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Growing a Solid Equine Hoof; Nutrition & Balance

As the goes, ‘no hoof, no horse’.  There is another saying that goes along the lines of “a horse has 5 hearts”, which implies that not only do we have the normal heart, pumping blood, but each foot is actually a heart in function, also responsible for pumping blood up and out of the limb and back to the heart. The only way that this can be done is through proper hoof health and balance, which requires a good plane of nutrition and proper farrier work. The horse cannot ambulate on 3 legs, at least for a prolonged period of time, as compared to a dog or even a cat, so even a minor issue involving the foot can resonate throughout the body.  They are dependent on proper hoof health and balance, not only from a lameness point of view, but also overall health.

It has been stated that upwards of 80% of all equine lameness is connected to the foot, in some fashion.  In those cases, the problem may actually be in the foot itself, implying that the pain is in the foot, or the lameness may be elsewhere in the limb but connected or tied into a foot issue such as imbalance or loss of stabiity.  This is common in cases of suspensory injuries, in my experience, in which most are tied back to a medial-lateral imbalance within the hoof capsule, resulting in increased stress or strain, upon foot landing, which then applies more stress to the tendon and ligament structures, not to mention the joints.  In my experience, most recurrent or chronic suspensory injuries are greatly improved not only with the right therapy approach, but also by addressing concurrent hoof imbalance, with many responding in just a couple of weeks or less. This situation is also true for many cases of S/I and even hock problems.

Side view horse hoof
Side view horse hoof

No two horse feet are alike and no two horses are alike, thus we should not be misled into believing that a set angle or trim is appropriate for every horse. More so, we need to watch the horse, look at their conformation, look how travel, how they land and what their environment and job duties are in order to get a better feel for how that horse’s feet need to be addressed.  I am not one to use shoes, although I did for many years as an equine veterinarian. Over time, I began to come to the conclusion that these pieces of metal applied to the hoof capsule were more bandaids, covering up problems which should not be present if the foot was allowed to actually grow properly.  Now, with that being said, shoes are vital in some cases such as hoof capsule injuries or deformations, but in most, I believe we would be better served addressing that foot in a barefoot manner.  The ability to accomplish this is dependent on many factors from owner patience, to nutrition, environment and the farrier’s ability.  No horse is perfect.  No farrier is perfect. No veterinarian is perfect. What we have to do is evaluate that patient, determine what is missing in that foot in regards to balance and growth, then determine what is the best means of accomplishing this feat.  In my eyes, I have nothing but time with our patients as most have battled problems for years.  In other cases, owners are battling time, needing that horse back in the arena, competing.  Even if this is the case, we have to realize that all options will have shortcomings. Time is what we need, but in many cases, that doesn’t mean years.

The equine hoof is living tissue and in need of many of the same nutrients as any other part of the body, including; fatty acids, protein (amino acids), vitamins and minerals. There is no one specific nutrient that can be fed to a horse to improve hoof health and condition, but more so it is a combination, really pointing towards an overall healthy diet. In too many cases, the horses are fed lower quality hay and too much grain, often with the horse being stalled and exposed to urine and feces, then they are top dressed a hoof supplement or vitamin/mineral supplement, hoping that this satisfies their needs. Now, in some cases, this may work, but in a high majority it does not and the horses continues to have ongoing hoof problems and lameness issues. The diet doesn’t need to be complicated but more so complete, ideally focusing on whole food nutrition instead of synthetic substitutes, utilizing good quality hays with higher protein and nutrient content and lower levels of whole grains without additives or preservatives.  This is what has worked for our patients for many years and the program is generally more cost effective in the end. If we are able to resolve the hoof problems through better nutrition and trims, then in theory, we can reduce future lameness costs, which makes this approach very affordable and effective.  Far better to feed and trim that horse correctly, than it is to constantly have the farrier out for resets or veterinary visits.

