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Cop­ing with brit­tle hooves

Q: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

A: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.

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.

• 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 Wy­oming Equine Long­mont, Colorado

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