Horse hooves require a tremendous amount of nutrition including protein, sugars, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients are delivered by a generous blood supply through hundreds of blood vessels to stimulate growth and repair. The hoof wall is composed of 95% keratin, a tough insoluble and colourless protein that is rich in sulphur-containing methionine (an amino acid). The formation of keratin also requires adequate amounts of zinc and biotin. It is for this reason that many traditional hoof supplements contain these specific nutrients to support and strengthen the hoof wall. If these nutrients are truly deficient then these supplements will be helpful; however if there is no deficiency present benefits will be negligible. At this point it is useful to seek out other nutrients that can make a difference to hoof strength and structure – minerals such as sulphur, selenium, and silica are significant in overall hoof health. Silica promotes bone health, strengthens collagen and hardens the hoof wall, while selenium and sulphur contribute to collagen production and strengthen the cross link bonds in the keratin.
Sulphur is a critical nutrient for strengthening the amino acids (protein units) that serve as major building blocks in healthy collagen to form a strong hoof wall. Collagen fibres are naturally occurring proteins found exclusively in animals and they are the main proteins in all connective tissues. Collagen fibre makes up 25% to 35% of the whole body protein – its main function is to support and give structure to all the tissues around the cells. Since it has excellent tensile strength, collagen is the main component of cartilages, tendons, ligaments, skin and hoof wall. The fibres in hoof wall are very compact and dense. The strength of these fibres is increased by their unique structure – they twist, intersect and cross with each other. Sulphur molecules create very strong cross-links that hold the fibres together.
Obvious signs of sulphur deficiency include poor hoof growth, dry and cracking hooves, poor hair coat, skin conditions and allergies. Sulphur can be supplemented using Riva’s Flower Power which is pure ground sulphur fed at one tablespoon daily which equals 14 g of sulphur. This is also an excellent supplement for “scratches”.
Riva’s Circu+Plus contains pine bark extract which not only has natural levels of both sulphur and silica for strengthening and repairing hoof tissue but is also an anti-oxidant and natural anti-inflammatory that improves hoof circulation. Circu+Plus also contains Magnesium to relax any hoof tension, reduce pain and improve metabolism. Circu+Plus is an excellent supplement for acute and/or chronic laminitis. Feed one to two tablespoons daily: one tablespoon contains 200 mg of pine bark extract and 1,000 mg of magnesium citrate.
Sulphur is also very beneficial in homeopathic form as it helps to improve the metabolism of existing sulphur by increasing its absorption and utilization at the cellular level. Give one dose of Sulphur, 200C (5 pellets) – twice daily for 4 days.
A selenium deficiency in the hoof can appear as horizontal cracks near the top of the hoof below the coronet band, a yellowing frog and/or lameness due to either weak hoof structure or strained ligaments and tendons. Systemic symptoms of deficiency can include poor hair coat, fatigue, depression, poor immunity, low appetite, and muscle weakness. Selenium toxicity, on the other hand, is often characterized by similar symptoms as a deficiency – poor hair condition or loss of hair around the mane and tail, poor immunity, stiffness and lameness. In cases of chronic selenium toxicity, the hooves are almost always affected with deformities, overgrowth, horizontal ridging, cracking, and in advanced cases it will cause the hoof wall to separate from the foot resulting in a loss of the entire wall.
Selenium can be supplemented in either an inorganic form (known as sodium selenite, which is actually a by-product of copper mining) or in an organic form. Sodium selenite is the most common supplement available but is also the toxic form of selenium which is why it cannot be given in extreme doses. Toxic dosages can also be ingested by grazing in selenium toxic areas. However, there are many more horses with selenium deficiencies than horses with selenium excess since the majority of grazing areas in North America are low in selenium. Organic selenium is commercially produced by using yeast to incorporate inorganic selenium into amino acids. Organic selenium has no known toxicity and is absorbed and utilized much more effectively than the inorganic form. All organic minerals, including selenium, can be supplemented at a much lower dosage than inorganic minerals because they are metabolized much more effectively. Organic selenium can be effectively and safely dosed and most horses do not need more than 1,000 to 2,000 mcg daily. It is very beneficial for hoof health, liver detoxification, bone and muscle strength and a healthy immune system. It is never necessary to supplement any nutrient by injection – it is invasive and horses have a very efficient ability to absorb minerals through the intestines.
Silica is an under-valued and under-utilized mineral for hoof health. Silica is not only critical for the early stages of bone formation but also plays a major role in the formation of the collagen matrix of bone and cartilage. And it prevents these tissues from becoming brittle and rigid – a significant factor in the health of coffin and navicular bones. The formation of glycosaminoglycan, the main substance of the bone matrix, also relies on silica. Normally horses obtain small amounts of silica from grass and hay as all plants use silica to provide rigidity and structure to their leaves and stems. However, it is apparent that many horses do not receive adequate amounts to prevent hoof breakdown and/or bone problems. Of course, this is the case with so many nutrients since the lifestyle of most domesticated horses has not only limited the nutrients available to them, but has radically changed their nutritional requirements.
Deficiency symptoms of silica include weak and brittle hooves, sand cracks, abscesses, lameness, inflammation of tendons, and bone weakness with loss of density.
Some of the best plant sources for silica and sulphur supplementation is horsetail and oatstraw. Horsetail has a number of other benefits: strengthens the respiratory system, improves skin and hair coat, aids urinary function and increases calcium absorption. Horsetail is not toxic to horses as some sources suggest – most ‘weeds’ are beneficial and only toxic when horses don’t have enough to eat and have to resort to weeds as a food staple. Dried horsetail can be fed at one to two tablespoons daily. Oatstraw is an ingredient in the Riva’s Happy Foot as well as the Happy Horse and Happy Horse Senior. The Happy Horse herbal blends are a plant based source of over sixty-five trace minerals including selenium, vitamins and fibre and address the nutritional requirements for a variety of different health conditions.
Poor hoof circulation is always a factor in unhealthy hooves since improper hoof mechanism constricts blood supply and therefore the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. The most common causes of poor hoof circulation are lack of regular exercise, poor trimming practices and inappropriate diets – grain, sugar, excess grass and/or excess alfalfa. Riva’s Remedies Happy Foot provides herbal minerals (including silica, sulphur and selenium), improved circulation with cayenne pepper and natural pain relief.
Horse hooves are very much a reflection of the whole and the treatment of the hoof should always consider the whole health of the horse. Conversely, treating the whole health of the horse will always benefit the hoof.
Marijke van de Water (B.Sc., DHMS) is an Equine Health & Nutrition Specialist, Homeopathic Practitioner and Medical Intuitive & Healer. She is the author of “Healing Horses: Their Way!” and “Healing People: The Marijke Method”. She is the CEO, founder and owner of Riva’s Remedies and is a regular speaker and presenter at equine seminars and conferences.