Nutrition For Proper Hoof Health; Keeping it Simple

Lameness is the number one reason that we work with an equine rehab patient, with the problem being present for an average of 1-2 years. In all of these patients, we completely start from scratch, reworking nutrition, supplementation and even exercise.  Our nutrition program is relatively simple and utilizes high quality hay, usually being orchard/alfalfa mix or pure alfalfa hay along with a whole grain regimen of oats, sunflower seed and alfalfa pellets.  This is not the only regimen, but just one that works for us and has for several years.  The goal here is to provide whole food nutrition, meaning high nutrient load in its natural form, which includes many cofactors found within those food sources that aid in nutrient utilization for that patient.  In most of the cases we are faced with, more often than not, lameness is not the only issue, so nutrition can play a major role in overall healing of many body structures, including the mind.  We strive for high quality in our program, but also keep cost in mind, not striving for organic but more so, just high quality.  The topic of hay quality can get quite complicated, ranging in topics from organic to GMO, to pesticides, herbides and even heavy metal levels.  Those issues are important, don’t get me wrong, but I tend to just to seek reliable sources of high quality hays with or without testing.  I look at, feel, smell and tear open bales to determine how that hay is and whether if it is right for our program.  I rely on my senses and experience, then also watch the horse and determine how they are progressing to give me a good feel as to how that hay quality is overall.  Cost is a factor in our program, so like most others, we have to watch the bottom line. Either way, in most cases, the program that we implement is a fraction of the cost that the owner was utilizing despite lack of results.

Our overall goal, with any regimen is to keep it simple.  We have written about cleaning up the equine diet in another article. I try to provide the nutrients that the horse needs and requires, through whole foods, which includes hay, grains and pasture.  If we cannot, for some reason, provide for that patient through one of those three sources, then we rely on other whole food sources to fill in gaps.  In some cases, the patient’s needs are higher than what we can provide for and they benefit from added nutrients.  The main product we will use in these cases, short or long term, is the Cur-OST EQ Rejuvenate.

Managing Inflammation; A Connection with Poor Hoof Growth

We’ve talked about and written many articles about inflammation, however, there are many misconceptions when it comes to this topic.  First, most think “pain” when it comes to inflammation and this is both correct and incorrect.  When we have pain, we do have inflammation, however, inflammation can be present without pain.  The process of inflammation is complex and beyond the scope of this article, but it does and can influence overall health including hoof health, on many levels.  

From a basic point of view, if a horse is improperly shod or out of balance, landing improperly, they are creating undue or imbalanced stress upon the hoof tissue, which then results in inflammation.  This inflammation then impacts cellular health, including blood circulation which is vital to the tissue for oxygen and nutrient delivery.  We can’t expect a foot that is out of balance for what ever reason, to grow properly and support that horse in his or her action. As a example, we can look at under-run heels or even a laminitic horse.  In the under-run situation, the heel is improperly loaded and hoof wall tubules are actually redirected forward, altering their growth pattern.  As a result, the heels undergo moderate stress and inflammation, resulting in ongoing pain for that patient.  A pair of shoes may improve that situation temporarily, but not for long.  In the case of laminitis, we have direct laminar inflammation and blood flow disturbances, which impair proper hoof growth. Here, we cannot expect a pair of shoes or even trimming alone to settle most cases. The process of inflammation is a major contributor, either primarily or secondarily.  Until that process is controlled, in conjunction with other factors such as trimming and nutrition, the patient will continue to struggle.

From a more complicated point of view, we have to look at inflammation in the gut region.  Food is taken in by mouth and digested in the gastrointestinal tract, where nutrients are then extracted and made available to the body.  Many times, dependent on the case, we actually have underlying GI problems, tied back to inflammation which need to be addressed as this can often be a major reason contributing to poor hoof growth and even recurrent tendon/ligament injuries.  If the gut is not healthy, then nutrient absorption is impaired and tissues begin to fail in health.  We can feed the best diet in the world, but if the gut is not working properly, then those nutrients are not being made available.  This is evident in horses fed a high level of vitamin/mineral and even hoof supplements, but yet continue to have ongoing hoof or tendon/ligament problems. This underlying condition is not necessarily ulcers (foregut/hindgut), but more so related to leaky gut syndrome‘.

How we manage this inflammation is dependent on the situation and the patient.  In many simple cases, in which injury or purely trimming history is a problem, combined with nutrition, then we will utilize the Cur-OST EQ Plus as a starting point, then determine future needs based on how the patient responds.  In cases where we suspect that there is an underlying GI disturbance, including leaky gut and ulcers, we will use the Cur-OST EQ Total Support. Most of these patients are generally seen as easy keepers, heavier in body condition and size.  It seems to be a common pattern in these patients.

Now, with that being said, every patient is unique and presents often times with a multitude of issues.  We have to address these issues, if present, in order to move in a positive direction.  This may mean that we need to add the Cur-OST EQ Immune formula or even the Cur-OST EQ Stomach or EQ Adapt formulas if indicated, even for a short period of time to help us gain control of the situation.

