Feeding the Foot

Can you feed a foot? "You bet!" Say a dozen ads in this (and almost every other) horse magazine. Can you improve a horse's flexibility at higher levels of performance or increase the quality of joint fluid by feeding a supplement? "It's scientifically proven" say another dozen ads.

What these ads don't say is that adding supplements to your horse's diet will not bring the same results in every horse, nor will the results be immediately evident.

Across America, riders and trainers are scooping out feed supplements in record amounts. To gauge where this trend is going, Hoofcare & Lameness magazine recently launched a trial balloon for an upcoming nationwide survey. The first 150 surveys turned in raised the eyebrows of supplement manufacturers, farriers, and veterinarians. "Wow!" was everyone's one-word reaction when they read the results.

The first "wow" of the survey was that virtually 100% of the respondents (chosen at random from our Web site) feed at least one horse a hoof-growth supplement. More than half also fed a flex (chondroitin sulfate and/or glucosamine) product to the same horse, in the same bucket, at the same time. Almost half again as many added a third supplement, in the form of the popular sulfur agent methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), to the same bucket. "It's a wonder these horses don't explode," commented one barn manager at the bottom of her survey.

Everyone knows that feed supplements are big business, and have been growing steadily in popularity for the past ten years. However, a new trend is the feeding of supplements to horses not because of any existing problem, but as a preventative. An even more recent trend is the feeding of multiple supplements in addition to protein-rich sweet feed and alfalfa hay. How many horse owners are aware that excess feeding of certain nutrients, such as sulfur, can block the production of collagen, and might actually prevent the hoof from growing?

Do horse owners just have money to burn? Farriers Formula, a leading hoof-growth supplement, estimates a cost of about $1 a day to feed its product to an average-weight horse. Cosequin, the leading "flex" product, costs even more per day. Add in MSM and you will find that some gung-ho horse owners might be spending up to $100 per month on supplementation, although few respondents to the survey said they had ever computed the cost of supplementing their horses' rations.

What bothers nutritionists is that people are supplementing their horses' feeds without knowing much about the nutritional makeup of feed already in the bucket, or what quality hay is being fed, or what quality or type of pasture the horse is on. Feeding bran, for instance, can undermine your efforts to improve hoof health by creating an imbalance of phosphorus and calcium.

At the same time, few respondents said that they paid attention to the contents listed on the label. And many owners lamented that their horses were in boarding stables where the supplements were mass-fed on trainers' or barn owners' recommendations to all horses; owners also said they had little faith in the barn staff's reliability to measure out supplements for each horse's size or need. Some weren't even sure what brand of products currently were being fed.

What it comes down to is this: Well-meaning horse owners are feeding methionine/biotin type products for hoof wall strength and quality. They are feeding flex products often for hock or fetlock problems, but very often also for coffin joint or navicular-type worries. MSM is believed by many to somehow enhance the effect or increase the uptake of the flex products.

Another interesting aspect of the survey is that horse owners seemed ignorant that they were feeding animal protein to their horses in some of the flex products. On the other hand, most people seemed to know, and like the idea, that Source products are made from seaweed. And fully 100% of the respondents checked "yes" when asked if they liked the idea of feeding herbal products to their horses, although very few had actually tried any herbal supplements. (They are new to the market; the best known is "Hoof Master" from Selected Bioproducts in Canada. Most herbal "remedies" for weak hooves contain kelp and/or rose hip, which is believed to contain large amounts of biotin, but actually is a poor source of the nutrient.)

Farriers and veterinarians surveyed agreed that they did not discourage owners from feeding supplements as "preventative medicine," and that they actively encouraged supplementation if the horse had any hoof wall weakness. All agreed to mandating supplementation following serious problems like white line disease and laminitis. Reactions were mixed as to the effects that a flex product could have on navicular-type lameness, since many felt that the lameness was caused by discomfort in the heels, sole, or digital cushion, rather than in the joint. "But you never really know where the pain is coming from, and it can't hurt to feed the flex products," a farrier wrote.

"If it makes the owners feel better, I don't discourage them," said one farrier. "But there's so much more that an owner can do. Supplements alone are not enough."

By far, the biggest complaint of veterinarians and farriers was that horse owners "tried" a supplement, then stopped feeding it, often citing the high cost as a factor, or that they didn't see immediate results and became discouraged. A horse needs six months to a year to grow a new, healthy hoof, even with the boost of supplements. Many horse owners point to rings on their horses' feet, and say, "I guess that's back in April, when I was feeding the supplement."

What does a horse need to grow a healthy new hoof? Biotin and methionine are quoted most often. Biotin alone has successfully treated hoof defects in some horses, while showing little or no effect on others. A study conducted in Scotland suggests that there might be different types of defects in the hoof horn, and some defects might respond better or quicker to biotin than others. Hence, most manufacturers include a variety of ingredients that work with the biotin, or in place of the biotin, if the hoof wall "wants" some other supplement.

