Help for Dry Cracked Hooves
Proper nutrition is the bottom line for good health. That goes for hoof health as well. If your horse tends to have dry, cracked, brittle, unhealthy hooves, examine your nutrition program first. All the topical products in the world will not a healthy hoof make; healthy hooves depend on a healthy, well-nourished body. Total hoof care also involves your farrier, veterinarian, and good farm management practices.
Pasture-kept horses naturally have an advantage, nutrition aside, in that freedom of movement allows for much better circulation in the hooves which, in turn, promotes a more rapid, healthy growth and proper moisture balance. Natural terrain, especially for the unshod horse, helps keep hooves in good shape and allows for a natural wearing down of the hoof as it grows.
Dry, cracked hooves indicate a lack of moisture. Moisture is supplied from the tissues within the hoof and from the external environment; there is a moisture exchange going on constantly in the porous, healthy hoof wall as it maintains its proper moisture balance. Moisture from both sources promotes a strong resilient hoof.
The moisture level in the healthy, natural hoof horn is about 15-20 percent. With good circulation of blood and lymph, the inner laminae contain approximately 45 percent moisture. This moisture is diffused outward to the hoof horn to constantly replace moisture lost externally. If circulation is impaired, whether from structural causes or inactivity, moisture replacement is also impaired. (A horse in confinement has a definite disadvantage.) Also, as the horny outer wall dries out, it contracts, further affecting circulation of the fluids in the laminae. The color of the hoof is not significant because research has shown that the only difference among hooves of varying colors lies in the pigment granules which do not affect the strength or integrity of the hoof.
The morning dew provides a good drink for the thirsty hoof wall as does a stroll across the creek or slurping through the mud. If the external environment is too dry, moisture can't be pulled in when needed. Furthermore, hoof moisture is absorbed by the dry dirt or footing; under these conditions the hoof wall can tend to dry out more quickly than the inner moisture can replenish it. The process of repeated wetting and rapid drying, such as walking through a creek then standing in the hot sun, also contributes to drying of the wall. As the hoof horn dries, it loses elasticity and begins to crack. The smallest crevice can then collect dirt, preventing the crack from closing when it becomes moist again.
We can't remove dirt, moisture and sun from the environment (nor would we want to), so what can we do? Whether they be slight, superficial cracks, which are normal and not generally a problem, or more serious, severe cracks, we can prevent this condition from worsening. Be sure to provide adequate nutrition including free choice minerals (loose or block), salt, fresh drinking water, exercise (turnout is ideal), and proper farriery to maximize optimum circulation and growth. If hoof growth is at its optimum, new, healthy horn can more quickly replace the older, weakening horn as it is worn and damaged. If possible, allow wet hooves to dry slowly (provide shade).
There are many herbs that can be provided in the pasture or an herb strip (see Plant an Herb Strip in Your Pasture, Volume 1, Issue 2, NHM) or that can be fed supplementally to help promote proper hoof growth and enhance hoof repair. Consult with your veterinarian and qualified equine herbal professional for guidance, especially if your horse is pregnant (see Good-Sense Herbs for Breeding, Gestation, and Foaling in Volume 1, Issue 2, NHM). Herbs naturally supply the horse with vital nutrients. Using the whole plant, where there is balance and harmony of the nutrients and chemicals, rather than supplementing isolated ingredients will address the whole animal and produce more favorable results.
Kathryn Van Winkle, DVM, from Austin, Texas, agrees that herbs can be beneficial when used with care and common sense. She points out that raw herbs are preferable, if available, because the dried herbs are more concentrated, requiring additional caution. Herbs are quite useful for balancing a deficiency if you choose your herbs according to your horse's individual needs. For pregnant mares, she advises using extreme caution. Always verify the safety of the herb before using. Each individual plant has many different actions, and each of these actions may be altered when combining different herbs. Avoid excessive use of herbs, as this can upset the system rather than improve it. Dr. Van Winkle points out that in certain conditions, some herbs should be avoided. If a second or third condition exists, one must be extra careful or should avoid use altogether. Another thing one needs to verify is the compatibility of an herb with any drugs being used.
