They often appear without warning and can be notoriously hard to get right. What are the causes and what’s the best plan of attack?
Cracked hooves are frustrating for horse owners.
While a quick fix would be great, the reality is that you’ll be playing a long waiting game to get it right. And while waiting you’ll be fighting a battle to keep the damage from getting worse while new hoof develops.
The outer wall of a horse’s hoof is akin to our fingernails or toenails. In horses, it grows down from the coronary band.
The hard shell that is the outer wall of a hoof began life as epidermis skin cells. Epidermis cells form the outer layer of skin. They have no blood vessels and get their oxygen and nutritional needs by fluid exchange with the underlying dermis.
In a hoof, the epidermis cells nearest the surface appear to get loaded with proteins that cause them to die. They dry and and harden, forming the protective layer we call the hoof wall.
It has no nerve tissue, meaning – just like our fingernails – we can cut and trim without pain, provided we don’t disturb the underlying living tissue.
When a horse owner faces dealing with a cracked hoof, they will need to consider two important questions: is the condition of the hoof due to the foot growing poor quality hoof, or have environmental factors caused the meltdown?
A healthy horse eating an adequate diet with plenty of grass should be producing strong hoof growth, much as you would expect a healthy person to be growing strong fingernails.
If the health of the animal is less than ideal, it is possible that production of a strong hoof wall could be compromised.
Environmental factors are likely to play at least some part in the development of cracks or fissures. Some suggest wet conditions create the problems; others suggest cracks result from a dry hoof. Another camp firmly believes that allowing hooves to repeatedly get wet and dry is a sure recipe for cracking.
In reality, it’s likely that all factors feed into the problem to some extent. But in all this, there is one thing you can bet on: The cracking will appear in an area of weakness in the hoof wall. There is unlikely to be anything random about its location.
Because the outer part of the hoof is dead tissue, you are never going to “heal” a crack or split. Your strategies will need to centre on stopping the split or splits from getting worse, and ensuring the horse has a good diet, and possibly supplements, to encourage good hoof growth.
It’s essential that any cracking or splitting is arrested. If the problem advances too far up the hoof wall, or the cracks gets too deep, the chances of infection of the delicate underlying layers of living tissue are greatly increased.
Once controlled, it’s then a matter of waiting until the damage grows out – and that is likely to be at rate of between 7mm and 10mm a month.
Unfortunately, there is a degree of conflicting information about the way forward.
The correct treatment will ultimately depend upon the key cause.
There are many hoof products on the market that claim to benefit the hoof by direct application.
What, you might ask, is the point of putting anything on dead tissue?
It’s a valid question.
There are a couple of important factors at play here. The hard shell of the hoof wall obviously has a function in protecting the underlying living tissue. However, it is also flexible – and this flexibility plays an important part in the function of the hoof.
A healthy hoof wall will typically have a moisture content of about 25 per cent. Obviously, this will vary throughout the thickness of the shell, with most of this moisture being on the inner part. Indeed, most of the moisture in the hoof wall will come from the horse and not the environment.
If a hoof wall gets too dry, it only stands to reason that it’s more likely to crack when it flexes under the stresses placed on it by the horse.
Conversely, a hoof that is wet for too long is likely to get too soft, and ultimately develop damage due to a lack of strength.
Therefore, anything that keeps the hoof as close as possible to its ideal moisture range is likely to be good in the long term.
A hoof that splits because of dryness will thus benefit if an applied preparation results in better moisture content in the hoof. On the other hand, a hoof that splits because it has been wet for too long will likely benefit if the preparation is a hoof sealer, and prevents further surface water in the paddock from reaching the hoof.
Using a hoof sealer when conditions are dry can also be of benefit, as it can slow the rate of moisture loss through the hoof wall.
Some hoof preparations are petroleum-based. Some horse-care professional tend to dislike them because they feel that might actually draw moisture out of the hoof.
Bear in mind that these preparations will not be “healing” anything. What you will be doing is improving the general hoof environment, and in doing so reducing the chances of the problem from getting worse.
Don’t overdo it. If the preparations you use soften the hoof for too long by repeated applications, further cracking may develop.
As a rule, a hoof that spends its days attached to an animal that gets regular exercise and eats a normal diet, should be healthy.
If you believe your horse’s diet has played a part in the hoof problems, there are two supplements shown in scientific testing to be beneficial. One has as its main ingredient biotin, a water soluble B-group vitamin that horses normally produce as part of the digestive process. The other popular supplement is zinc methionine.
However, it would seem unusual for a horse eating a healthy diet, including plenty of grass, to be coming up short in biotin production. It cannot be stored within the body, so you would have to feed it as a daily supplement. Apply common sense. If it appears to be making a long-term difference to hoof quality, keep feeding it.
Researchers have clearly shown that the right nutritional supplements will improve hoof condition.
A two-year study involving Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna showed a clear improvement in hoof condition among those given biotin, as opposed to a control group at the school who were not.
It is worth noting two things. First, hoof condition did not begin to noticeably improve for nearly six months, so biotin would certainly seem to be a long-term commitment. Secondly, the horses had generally poor hoof condition, so the study was not intended to measure the effects of biotin supplementation in horses with already-healthy hooves. A similar study delivered pretty much the same result.
Biotin is essential to a number of biological processes, but don’t give your horse more than the recommended dose for hoof improvement, as the animal will simply excrete the surplus in its urine.
There is also evidence that biotin increases the growth rate of the hoof.
The dietary form of zinc methionine has likewise shown hoof improvement. Its benefits have been shown across a number of species and several key bodily functions, among them increasing the strength of egg shells in hens.
There are plenty of supplements on the market worldwide containing these substances, often in combination with other ingredients to create a total “hoof food”.
Dealing with any cracked hoof is not going to be easy. It is important you put in place the right strategies to deal with the problem your particular horse presents.
It’s a problem you want to nip in the bud, so early consultation with your farrier and veterinarian is likely to pay off in the long term.
Assess whether hoof dressings or sealers are likely to help. Will a better diet or the addition of dietary supplements benefit in the long term? Does your horse need drier underfoot conditions? Is a hoof trim desirable to reduce the stress on the crack area? Will shoeing help hoof strength while the problem grows out?
Never underestimate the potential seriousness of the problem. Remember those well-used words of wisdom: “No hoof, no horse”.
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