A big unanswered question in equine nutrition is what percentage of supplements' ingredients horses actually absorb, and whether or not horses can develop tolerances for certain ingredients. No one knows of any independent studies done to compare the quality of ingredients in competing products, or what percent is absorbed or excreted. An anecdote from one online veterinarian told of seeing a pumped-out septic tank; the bottom was a mass of undigested human vitamin pills. "So I stick with liquid biotin for my horse," she wrote. Ultimately, horses are only able to utilize about 15 to 20 mg of full-activity biotin per day; the rest is excreted.

"This truly is a confusing subject," one California owner wrote. "Many of us wonder if our horses just have real expensive manure." She currently feeds her 18-year-old pleasure horse (diagnosed with navicular syndrome) a daily ration of 100 mg biotin, a general-use vitamin supplement, MSM, extra Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin B (which she buys for her horse at a health food store), a calcium/phosphorus mix, and a commercial product designed to supplement zinc and copper. The horse just finished an Adequan series, is on Bute, and is taking a break from oral chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine products.

Prices vary widely in the hoof supple-
ment market, and so do the quality, grade, and source of the ingredients. Some
owners choose to feed what they call "pure" biotin, or "pure" methionine; many people believe that these substances are helpful only in combination with each other and additional ingredients. Some prices are artificially low (usually temporarily) to help a product gain market share. Owners need to learn to read product labels and even interview manufacturers before buying a product. What works for another horse in the barn might be a waste for your horse. Call the manufacturer and discuss your horse's hooves with the staff nutritionist. Check the company's Web site, and visit with sales reps at trade shows. Avoid any manufacturer who stresses how much of an ingredient is contained in a product; what might be more important is the combined effect of ingredients. While doing research, don't be sold on a salesman's boast of how low the price is, since quality and quantity of ingredients might be inferior in some products. Spend time with the company who is interested in your horse and how you care for it.

Finally, help your horse get the most from the product. Countless owners said they were skeptical of the products, since they were in powder form and the horse simply blew the powder off the grain; others said their horses were proficient at eating around the supplements, or knocked the bucket into the stall bedding. Learn to dilute your powdered supplements in a liquid base, make a paste, or feed a pelleted product that is more palatable for your individual horse. If you feed powdered supplements, remember that they can settle during shipment or storage, and the entire container needs to be periodically shaken, remixed, and examined. And remember to close containers tightly!

Feed supplements work on the inside of the horse, but they cannot improve hoof growth without an active, healthy blood supply to the foot to encourage the exchange of nutrients that create the hoof wall. Make sure that your horse's shoeing schedule is up to date; frequent shaping of the foot to remove flares and tending to cracks will encourage normal weightbearing, and a foot that is shaped normally often will grow down from the coronary band more quickly. Farriers now stock thinner-shanked nails that should split the wall less frequently; they will often suggest a light shoe, or side clips, to help hold the shoe on and use fewer nails. Old nail holes can be filled to help solidify the foot.

Don't expect the supplements to work on their own. Even with joint problems, daily massaging of the coronary band, hosing of the legs, or just plain exercise will help stimulate circulation in the foot and promote growth. Magnetic therapy, even magnetic bell boots, is believed by many to act as a circulation stimulus. Products that work on the outside of the foot, such as Keratex to harden the sole or "Tuff Stuff" to protect the wall, might be helpful to protect the old hoof wall while the new wall is growing down. Consider using glue-on shoes--there are several excellent glue-on products on the market--to take pressure off the walls and reduce splitting and cracking of the wall while the new foot grows.

"With all the supplements people are feeding," wrote one farrier, "you'd think we'd be seeing a vast improvement in the quality of horses' feet. But we're seeing just the opposite; the feet seem to be getting worse. Some say it's breeding. Some say it's the weather. Some say it's the bedding. I wish I knew what it is, because a lot of horses aren't able to perform their best because their feet aren't holding them up."

The big question for the 1990s might not be what these supplements do for our horses, but what effects not feeding them has. Switching brands, stop-and-start supplementation, and randomly combining vitamins, hoof supplements, flex products, and sulfur agents could be just as detrimental as feeding nothing at all.


Clayton, Hilary M. Conditioning Sport Horses.

Lewis, Dr. Lon. Equine Clinical Nutrition.

Lewis, Dr. Lon. Feeding and Care of the Horse.

Ramey, David DVM. Medication and Supplements for the Horse.

Richardson, Robbie RSS. The Horses' Foot and Related Problems.


About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at www.hoofcare.com. Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More