Focus on physics and biology of hoof growth reveals new understanding

Visual characteristics of straight and dorsally curved hooves linked to a differential growth across the coronary band. The arrow points to a ‘diverging growth band’ visible with a naked eye. 
Visual characteristics of straight and dorsally curved hooves linked to a differential growth across the coronary band. The arrow points to a ‘diverging growth band’ visible with a naked eye.

Collaborative work between researchers in equine medicine, maths, physics and stem cell biology has resulted in a clearer understanding of how horse hooves grow and how abnormal hoof shapes may develop.

Lead author Dr Cyril Rauch from the University of Nottingham said the study provided an “entirely new paradigm” regarding hard growing tissues such as the horse hoof, which can be applied across cattle, sheep and other species, to unify a set of apparently disparate conditions and clarify the roles of physics and/or biology.

Rauch, an Associate Professor in Physical and Mathematical Veterinary Medicine and Science, said that given the hoof is a weight-bearing element “it is essential to untangle the biology from the physics in this system; only then can meaningful biological and/or physical causes be prescribed for particular hoof shape. Removing the cause(s) when physically or biologically possible is essential to resolve hoof conditions”.

Combining mathematics, physics and biology using hooves from horses euthanased for non-research purposes, the study revealed how it is possible for the hoof growth rate to be greater than the potential proliferation rate of epithelial cells. It also explained how the synthesis of the hoof capsule starts from the coronet and that the soft papillae undergo gradual transition through three interpapillary regions into hard keratinised tissue. Mathematics, physics and cell biology were then used in the study to explain and describe how the dorsal hoof wall can grow in a curved manner rather than the usual straight manner as a result of faster growth from the coronary band at the quarters, compared to the toe region.

Evaluation of the feet from live underweight and obese subjects (assessed using Body Condition Scoring) allowed the influence of body weight on the balances of the stresses affecting hoof growth to be evaluated. The results suggest that being proportionally heavier may promote straighter hoof growth and that being too lean may precipitate poor hoof growth and the development of a hoof with a dorsal curved shape.

Dr Nicola Menzies-Gow
Dr Nicola Menzies-Gow

The study also showed that a high concentration of insulin-stimulated equine progenitor keratinocytes (the outermost layer of cells on the hoof wall) to grow in culture. If this also happens chronically within the live animal, it is possible that it could affect the growth stresses within the hoof and so promote a dorsal curved hoof shape.

“These results taken together can explain how the hoof grows and how it is possible for it to develop a dorsal curvature,” said Dr Nicola Menzies-Gow, a reader in equine medicine at the Royal Veterinary College.

“However, it should be acknowledged that this does not take into account the genetic or metabolic influences on hoof growth nor the role of hoof trimming and shoeing in maintaining a mechanically healthy hoof. It is appreciated that the underlying biology of hoof growth remains an essential factor for hoof pathologies.”

The study Physics of animal health: On the mechanobiology of hoof growth and form was a collaboration between experts in mathematics, physics, stem-cell biology and equine medicine and published in the prestigious Royal Society Interface Journal. It conducted by the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham in collaboration with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition and the Royal Veterinary College.


» Earlier article: Mysteries of hoof development and deformities explored in new study

Physics of animal health: on the mechano-biology of hoof growth and form
Ramzi Al-Agele, Emily Paul, Sophie Taylor, Charlotte Watson, Craig Sturrock, Michael Drakopoulos, Robert C. Atwood, Catrin S. Rutland, Nicola Menzies-Gow, Edd Knowles, Jonathan Elliott, Patricia Harris and Cyril Rauch.
Journal of the Royal Society Interface, published: 26 June, 2019.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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