Ask a Pro – Nutrition and Hooves

Recently a new boarder moved to my barn, and I noticed that her horse has amazing hooves for a thoroughbred, but he isn’t on the normal name brand feed and hoof supplements the barn provides. I’ve been trying to fix my horse’s hooves for years, but haven’t had any luck! She told me that she feeds him a forage based diet with balanced minerals. Could you explain what that means and how it’s connected to better hoof growth?

By Cathy Micali

of Athens Equus

Excellent question. “No hoof- no horse” is a well known saying, but the key to getting that good hoof in the first place is DIET! While that is not a new idea, some of the other information presented here may require a bit of a mind shift. Try to think like a scientist! What do I mean? Even facts can change given enough proof, and just because you have been doing one thing for years does not mean you can never change. Scientists are all about change and adjusting as we observe different outcomes. Is there a way to make this thing we are doing better/easier/healthier? 

Next, a hot take. Unless a vet specializes in nutrition, their education on the subject is brief and broad, focusing on many animals. Also, nutrition is a complex subject that requires education and dedication from the owner, and if the owner isn’t fully on board, it can be draining for a vet to attempt to convince an owner to change everything and move their horses onto a fully forage based diet. If, after reading this, you feel compelled to make changes, start by educating yourself. Be a bit critical of what you read, and trust your vet, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Horse nutrition has grown hugely, and while some of the big ag companies have made admirable changes, they still lag behind current literature. Yes, that includes vets that work for those companies. As someone who worked in the food industry for a giant corporation, I know how data can be manipulated and marketed, and these companies are going to use it in their favor. This goes for dog food, horse food, people food, cat food….get it?

Joker and his slow feed hay bag.

Now I’ll answer the question. Quality forage is the basis for any good diet. Forage is hay, grass, hay pellets/cubes, straw, trees, bushes… fibrous plant matter. All forage has macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins). If you have a skinny horse, you want forage with a lot of calories and a lot of it available. If you have a chunky horse, you want forage with less calories (basically straw). The answer is *not* to feed less hay or restrict turnout time, but arrange the environment so the horse can be more active and consume the forage slower, such as a slow feed hay net. How do you know how many calories are in your hay or pasture??? You send it to a lab and they tell you!

Next, minerals and vitamins. DO NOT FEED MINERALS FREE CHOICE. You can cause toxicity issues! Horses cannot make the connection between how they feel and what they need. If this was true, all the chunky horses with crappy hooves would be searching out copper and zinc and refusing to eat their high starch feed. Horses eat what tastes good. They do not “know” what they need or when to stop…that’s why we have fat horses.

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Next myth is horses need to be supplemented with iron. What color is iron? Red. What is all over the Athens area? Red clay. Why is the clay red? Iron! Horses in the USA rarely, if ever, are lacking iron. In fact, most horses experience an iron overload due to the iron in the pasture, hay, water, and feed. Excess iron in the diet throws other important trace minerals out of balance, leading to negative health effects. Excess iron consumption can prevent the uptake of other nutrients which leads to inflammation, tissue damage, and even metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s. If a horse does not have the appropriate ratios of minerals available, the effects will be seen in the hair and in the hoof. An animal’s body puts all of the resources into the vital organs first, and then whatever is leftover goes to the less essential external parts. If the exterior of the animal (hair, nails, skin) is showing signs of deficiency, then it is a sign that there are either not enough resources supplied or there is something preventing the resources from being used.

Copper and zinc are two minerals that get thrown out of balance in the presence of excess iron and are extremely important for good hoof growth. Copper supports crosslinking of collagen and elastin molecules in connective tissue and the growth of hair and hoof. Zinc is influential and necessary for the structure of proteins and enzyme systems responsible for pigment formation, antioxidant function, carbon dioxide transport, insulin production, and many others. The ideal ratio of Iron : Copper : Zinc : Manganese is 4 : 1 : 3 : 3

In horses, these imbalances are usually passed off as genetic (“thoroughbreds have bad feet”) or considered their own separate issue instead of being a symptom of a larger issue. 

Signs of mineral imbalances (especially excess iron) in horses:

  • Poor coat condition: frizzy mane and tail, sunbleaching and red ends on tail. Susceptible to rain rot and other skin conditions
  • Hoof problems: poor hoof growth, laminitis, white line, weak hoof walls
  • Insulin resistance or intolerance to sugars: not related to obesity or high sugar intake
  • Allergies or immune issues: weak immune system causing allergies to dust or pollen, frequent infections

 As commercial feeds and ration balancers are formulated to provide all the “required nutrients” for a horse with little consideration to where they live, it contains added iron both as an ingredient (ferrous…) and within other ingredients (molasses). The trace minerals such as copper and zinc in commercial products might be balanced with the iron in that formula, but this does not account for the other sources of iron a horse consumes. Therefore those iron-added feeds/ration balancers/supplements/red salt blocks should be removed and the iron content of the hay and pasture should be analyzed so the correct amounts of copper and zinc can be supplied to balance the ratio!

Remember I mentioned sending hay to a lab? That lab can also tell you how much iron is in your hay and pasture. By knowing how much forage your horse consumes, and the amount of minerals already present in their diet, you can then calculate the amount of micronutrients you must supply in order to create a balanced diet.  

If that sounds like too much math, here is a basic diet you can follow that will be sufficient for most horses in the Athens area. 

  1. A mineral balancer that provides key amino acids and nutrients. Similar to a ration balancer but has no added iron and enough copper/zinc to overcome deficiencies.

Vermont Blend (use code ATHENSEQ for 10% off- I’m not sponsored by them, I just love the company!) or California Trace PLUS

*if your mineral supplement has molasses or any “ferrous …” ingredients, it has added iron*

**some mineral supplements have no added iron BUT do not contain the necessary amount of other trace minerals! That is where the math comes in- don’t waste your money. The two listed above are known to balance this area**

  1. A carrier: timothy cubes/pellets (soaked to avoid choke) are the “carrier” for the supplements and provides some water and roughage.
  1. Ground flax: stabilized or freshly ground. Provides the correct ratio of omegas, is highly anti-inflammatory, and a source of good fat. If a horse needs to gain weight, the amount of flax can be increased.
    • Very few other sources of fat are as anti-inflammatory as flax. Some, like rice bran, can cause inflammation.
  1. Electrolytes: A few tablespoons of plain white salt in each meal.
    • Red salt blocks and many packaged electrolytes are full of iron!
  1. Other recommended additions: a pro-biotic with over a billion CFUs, Vitamin E, Magnesium Oxide.

This is the most basic plan for a forage based balanced diet. Below I have linked resources for further reading (and listening) that espouse this method. If you feel like you need help with your horse’s diet, the UGA College of Agriculture has an equine nutritionist on staff, Dr. Kylee Duberstein (kyleejo@uga.edu), and, although I am not a specialist, I am happy to help analyze and point you in the right direction by reaching me at athensequus@gmail.com.

Further Reading and Resources:

Alicia Harlov’s podcast – The Humble Hoof

5 Dangers of High Iron Levels for Horses

Pete Ramey: Feeding the HooF

Hoof Care and Rehabilitation 

Dr. Kellon’s website

Equine Nutrition Group