Here are a number of helpful herbs and some cautions regarding their use:
Alfalfa - promotes hoof growth and circulation. Do not overfeed.
Buckwheat - circulation, blood cleansing, cell growth.
Cleavers - high in silica, a mineral that helps ensure strong hooves. It has a diuretic effect so do not use during pregnancy.
Garlic - one of the most widely used herbs. It has a number of uses, is great for circulation, and helps horses prone to laminitis. Avoid giving garlic to lactating mares as the milk gets 'flavored' which can be offensive to foals; its use can also aggravate ulcers as it can be irritating to the stomach.
Hawthorne Berry - beneficial for blood flow and normalizing blood pressure, especially peripheral circulation (limbs and hooves); helps laminitis and founder.
Kelp - very beneficial to hooves, excellent source of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, iodine and other nutrients. The "bladderwrack" form of kelp is not recommended during pregnancy or in certain thyroid problems.
Nettle (when dried the sting is gone) - loaded with minerals. Nettles have a diuretic effect so do not use during pregnancy.
Rose hips - for improving hoof strength and condition; contains flavonoids and much vitamin C. Avoid overuse because vitamin C in excess can irritate the stomach or cause diarrhea.
For navicular syndrome and founder, some of the following herbs can be very beneficial:
Burdock Root - stimulates digestion, helps purify and cleanse the blood. It is diuretic; do not use during pregnancy.
Celery, seed or stalks - helps improve appetite, has anti-inflammatory action. The seed is a diuretic so it's not to be used in kidney disease (unless there is plenty of water intake) or during pregnancy.
Chamomile - improves circulation and digestion, and is anti-inflammatory. It may cause contact dermatitis and dermatitis from ingestion.
Comfrey leaf - helps soothe inflamed tissues and promotes fast healing, especially of bone and connective tissue. It is commonly fed to horses in other countries, but unless one is familiar with its proper use, it is more safely used as a topical preparation or a short-term poultice.
Devil's Claw - antiinflammatory, pain reliever, digestive tonic. Do not use if there is a possibility of gastric ulcer.
Horehound - stimulates circulation and digestion.
Peppermint - helps with digestion and utilization of feed. It may occasionally irritate mucous membranes and is not recommended for foals.
White Willow Bark - pain reliever and antiinflammatory, useful for laminitis and navicular syndrome. It contains salicylic acid, which can be a stomach irritant (do not use with butazolidin).
Any herbs that stimulate and encourage circulation and blood supply to the hoof will improve the quality and quantity of growth. Give carrots too - they are loaded with nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamin A to aid in the growth of healthy bones and other connective tissues.
Applications of herb extracts or diluted essential oils (these will not provide a moisture barrier) can also be very useful in improving hoof condition. Lavender and rosemary, for example, can be gently massaged into the coronary band to help stimulate circulation and improve growth. Rosemary also has great antibacterial and antifungal qualities. If your horse has no access to external moisture, you may want to moisten his hooves daily with a simple herbal tea. Remember to allow the hooves to dry slowly.
Heavy oils, petroleum products and waxes applied externally are not necessarily helpful; they are essentially moisture barriers which interfere with the natural moisture-balancing mechanisms of the hoof. Applying these products to a dry hoof will seal out moisture; however, thoroughly wetting a dry hoof before applying them will seal moisture in.
When dealing with hoof problems, remember it is not just the hooves that are involved. Check with your vet and holistic practitioner because, depending on your situation, it may also be wise to consider an herbal cleansing for detoxification or homeopathic treatment to address an underlying imbalance.
Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants by Sandra Burger, A. P. Knight
A Modern Horse Herbal by Hilary Page Self
The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Alternative Therapies for Horses by Vanessa Britton
American Botanical Council, at www.herbalgram.org
Meadowsweet Acre Herbs at www.meadowherbs.com
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Dr. Kathryn Van Winkle for her help in preparing this article.