are components of the cement that binds the individual cells of the hoof and also form a permeable barrier that controls hoof moisture level, making them important for hoof quality. As horses cannot produce their own PUFAs, they must be provided within their diet, making them essential nutrients. Fatty acids have numerous benefits to the horse with omega-3 fatty acids having an anti-inflammatory response, whilst omega-6 fatty acids are proinflammatory, making it more ideal to choose a feed or oil with a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Marine derived omega-3 sources, commonly from fish and algae, contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), whilst those obtained from plants, such as linseed, contain alpha-linolenic acids (ALA). Alpha-linolenic acids are the longest of the PUFAs and can be broken down by the  horse  to  EPAs  and  DHAs,  however  the  horse  is  not  particularly efficient at undertaking this process, making it more beneficial to provide a marine based omega-3 source (Warren,  2015).  Traditionally  cod  liver  oil  was  used  to provide such nutrients however producing fish oil is highly unsustainable and brings about a controversial matter, with horses being naturally vegan some owners may be hesitant to feed a fish-based product, whereas algae is an excellent vegan alternative.


Biotin (also known as Vitamin B7 and Vitamin H) is the  most  widely  researched  vitamin  with  regards  to  hoof  health,  yet  it  also  supports  growth  of  the  coat,  mane  and  tail  due  to  its  role  in  the  formation  of  keratin.  Whilst  B  vitamins, including Biotin, are by-products produced from fibre  fermentation  within  the  horse’s  hindgut,  it  may  be beneficial to provide additional Biotin in the diet. In one of the first studies regarding Biotin, Buffa et al.  (1992) using 24 horses, found that supplementing 15mg of Biotin compared to 7.5mg showed better hoof growth rates and hardness. Further studies showed that supplementing 1mg of  Biotin  per  day  to  a  500kg  horse  is  adequate  to  support  general health (Geyer, 2005), however a study by Josseck et al. (1995) showed that feeding 20mg per day to a 500kg horse  had a more positive effect on hoof health and growth.  Reilly et al.  (1998)  found  a  15%  increase  in  hoof  horn growth  rate  after  5  months,  after  supplementing  ponies  at a higher rate of 0.12mg/kg body weight, equivalent to 60mg for a 500kg horse. It is advised that horses who are prone to weak, brittle or cracked hooves, receive long term supplementation  of  Biotin  to  maintain  the  growth  rate  of  the horn (Geyer and Schulze, 1994) as when supplementary dietary  Biotin  is  reduced  or  removed,  the  hoof  may  once  again  deteriorate.  When looking for an additional feed or supplement for hoof health it is advisable to select one with 20mg per day or above for a 500kg horse.

It is important to meet the requirements of all vitamins, not  just  Biotin,  to  maintain  the  general  health  of  the  horse,  and  is  one  reason  it  is  necessary  to  provide  feeds  and  supplements  that  provide  balanced  nutrients.  Many  vitamins are sensitive to ultraviolet light, therefore forage will  lose  a  large  proportion  of  its  vitamin  content  during  the  harvesting  process  and  these  levels  will  continue  to  deplete over time in storage. Many nutrients within hay are also lost through the soaking process, so if this is a practice you  use  for  your  horse’s  forage,  evidence  suggests  that  a  vitamin and mineral supplement will support deficiencies and provide known amounts.


Zinc and Copper

Zinc is a trace mineral that is responsible for numerous roles within the equine body such as growth rates and cell division (Kellon, 1998). Zinc is involved in the uptake of amino acids and Sulphur, and thus the synthesis of keratin. For Zinc to be absorbed it must be provided in the correct ratio to Copper, another trace mineral, at 4 parts Zinc to 1 part Copper (4:1). Zinc can be found in high concentrations within the hoof tissue and so a deficiency can be easy to detect.  Slow hoof growth, thin walls  and  weak  horn  can  all indicate a Zinc deficiency (Kellon, 2019). Copper aids the formation of bone and connective tissues including the cross-links within keratin that give the hoof its strength and density, with deficiencies causing abnormalities in the bone, connective  tissues  and  potentially reducing hoof growth (Kellon, 1998).  Increased cases of laminitis, thrush and abscesses could also indicate Zinc and Copper deficiencies (Kellon, 2019). Some farriers have now even started to use Copper nails when shoeing horses due to Coppers potential antibacterial effect, although this depends on the type of shoe used.  A study by Jancikova et al. (2012) using 16 Warmblood  horses  showed  that  providing  supplemental  Copper and Zinc increased  the  content  of  these  trace elements found within the dry matter of the hoof horn.

