Todays post is all about nutrition for barefoot horses with sore feet. Of course you’ve already read the previous two articles in this series and have a much clearer idea as to whether your horse has got weak hooves or sensitive feetand you’re ready for the next step…

If you missed the first 2 posts, you’ll find them here:
Part 1: In Good Condition
Part 2: A Sensitive Situation

If you’re thinking that your horse has both sensitive and weak feet and you’re wondering what to do, I’d advise you to always address the sensitivity first. When the feet are sensitive the internal structures are compromised. It’s the internal structures that grow the hoof capsule, so if they’re not happy, there’s not much you can do to make them grow better hoof. Sensitive structures first.

I suspect you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting to find out what kind of conditioning work will produce the results you’re after… Well I’m getting there. There’s just 1 more important thing we need to cover first.


Sometimes I refer to it as Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition! Other times as NUTRITION!!!! Yeah I bang on about nutrition a lot!

Now here’s another well known saying that I don’t completely agree with ‘You are what you eat’. You see, that’s not strictly true. It would be more accurate to say, ‘you are what you digest’. There’s a big difference between what you eat and what you digest.

Ask anyone with a thoroughbred who has to eat twice as much as a horse half it’s weight and still looks a bit skinny. Half of what they’re feeding is coming out the other end without having been digested. It makes for a better quality fertiliser I’m sure, but it’s an expensive way of producing fertiliser.

When Is A Balanced Diet Not A Balanced Diet?

The gut has to be functioning properly to be able to digest the food going into it. The gut transit time has to be right. The horse’s gut works a bit like a compost heap. If the food isn’t in there long enough, it doesn’t have enough time to break down and be absorbed.

If it’s in there too long, it’s going to fester and go rancid, producing toxins that will be absorbed into the bloodstream. So it’s a little like a fairy tale, not to slow, not to fast, it has to be just right.

The liver is really important! It’s unfortunate that I’ve seen the liver missing from more than 1 diagram of the equine digestive system. Infact the liver has multiple functions in digestion. It produces bile to help with the breakdown of food and it processes the nutrients absorbed from the small intestine by turning them into the various chemicals the body needs to survive.

It processes protein and synthesises amino acids, stores sugar, and that’s just a handful of the cool stuff it does. It’s also vital to hormone balance, blood pressure regulation, and detoxification. It’s’ the largest internal organ. The clue is in the name LIVEr. In short, it’s important (I think I already said that!).

I think you get the idea here, if the digestive system isn’t working well then even if your diet is perfectly balanced in the bucket, your horse isn’t absorbing a balanced diet. But lets assume that your horse is digesting properly and look at what’s in the bucket.

What’s In Your Bucket?

Figuring out what’s in your bucket isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Feed companies don’t always put a complete list of ingredients on the packets, because they don’t have to. Even if they do, have you ever noticed that your chaff changes colour across a year?

Sometimes it’s quite golden, other times it’s a lot more green. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but how come the nutritional information on the packet doesn’t change, when the product inside the pack clearly does? It’s all worked out on averages. That’s ok, I’m not complaining about that, I’m just pointing it out. We don’t always know exactly what we’re feeding.

What about the breakdown of nutrients. Certain vitamins are very fragile. They can break down under manufacturing and packaging processes. It may have been in the ingredients, or in the feed at the time it was analysed for nutritional content, but it may not be in your feed bucket.

Often when you get a nutritional breakdown of a feed, it may tell you what elemental minerals are in there, but not what form. Some compounds are easier for the horse to absorb than others. Having 5g of magnesium oxide is a whole different thing to having 5g of magnesium chelate, or citrate, pincolate, chloride, lactate or others, they’re just the ones I remember off the top of my head.

In addition to bucket feed, don’t forget that the grass and hay intake in a horse’s diet dramatically outweighs the quantity of feed. The feed may contain more mineral content, but the bulk of what’s going through the gut is forage (i hope!).

Why is Nutrition for Barefoot Horses So Important?

The hooves are always growing, always regenerating new material. The only thing the foot has to build the hoof capsule out of is the nutrients it’s supplied with. So what your horse is digesting has a direct effect on the quality of the hoof horn. The Circulation.

The food is the raw materials, the gut is the factory that processes them into building blocks. The circulation is the transport system that gets the building materials to the foot, and the foot is the work men who builds the hoof capsule. They all work together.

If you have the issues causing sensitivity under control then you have good circulation to the foot, that means you can finally get your building supplies to your builders. If you have the digestion sorted then you’re getting the right nutrients through. Then, and only then, will exercises to strengthen the foot be beneficial.

Strengthening a hoof capsule is exactly what it sounds like. You need supplies with which to build a stronger wall, or to thicken a sole, strengthen a digital cushion or a lateral cartilage. If there’s nothing there to build it from, you’ve got builders without anything to build with. It would be like them going through the motions of building a wall without any bricks. They might as well be drinking tea and telling rude jokes!

What do you think?
Put your 2 cents in and tell me in the comments below.


Want to read the rest of this series?
Part 1: In Good Condition
Part 2: A Sensitive Situation
Part 4 Strengthening Hooves

The Healthy Horse: Feeding and Nutrition

We Are What We Eat

It's easy to see why diet is so important. The body is always regenerating, it needs good nutrition to be able to build healthy cells. Nutrition is such a confusing subject though!

