Let’s look at what’s happening and why, and see if we can’t get a little crazy and define what it is we’re actually trying to achieve with the topical application of hoof potions.
Softening Hoof Horn
It’s true that brittle hooves are a bad thing. They don’t respond to concussion well, which means, erm… walking about and stuff like that, and they really don’t like nails being driven though the wall, which is problematic if you want to shoe.
Brittle hooves are bad… but are soft hooves any better? Yes, sure, oil (or whatever your potion of choice is) will soften the horn, and softer horn crack so easily, but have you really achieved what you’re after?
You’ve grown brittle horn, and then made it artificially soft. That sentence doesn’t include the words ‘healthy’ or ‘strong’, which is how I prefer hooves to be. It does contain the words ‘brittle’ and ‘soft’ neither of which is what we’re after.
What good do oils do?
If a hoof capsule is shod, it’s not going to be a big problem if it’s soft as it has the shoe to protect it from wear. The softer horn will be better at dealing with concussion. I can see a reason to apply oil to a hoof if you’re also applying a shoe (I’m not recommending either. Obviously I’d rather a strong hoof that doesn’t require a shoe – but I’m just talking theory here)
A shod hoof tends to have thicker outer wall and quite weak inner wall. Outer wall is brittle, it’s there mostly to prevent stuff getting in. Inner wall is more flexible and deals better with concussion. So oil makes the outer wall a bit more like inner wall. That could (in some circles) be considered an improvement.
What about bare hooves?
Well in bare hooves it’s considered a good thing to be ‘rock crunching’. I don’t know anything soft that can crunch rocks.
Bare hooves should have strong horn. They need to have strong horn! Strong horn is flexible and healthy, not brittle… and definitely not soft! Horn tends not to do soft and strong at the same time.
What about research?
So you’d think all these oils, moisturisers and various potions were backed up by scientific studies wouldn’t you…
Sue Kempson at Edinburgh University has studied this. What she found was essentially hoof oils, hoof hardeners and dressings aren’t all that helpful. In fact they can damage horn. More specifically they have little effect on healthy horn, but they breakdown poor quality horn.
A google search will bring up all sorts of info on this – much of it makes rather dry reading. This article from The Horse, is the most readable imho though you do have to sign up.
Hoof dressings – you don’t need them, or you really really don’t want them!
Hoof dressings – you don’t need them, or you really really don’t want them!
Basically the hoof is either strong enough to withstand the product in which case you’re wasting your time, money and effort, but essentially not doing much harm so crack on if you like 🙂
Or these dressings are putting you in a worse position than you were before.
What Does Improve Horn Quality?
If you’ve read any of this blog before you might already know the answer… I think I’ve mentioned nutrition before haven’t I? Yup… That pesky little thing called nutrition.
Lets go back to basics and build horn the way it should be built, right from the start.
To build good quality horn the internal foot is going to need a good supply of quality materials… those quality materials – they’re nutrients.
So you’re going to need good food going in the mouth, good digestion to process the food and get it into the blood stream, and good circulation to deliver nutrients to the hoof. Then with good exercise, the hoof will be stimulated to grow strong horn.
Remember inflammation disrupts the circulation to the hoof, so removal of inflammation is important and good exercise means working within the limits of the hoof’s capability. That exercise might be rest, relaxation and generally mooching about the field – it depends where you’re starting from.
Did you notice how exercise was last on the list?! Without the other stuff in place first, the exercise is depleting an already depleted system. With the right set up, exercise will strengthen the system.
Dry brittle hooves are likely to be a sign of breakdown in any or all of the first 3 steps in that plan.
Is There Anything Topical That Will Improve The Hooves?
I think of it this way…
Hooves are not absorbent (or at least they shouldn’t be in horses). Maybe a little, but not much.
The outer wall is designed to stop stuff getting into the hoof. It’s supposed to be impenetrable. So 1 of 2 things can happen if you use a topical application…
- The wall is victorious! YAY! Nothing changes, you’ve wasted your time and money and possibly got a little frustrated (unless it’s just for a show, in which case you’re feeling very proud of your victorious hoof horn!)
- The wall fails! YIKES! Gunk penetrates the hoof horn and causes further damage. I mean – you have to damage a wall to get through it, right?
You’re going to have to grow the cracks out. Replace the rubbish horn with good quality horn. I don’t think you can paint good quality horn on to a hoof. It just doesn’t work like that.
It would be awesome if there was a quick fix, but I don’t know of any way of getting good health instantly, it takes time for a broken system to heal itself, and a hoof with cracks in it is clearly a broken system.
What About Soaking in Water?
The walls is made up of tubules of horn held together by inter-tubular horn (yep, there’s one part of the hoof where the names make sense – and it’s the hoof wall!!) For soaking to improve the flexibility and strength of the horn, it would need to in some way improve the inter-tubular horn.
While we describe brittle horn as ‘dry’ or ‘dehydrated’ it’s a little misleading. It’s not that the horn needs more water content; it’s usually short of mineral salts. So we’re back to nutrition again.
If the hoof was able to absorb water and minerals through soaking, just imagine how strong and healthy they’d be after a winter stood in a wet field!
Soaking hooves in a disinfectant solution to address a hoof wall infection makes sense to me, but soaking hooves for 20mins a day in plain water to keep them healthy really frustrates me.
If you’re happy doing it, then go ahead, it’s not a bad thing – but that’s 20mins you could be having fun with your horse, or you could get home 20mins earlier and spend time with your family, or catching up on chores, working out, meditating, cooking dinner, chatting to friends, chilling out, or reading a super cool hoofy blog!!
But Everyone Swears by …
Yep, I’ve seen and heard many people utterly convinced that the hoof dressing they used was THE ONE THING THAT SAVED THEIR HORSES HOOVES!! I’m delighted they’re pleased with their results, but very few people try just one thing when trying to fix a problem.
Generally people try a couple of things, they’re focused on the fixing the problem so they change all sorts of things in the environment on their horse. It could well be that it was the other things that they were doing, but the thing that sticks in their mind is the one that took the most effort.
What’s easier – putting a scoop of supplement into a bucket, or cleaning, polishing, painting and soaking your horses hooves every day. Which one are you going to remember the most…
And now you’re going to want to know what I supplement I use…
Hands down the most effective hoof supplement I’ve used, isn’t a hoof supplement at all. In fact that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. I believe healthy horses have healthy hooves, so just focusing on hoof health seems like a bit of a waste to me. I like to aim a little higher… there’s a whole horse above that coronary band!