Nutritional Impacts on Hoof Growth and Quality

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 more susceptible to disease.

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 small 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.

close up of horse hoof

A large ring, often called a fever ring, would be indicative of an inflammatory event that impacted the hoof.

What Nutrients Are Important for Hoof Health?

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. A common misperception is that supplementing just one or two nutrients, biotin being a popular one, will fix poor hoof quality. While biotin is important for hoof health, it is one of just many nutrients that contribute to a strong and healthy hoof.

Dietary Energy for Hoof Growth

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 the hoof and in severe cases, can lead to death.

Protein for Hoof Growth

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. Methionine and cystine are sulfur containing amino acids that help create strong bonds in the protein structures of the hoof.

Most horses get plenty of protein in their diet if fed good quality forage, but these key amino acids are not supplied in great enough quantity. Essential amino acids are supplied in all Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition feeds to help support quality hoof growth, among many other important bodily processes.

Vitamins for Hoof Growth

While vitamins are important for hoof growth, most are produced by the horse. Exceptions are Vitamin A and E. While good quality, fresh grass is a good source of Vitamin A and Vitamin E, these two vitamins are not found in hay. Vitamin A deficiency has been shown to lead to poor hoof growth, brittle hooves and even inflammation within the hoof itself. Vitamin A and Vitamin E are found in ration balancers and fortified feeds to fill in the gaps in hay and low-quality pasture.

The vitamin given the greatest focus in supporting 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. Most horses produce more than enough biotin to meet their needs, if fed good quality hay and their hindgut is healthy and working efficiently.

Research has varied, but in some studies (not all), biotin supplemented in a horse’s diet significantly improved new hoof growth. The variability in response is likely a function of the base diet and the horse’s overall hindgut health. Extra biotin will not hurt a horse and is helpful for some individuals. All Tribute® feeds are fortified with biotin.

Minerals for Hoof Growth

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 for hoof growth, 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!

What Horses Need a Hoof Supplement?

Before considering a hoof supplement, we recommend looking at the overall diet first.

  • Is your horse fed good quality forage?
  • How much forage is your horse fed per day?
  • Are you feeding a product designed to fill in the gaps in a forage diet?
  • Are you feeding at least the recommended minimum feeding rate for your horse’s size and stage of life?

Oftentimes, we can forego a hoof supplement, and better support overall health, by addressing the basic diet. However, some horses have genetically poor hoof quality or live in challenging environments, either very wet or very dry and hard ground, that require an extra boost of nutrients to support hoof health. For these individuals, we recommend Tough as Nails®, a supplement designed to provide all of the nutrients needed to grow a healthy hoof.

Summary: How to Grow a Healthy Hoof

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.
  • Feed quality hay and an appropriate horse feed to fill in the gaps.
  • Some horses will benefit from an extra boost of hoof supporting ingredients from Tough as Nails®.

If you think your horse may benefit from a comprehensive dietary evaluation, please contact us for a free, personalized equine feeding plan.

    Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D. & Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.
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