We don't have to despair, but we do have to be smart about how we take care of our horses' feet. Not all products are good for all horses, just as all face creams aren't good for all women. To wade through the hoof product jungle, we first asked our online readers at TheHorse.com to tell us what products they used. Then, we asked the nation's leading hoof experts about how to get the most out of various products.
Careful With Those Feet
Home remedies are commonly used for many things, including hoof care. Our readers have used everything from Clorox to formaldehyde to WD-40 lubricant to commercial deck preservatives to improve their horses' hooves. But trying just anything might not be in your horse's best interest.
"The number one thing is that you should use something that is at least marketed for the horse," recommends Richard Mansmann, VMD, PhD, director of the Equine Health Program at North Carolina State University. "At least with those products, someone's thought about the health of the horse, rather than the health of your carpet, deck, or whatever.
"Anything that you're putting on the hoof has a pretty good chance to get on the skin," Mansmann cautions. "You want to be careful about what you're using, that it has some kind of approval for horses and you follow the label instructions. Using common sense with hoof products is really important. With a lot of these things, if we just become aware of the underlying problem, we can take care of it so it goes away. If the feet are too wet, don't turn him out into a wet pasture. If they're too dry, wet the shavings, trough area, etc."
In other words, fixing feet takes proper management, not just a magic dressing. But hoof products can be a part of the plan that strengthens your horse's hooves.
Dressings, Conditioners, Oils
As you would expect, these products aim to increase moisture in the hoof wall. They were the most commonly used hoof products among our readers.
Lanolin is produced from raw sheep's wool. It provides the base for many hoof conditioners, most of which have a lotion-like texture. Others are based on petroleum oil or other oils.
Susan Kempson, BSc, PhD, senior lecturer in Preclinical Veterinary Sciences in the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, found that oil, pine tar, and petroleum-based products maintained the highest level of hydration in the hoof wall.
Ilka Wagner, DVM, MAgr, BS, of Equine Veterinary Services in Hearne, Texas, who also currently works with the Texas A&M University's Hoof Project (www.hoofpro ject.com), favors petroleum-based products for holding moisture in dry hooves.
"I have not seen much benefit to the topical hoof dressings over the years," Wagner says, adding that most of them get wiped off and thus can't do their jobs. "But the petroleum oil-based ones stick better, even when the horse is being worked and dragging his hooves through the dirt or mud."
"One thing that's really helpful, especially to softening a dry foot, is massage," says Mansmann. "Rubbing that oil, lanolin, Vaseline, or whatever into the feet using a brush or your hands helps it penetrate deeper into the wall."
Plain Old Water
In very dry areas, many of our readers simply create a muddy area, usually by overflowing a water source, for the horse to walk or stand in to hydrate his feet.
"In Southern California (where he used to live), we often had no rain from May to October, and we had what we called September lameness," recalls Mansmann. "This was where the reverberation on hard ground made the feet sore from the (coffin) bone banging against the dry, hard sole. Once you hydrated the foot a bit, the soreness went away."
But water isn't always good. Wagner warns that cycling wet and dry conditions, such as turning a horse out in a dewy, grassy paddock at night and putting him in stall with dry shavings during the day, is "the worst," she says. "It causes most of the hoof cracks I see. The hoof expands with water and shrinks when it dries; that's when you see a lot of the wall cracks. You want to keep a nice, even level of moisture in the feet."
One solution to the wet-dry cycle might be physical protection.
"If I've got a horse with really bad feet, I'll recommend putting them in some kind of protective boots to keep them from being exposed to the wet-dry cycling during turnout, or picking one environment or the other--wet or dry--and keeping them in it all the time," says Wagner.
Nutrition is key for many things, including the feet. Several studies have found that biotin supplementation improved hoof quality, although results are not apparent for several months--until the "biotinized" hoof grows out.
"If I feel feet are really unhealthy, I assess the nutritional regime and sometimes recommend a nutritional supplement," says Wagner. "Biotin is good, but so is just getting horses the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Lots of horses today are fat, so people back off on feeds, then the horse doesn't get proper levels of vitamins and minerals in his diet. With some of the new supplements, you can feed two scoops, and that supplies all the vitamins and minerals needed per day."