A study by Higami (1999) found that horses were more likely to experience white line disease when consuming a low Copper and Zinc diet compared to those supplemented with raised levels of these trace minerals. UK soils are often low in Copper and Zinc which generally means that the forage grown in these soils are also low in these nutrients. Horses grazing such areas or consuming forage harvested from such land  may be more susceptible to associated  deficiencies, meaning an additional supply of such nutrients are required through the feed or supplementation.

Calcium and Phosphorus

Calcium is a macro mineral and is required in all horses’ diets to support the development of many structures within their body, such as bones, teeth and muscles, as well as for normal hoof growth.  Within the actual hoof structure, Calcium is only present in very small quantities, yet it is vital to help make cross-links of Sulphur between proteins in the hoof horn (Geyer, 2005), in turn creating a stronger and healthier hoof.  A study by Ley et al. (1998) showed that seasonal changes affected the Calcium content of hooves in 48 Thoroughbred horses, with horses showing a significantly higher Calcium content within their hooves during spring, summer and autumn compared to the winter, likely due to higher Calcium content within forage and grass.

We can see from table 1 that Calcium is a large proportion of the minerals required for a balanced diet which can vary significantly depending on the individual horse’s needs.  Taking these variations into account will ensure that there is no deficiency. Young horses, breeding horses and those in hard work will require increased levels of Calcium and a deficiency may cause a loss of tubular structure within the inner walls of the hoof structure (Frape, 2010).  It  must  not  be  forgotten that Calcium should  be balanced with Phosphorus in the ratio at 2 parts Calcium to 1 part Phosphorus (2:1). If the Phosphorus intake is higher than that of Calcium, then Calcium absorption  may be hindered leading to chronic Calcium deficiency, even if the actual level of  Calcium in the diet meets requirements  (NRC, 2007).

blemish in the hoof wall

Image: Blemish in the hoof wall


Selenium has become popular within equine supplements as it is an antioxidant that prevents the oxidation of fats and aids correct muscle development in the horse (NRC, 2007). We are all aware that providing a balanced diet is important, but it is just as important not to over supplement. As shown in  table  1,  the  recommended  maintenance  daily  feeding  rate for the average 500kg horse is 1mg of Selenium. Horse owners must be careful not to over supplement their horse’s diets  with  Selenium as high  levels  are  extremely  toxic  and Selenium toxicity can have detrimental effects on the hooves, leading to sloughing, cracking, and in severe cases shedding  of  the  hoof  wall  (Frape,  2010).  Geyer  (2005) found  that  excess  Selenium caused the decay of the hoof horn close to the coronet band. The levels of Selenium in soils can vary greatly, causing a range of concentrations in grazing and forages, making a further case for the benefits of testing your soil and forage for Selenium levels


Typically known for its joint supporting qualities, Methyl sulphonyl  methane  (MSM)  is  also  high  in  biologically available Sulphur, which is important for keratin formation. Therefore,  supplementation  with  MSM  can  help  improve  hoof quality (Frape, 2010).


We have explored the nutritional needs for hoof health from general diet to more key nutrients, showing that with regards to correcting abnormalities or weaknesses, nothing is a quick fix. The addition of nutritional supplements presents many benefits which are seen through continued use over an extended period of time and which allow the renewal and growth of the whole hoof. It is clear that the provision of additional Biotin, amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as various minerals aid healthy hoof growth.

Hardy Hoof™ is ideal for horses with cracked, brittle or weak hooves. It contains an advanced blend of vital amino acids allowing keratin synthesis, necessary for the tough structure of the hoof wall. Hardy Hoof™ comprises chelated Copper, Zinc and Manganese optimising mineral absorption. Copper and Zinc stimulate cell growth and keratin production whilst Manganese supports the internal structures of the hoof. Calcium and high levels of Biotin ensure optimal hoof health, alongside high-oil Linseed which retains moisture whilst maintaining low starch and sugar levels. Iodine aids thyroid function, necessary for hoof quality and Lecithin maintains optimum moisture level and pliability of hooves. Find out more here >>

Hardy hoof tub



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