Bottom line here is that inflammation is a factor, a major player, in most cases of lameness and hoof health.  If we do not control this process, in the best and most complete manner, we will be left wanting.  This approach includes nutrition, mental health, proper supplementation and correct hoof trimming/balancing.  All 4 factors need to be addressed to be successful.

Environment and Hoof Health

Most barefoot trimmers, myself included, will look to the wild mustang as a prime example of what can be accomplished with the right approach, however, these wild horses are different than our modern day domesticated breeds.  We can achieve similar results, but should not expect absolute perfection.  In these wild horses, not only are genetics a major player but so is the environment on which they run.  In today’s world, many horses are stalled for prolonged periods of time, then exercised on soft and well maintained surfaces.  The feet never really have a chance to adapt to a tough environment and thus are weak, brittle and subject to injury over time.  We can barefoot trim a horse, apply the best nutrition and supplementation program, but experience tells me that environment is a missing link to most cases.  I have learned this the hard way.

If we step back and look at many equine programs, the horses with the least problems in regards to health or lameness are the ones that are turned out almost continuously if not constantly.  It is a fact and I can attest to it in my equine patients.  The ones that are stalled, kept in dry lots or highly catered to are the ones with the highest veterinary costs.  However, those patients on turnout need time to adapt and results cannot be expected overnight.  Even in some situations with increased turnout, we still contend with poor growth or more so, just lack of ability of that sole to become tough and callused.  One way to aid in this transition process is through the addition of pea gravel to the gate region of the pasture, to feeding areas in the pasture or even around the water trough.  This pea gravel will help toughen the foot, over time, and actually help in establishing wear patterns. It is relatively cheap to, very effective and something we do in our own pastures.  The addition of gravel is especially helpful in more moist environments, where the ground surface tends to stay soft.  In cases where the horses have to be stalled or kept on soft surfaces, I have found that utilization of boots can be beneficial.  This is especially beneficial to help protect the sole from caustic urine and feces when stall bound.

It goes without saying that routine exercise is beneficial on many levels, especially in the metabolic and/or laminitic patient. We have to remember that without proper movement, weight bearing may not be applied equally and therefore circulation may be impaired, further than what it already is in that particular case.  Aside from this, exercise is helpful in maintaining a proper body condition, overall health and even reducing inflammation.

Case Example

Barefoot trimming is something that I have come to learn and admire for the past several years.  I am by far an expert, but like many other things, we continue to learn with each case, through observation of what does and what does not work.  Here again, every horse is unique and what works for one may not work for another.  We have to be able to adapt and apply logic, knowing that the worst case scenario is that maybe we lost a little time and have to let our errors grow out, which usually occurs within a couple of weeks.

Before Trim Horse Hoof
Before Trim Horse Hoof

Here is a case of a 9 y.o eventing TB, plagued with chronic suspensory injuries in his right fore and also moderate behavioral problems due to pain. He has under-run heels and laminar toe separation, in addition to thin soles due to chronic shoe application. Upon presentation, his shoes are removed and he is placed on alfalfa, whole grains and EQ Total Support formula.  He is a heavier TB, more of an easy keeper type, with an introverted, bully type personality. We also added the EQ Immune formula to aid in further tendon support.  Initially, he was quite tender, due to thin soles and chronic shoeing, but he is manageable.  The foot is initially trimmed lightly, rounded and allowed to grow and expand.  He has under-run heels, thin soles, laminar separation in the toe region and is landing toe first at the trot.

After Image Hoof Trim
After Image Hoof Trim

In a matter of 6 weeks, through application of the above mentioned diet, supplementation, routine foot trims, turnout on pasture and pea gravel, in addition to weekly workouts, he has done remarkably well, landing more heel first at the trot.  He is also very sound on hard surfaces and able to maneuver well on larger rocks found in the gravel driveway.  His suspensory injury is a thing of the past, demonstrating no further sensitivity or concerns when it comes to soundness.

Every horse is an individual and with that, no two horses are indentical when it comes to foot care and foot health.  However, all horses are dependent on their feet in order to promote circulation, provide support and help dissipate physiological forces.  We need to pay more attention to the foot in most cases, making the connections between improper foot care and balance, with the current lameness or even health issue we are contending with in that patient.  Whether if we are dealing with S/I issues in a horse, hock issues, poor performance, recurrent abscesses, laminitis or even behavioral problems, the foot is involved whether if it is obvious or not. If we see the problems that are present and correct them to the best of our ability, then the issues at hand will be more readily managed.

I hope this information helps.

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.

www.nouvelleresearch.com

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