Mansmann counts a good diet as one of four essential parts to hoof care.
"I think good shoeing and moisture management along with a decent diet and regular exercise are the best, and supplements are not needed," he states. "Try those four things before spending money on supplements."
Hoof Hardeners/Drying Agents
When hooves are soft and crumbly from excessive moisture, a hoof hardener (usually containing acetone that dries the foot's outer horn) might be a logical remedy.
"We recommend these a lot, particularly in North Carolina where we have a lot of moisture," says Mansmann. "When a horse has a problem with wet feet, we recommend that the owner keep the horse's feet dry and use a hoof hardener. When they do, we see a result. Which helps more, the management or the hardener, is hard to say, but it does work."
Hardening the foot can go too far; formaldehyde and formalin-based compounds can be very hard on a damaged foot. Kempson found that these agents penetrated deeper into poor-quality horn than healthy horn, affecting the sole the most. Thus, they dried deeper tissues than what might be desired, making the foot very brittle and prone to cracks. Aside from structurally weakening the wall, these cracks (even very tiny ones) can let in infection.
Sealants and Patches
These products are intended to augment the hoof's moisture barrier, keeping the hoof's natural moisture in and excess moisture out. This is a good goal, but as with anything, there's a potential downside.
And while some of our readers used epoxies, Bondo (a car body filler), or wood putty to patch hooves, this approach is also not without peril.
"Anything that's a sealant has the potential to cause a problem," Mansmann says. "You could potentially cover infection (which gives microorganisms a nice, protected place to grow), and you can't really monitor it."
"If you seal up an infection, you'll never know it until it's serious," says Mansmann.
Thrush/White Line Disease Products
The microorganisms that cause the stink and separation of thrush and white line disease thrive on a sealed, oxygen-free environment. The first battle is to clean out the entire area. In severe cases this might mean surgical debridement.
"Step number two is getting whatever disinfectant you use to the bottom of the area," says Mansmann. "(With thrush), I often recommend using cotton balls, facial pads, etc., to soak in the product, then push that down all the way to bottom of sulcus and pack it really thoroughly. What you're doing is getting the medication to the bottom of the area where the anaerobes (bacteria that thrive in oxygen-free environments) are living--they want no oxygen so they'll be deep. By the end of seven days of changing this packing every day, you should have opened the cleft enough to see down in there and get to bacteria better. It has to heal from the inside out, and it takes time. If you're just squirting something on it, you're wasting your time."
"Don't get these products on the coronary band; they can really irritate and burn just like if they were on your skin," cautions Wagner.
Hoof Wound Care
With foot wounds such as punctures or deep cracks, preventing and/or treating infection is often the most important concern. Dealing with them requires the right products and the right techniques.
"I'm a big proponent of Betadine (microbicide) soaks for cleaning hoof wounds," says Wagner. "Make the solution look like a strong glass of iced tea. When it is more dilute, it activates the iodine; this is not necessarily a case of more is better. Also, Epsom salts are good if a horse is lame or there may be an abscess present that requires drainage."
Mansmann adds, "Obviously, if there is an open wound, having some kind of antibiotic ointment has value. Then you need to protect wounds with a bandage--a clean, medium-sized disposable diaper or two and duct tape is a good foot bandage. It's also good if you are trying to protect a foot that threw a shoe. If the duct tape starts to wear through, just add more. For a wound, change the diaper daily, or you're just holding the bacteria in on the foot."
Regardless of the products you might use, they can't work by themselves. Healing problem hooves takes proper management, with or without product use.
Pick manure out of hooves daily and keep the stall or paddock area relatively clean of manure piles. Kempson's research found that sole and frog horn left in feces for two weeks literally disintegrated, with poor-quality hoof wall not far behind.
There is no quick fix or magic bullet product for problem hooves. The real solution is to first understand your horse's particular problem, whether it's too much or too little moisture, poor diet, or something else. Only then can you select the products and management techniques that best fit his needs.
About the Author
Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.