By Lucy Nicholas
After our lovely summer, many people are approaching autumn with concern about their equines’ feet. The ground is currently pretty hard in the UK! Hooves in autumn and winter often have a slower rate of growth than in spring and summer, in part due to the reduced exercise and lower feed value in the forage being fed.
Cracks and splits can appear at any time of year, but are in my experience predominantly seen in shod horses – they tend to be a sign that the hoof does not have sufficient integrity, isn’t being stimulated enough, and that the diet is sub-standard. I find that a diet low in starch and sugar, with balanced minerals and vitamins, almost always eliminates such cosmetic problems. The decline in the nutritional value of the grass during autumn does often catch people out!
Diet is key when it comes to equine hoofcare – it’s especially important in autumn and winter!
To optimise hoof health, I suggest feeding hay (as pictured below – preferably meadow hay as opposed to lucerne or ryegrass) ‘ad lib’, to maintain the amount of fibre in the gut, ensuring that low-sugar forage forms the largest part of a horse’s diet, and supplementing the diet with key vitamins and minerals. By providing the correct levels of balanced nutrients, you can potentially prevent problems with sub-standard hooves. Common dietary ingredients to look out for are: Biotin – a water-soluble B-complex vitamin essential for hoof horn formation; heavy-grade Magnesium Oxide, a mineral ideal for promoting stronger hooves; Methionine – an amino-acid which contains sulphur, an essential element in the formation of the protein substance keratin, the cells of which make up the hoof wall; Calcium and Zinc, minerals which are essential for cell reproduction within the hoof; and MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, an organic, bioavailable (absorbable) form of sulphur.
I avoid using cosmetic, topical applications on the horse’s feet. I believe this prevents the hoof from maintaining a natural moisture balance, and can prevent the hoof from ‘breathing’.
Do not leave your horse standing in wet conditions – such as soiled bedding – for long periods, as this can weaken the horn. Choose an absorbent bedding and skip it out frequently.
Combat thrush. This bacterial condition involves bacterium destroying the frog and sometimes exposing the deeper, sensitive tissues. Try to maintain clean, dry stable conditions and ensure the horses’ feet are regularly attended to by a hoofcare professional. Regularly pick out and brush the underside of the horse’s feet.
If your horse doesn’t have shoes, consider hoof boots for barefoot horses (pictued below) – they help boost the bare hoof’s shock absorption properties, and also protect the hoof on sharp, uneven or stony surfaces. Some horses may experience ‘footiness’ in winter due to the fact they are ridden less (e.g. exercise promotes stronger feet), combined with wetter, softer horn and more abrasive road work.
There are hoof boots on the market to fit very small ponies up to very large heavy horses.
Visit www.thesaddleryshop.co.uk for a range of horsey products including hoof boots.