There's so much advice, and so many different choices, how are you ever supposed to figure out what's right for your horse?

About the author

Debs is a practicing Equine Podiatrist with over 15 years experience, author, and educator.

She’s here to show you how to simplify your horse’s management painlessly so you feel in control and have a straightforward system that works for you.

When she’s not working you can find her playing with her own horses, watching geeky sci-fi or baking epic cakes.

  • Hi! Just wondering like someone above what is a barefoot diet supposed to consist of? I know that’s the billion dollar question but it IS a spiky issue and so many people feed things successfully that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole (eg soya, rapeseed oil to make only 2). Obviously horses are not all the same but is there a base from which we should all start and are there things we should definitely avoid?

    • AH yes, a spiky question indeed! I’ve tried to write an article on this so many times, and usually I end up deleting it rather than posting it. Essentially, you need to feed your horse what it needs. Which while being accurate, it also a really unhelpful answer. Which leads me to post direct suggestions as to what to feed – only no one thing will work for all horses, so that’s not entirely helpful either. AGH!

      Essentially, you want to be as chemical free as possible, low in sugar and starch, high in fibre, and have a good quality protein source. Also you want your trace vitamins and minerals. And hopefully nothing too excessive in your forage. I think what you feed in the bucket has to compliment your grazing and hay supply, and everyone grazing and hay are so different, there is no straight answer.

      I generally say avoid high starch, molasses, alf-alpha, carrots, and chemically produced feeds where possible. That said, I’ve fed all those things to my own horses (excluding the one with EMS) in the last year (for all sort of reasons I won’t bore you with) and they’ve done well on it, and are all happily sound barefoot. It really is about finding the balance that suits your horses and your environment. And I can’t appologise enough that that isn’t a better answer

  • Would like to know what to give my appaloosa who has been diagnosed with laminitis. We live in Spain so grass is not the problem and she is fed wet hay three times per day plus a very small feed of fibre nuts and Healthy Hoof chop twice a day. I ride her for over an hour each day, in hoof boots, when her hooves are not sore which is usually after a barefoot trim, she has been barefoot for 18 months.

    • If she’s sore after the trim, then the trim may be the problem. In terms of diet, most often, particularly with a diet low in grass, it’s the electrolytes that need adding. I’m not so familiar with what feeds are available in Spain, but having recently moved to France, I have realised just how spoiled we are in the UK for feed options!

  • So, what SHOULD we feed the barefoot horse? I’ve been pondering that question since getting rid of the shoes as soon as I bought my current horse last year. Her transitioning is going well so she must be getting some building blocks…
    Thanks for these great articles!

  • I had major problems with my boy`s feet all last spring/summer. Went through two changes of diet and discovered his intolerance to alfalfa. Very aware of the importance of the gut on the health of the feet, so followed the suggested diet for barefoot horses I found in Nic Barker`s book. I feed Speedibeet, seaweed with rosehips, micronised linseed, magnesium oxide, apple cider vinegar and chopped oat straw as the carrier. Its all quite bland and low in sugar/starch and I think I am happy and he is happy with this diet. I make sure I can hear plenty of rumblings from the tum after his main meal!!!

  • Hi Debs

    Re digestion and all that, I too am a liver freak and mildly obsessed with effectiveness of nutrient absorption etc etc and health of liver and digestive system.

    Over the years we have established a feeding routine which is the same 365 days a year. The only difference is whats in the paddock at turnout time and that in turn affects the amount of forage in the stable at night but even though quantities may change, the food itself does not, nor the routine (apart from turnout and bring in times), nor the herbs/supplements at regular intervals throughout the year for various reasons.

    (I am real devotee of daily breakfast as well, whether the grass is a foot high or not but that’s another story…….)

    I have noticed four things, in comparison with other horses on my yard

    The first is that my mare’s stable does not smell during/after mucking out whereas other horses have very stinky urine and one owner even wears a mask to muck out its so bad.

    The second is that as my horse’s diet is always constant, the growth of hoof is always constant and it does not slow down in the autumn/winter months or speed up in warmer weather.

    The third is that her mood is pretty constant also all year round, we don’t get those spikes of lunatic behaviour at various times of the year.

    The fourth is that injuries heal much faster

    How does this accord with other folks experiences?


  • A great read .. I’m not a fan of the ‘building’ analogy used though – personal circumstances which you’re well aware of 😉 There is much to discuss when I see you next .. Deedee’s diet can be our first topic to cover off 🙂

    • Hey Helen,

      Thanks. If you want to go deeper you have to remember what you drink and breathe too. The air quality is less important with horses than humans, (horses tend to smoke less than people), but it’s significant if they’re stabled near a muck heap… 🙂


  • I thought you were talking about my digestive system in the “When Is A Balanced Diet Not A Balanced Diet?” section! There was a plus side to not absorbing the goodness in my food and there has been a definite weight increase following surgery, now that all is working as it should! Haha!

    And I love this quote: “The clue is in the name LIVEr.” GENIUS.

    • Ha Ha! Yes, you do get a clearer picture, overall a working digestive system is more comfortable though, even if you do have to cut down on the creme eggs 🙂

      It’s good to know someone appreciates my genius (if that’s what we’re calling it now!) 🙂

      One more post to go m’darlin’ and I’ll have finally answered your question!!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}