The hooves of a horse are critically important to their overall health and ability to perform the tasks we ask of them. The purpose of the hoof is to cushion the incredible concussion and forces placed upon it. The old saying, “no hoof, no horse,” still holds true today.

It is no wonder caring for a horse’s hooves is a critical aspect of proper equine care and use. Not surprisingly, nutrition has major impacts on not only how well a hoof grows, but also hoof strength and health. Hoof growth is steady when horses are fed an adequate diet to meet daily dietary requirements. Conversely, when there are dietary deficiencies, hoof growth slows, hooves become softer, are more prone to cracking, and even susceptible to disease.

The hoof is a complex structure of tissue, nerves, tendons, cartilage, and bone. Therefore, the nutrients responsible for supporting the hoof are just as complex. The first consideration for any horse is the overall energy (caloric intake) provided in the diet.

  • When horses are malnourished, the low energy provided in the diet will be prioritized to tissues other than the hoof. While the hoof will continue to grow, the overall quality and growth rate will be much reduced.  
  • In obese horses, or with horses receiving too much energy in their diet, the horse may be at risk of laminitis. Laminitis can be a deadly condition in horses with the breakdown of the soft tissue of hoof and in severe cases, can lead to death.

The next major nutritional consideration for hooves is the protein provided in the diet. One of the main components of hooves is the structural protein keratin. Keratin is also the major structural protein found in human fingernails and hair. When proteins are digested, they are broken down into amino acids.

  • Research has shown that the amino acids methionine and cystine are the two most important amino acids in the diet to support keratin formation and, in turn, support healthy hoof growth.
  • Many hoof supporting supplements such as Tribute’s own Tough As Nails® are fortified with methionine and cystine to optimize hoof growth and health.

While vitamins are important for hoof growth, most are produced by the horse. Exceptions are vitamin A and E. These two vitamins are usually abundant in quality forage and in fortified feeds. If a horse is fed a low quality forage for too long a period without any other quality feed, it can lead to vitamin A deficiency. This will then lead to poor hoof growth, brittle hooves, or inflammation within the hoof itself.

The most important vitamin identified for hoof growth is Biotin.

  • Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin and is part of the vitamin B family. It is naturally produced in the hind gut of horses.
  • Research has shown biotin supplemented in a horse’s diet significantly improved new hoof growth.
  • Quality feeds and hoof supplements are usually fortified with biotin.
  • All Tribute® feeds are fortified with biotin.

The other nutritional consideration for healthy hooves is minerals.

  • Zinc is most often identified as a mineral that is important to proper hoof growth. Zinc deficiency has been shown in controlled studies to be detrimental to hoof growth and even linked to hoof disease.
  • Copper has also been identified as an important mineral, especially with formation of keratin.
  • Other important minerals for healthy hoof growth include calcium, iron, and selenium.
  • Like above, premium feeds and hoof care supplements are usually fortified with these important minerals to support healthy hooves – Tribute® feeds are no exception!

In general, hooves generally grow about 1/4 to 3/8 inch per month. They also tend to grow faster in younger animals or during the summer months. For the average horse, it takes about one year for a hoof to completely grow out. Furthermore, the rings you may often spot in a horse’s hoof are usually an indication of a diet change. For example, it is not uncommon to spot these hoof rings in most horses that have grazed during the lush spring months.

To summarize, there are many considerations an owner should take when thinking about the dietary needs of their horse in relation to their hooves:

  • A positive energy balance supports healthy hoof growth and maintenance.
  • High quality protein is needed to provide adequate amino acid support for hooves, with methionine and cystine being identified as the two most critical.
  • Of all the vitamins, biotin is identified as being the most important to support healthy hoof growth.
  • Many minerals play an active role in maintaining healthy hooves, including zinc, copper, iron, calcium and selenium.
  • Many high-quality forages, premium feeds and hoof care supplements are all fortified to meet and exceed your horses nutritional needs to maintain healthy hooves.
Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.