Brittle hooves: causes and proper care

Almost every horse owner knows them: cracks in the hoof. Sometimes they are smaller, sometimes larger, sometimes they go away on their own and sometimes half the hoof wall breaks off. Especially in summer you often hear the well-intentioned solution: "Water and grease the hooves so that the horn is kept elastic and does not break out". But is that really the case? Does Huffett really help against cracked and brittle hooves? In order to be able to answer this question, it is best to first look at the background. Why do hooves become brittle at all? And this is where the difficulty begins, because there are various causes. Unfortunately, two of the most common reasons are often overlooked or not even considered. On the one hand the feeding and on the other hand leverage on the hoof. So let's take a closer look at these two factors.

Hufmechanismus, Huf, Hufgesundheit, Hufbewegung, Barhuf

Incorrect nutrition as a cause of brittle hooves

The hoof needs certain nutrients in order to be able to produce sufficient horn of good quality. These include, for example, sulphur-containing amino acids such as methionine and cysteine ​​as well as lysine. Methionine and lysine are among the essential amino acids, i.e. they cannot be produced by the body itself, but must be ingested through food. Cysteine, in turn, is formed from methionine, but can also be ingested directly. The sulfur in these amino acids is important so that enough disulfide bridges (= connections made up of two sulfur atoms) can form in the keratin of the hoof. The more disulfide bridges that are formed, the stiffer the horn that is formed becomes. If there is a lack of sulfur or sulphur-containing amino acids, the hoof becomes brittle. Typically, this results in hooves that do not tear at a single point, but become unstable overall and often become brittle in several places.
Hoofs in which the hoof wall begins to split are also characteristic, i.e. in which the connection between the pigmented and unpigmented wall is no longer sufficiently good (if you do not know which wall layers are meant here, we recommend our article on the anatomy of the hoof. However, the hoof needs a whole range of other nutrients in order to be able to produce optimal horn. For example, the horse must be supplied with sufficient B vitamins so that the above-mentioned amino acids can be metabolised at all. Here also comes the intestinal flora come into play: if this is disturbed, the body cannot produce enough vitamin B6 and the amino acids supplied cannot be utilized. Other deficiencies can also be the result of damaged intestinal flora, such as a zinc deficiency. Zinc is also essential for stable hooves and can lead to tears if there is an undersupply It is therefore not only important that your horse takes the ric gets the necessary nutrients, but that his digestive tract and metabolic organs are so healthy that the nutrients can also be utilized. A well-functioning liver and kidney metabolism is therefore a significant factor in the fight against fragility.

Too much of a good thing

Brittle hooves can result not only from malnutrition but also from overnutrition.

An oversupply of selenium and iron in particular can lead to cracked hooves. A selenium deficiency can be just as harmful as selenium poisoning.With a high selenium supply, selenium is stored in the hoof instead of sulfur, which reduces the disulfide bridges and the hoof loses stability

Iron, on the other hand, serves as an antagonist to zinc, which means: if the concentration is too high, iron can displace zinc. Incidentally, high iron concentrations are not only found in the basic feed, but often also in the water. In the event of problems with hoofs breaking out, a water analysis is often worthwhile. In addition to high iron levels, nitrate poisoning can also be responsible for unstable hooves and cracks. Especially when horses are soaked with groundwater, increased caution is required here!

Horn splitting by leverage

The second often overlooked trigger for hoof cracks is leverage. This means that some structures in the hoof are not in balance and therefore develop non-physiological forces – levers. These then press on certain areas and cause bruises or strains there. If these levers press on the hoof wall, it can easily happen that the horn capsule can no longer withstand this tension and tears open mechanically. One then also speaks of “stress cracks”.

A typical example of this is heels that are too long: this puts too much pressure on the toe wall and often develops a tear right in the middle of the hoof wall.

Another example often found is overturned bars laying on top of the sole: this causes the sole to push against the lateral hoof wall. If the pressure gets too high (e.g. if the bars eventually grow out of control over the sole), a tear often develops in the lateral wall of the hoof.

Such situations often arise from insufficient hoof trimming: either the imbalances are not sufficiently corrected during trimming, or the trimming is done too seldom. In the case of difficult pathologies (e.g. a club hoof), a correction may be necessary every two weeks!

Some levers are also caused by congenital malpositions. Both unilateral and bilateral stance errors can lead to unphysiological wear and tear of the hoof and thus leverage effects. In addition to close-meshed processing, permanent hoof protection is sometimes advisable here, with which certain positions can be improved.

Of course, hooves can simply be too long overall and therefore break out. Depending on the husbandry conditions, the processing interval must be adjusted accordingly and should not exceed 6 weeks on average.

Durchblutung Huf, Thermographie Huf, Hufmechanismus
Durchblutung Huf, Thermographie Huf, Hufmechanismus

Hygiene as a cause of breaking hooves?

A lack of cleanliness in the stables is repeatedly blamed for brittle hooves. In extreme cases, this can definitely be the case: if a horse stands on a lot of urine-soaked ground, the resulting ammonia can attack the horn and dissolve molecular bonds - the hoof becomes brittle. In most cases, however, it is more the case that the tension in the hoof is already suboptimal or that the horn substance is weakened due to nutrition and unhygienic conditions then simply cause the camel to overflow. Because if the white line or the hoof wall is already stressed, they are much more susceptible to bacteria and fungi and white line disease can occur, for example. When this happens, the germs eat away at the connective layer of the hoof, making it easier for the hoof wall to break away.

Dryness causing cracks in the horn?

This connection seems crystal clear: when hooves become dry, they become brittle. That's true too - to a certain extent. High temperatures and low humidity in the environment cause the outermost horny layers of the hoof to dry out and become particularly hard (your trimmer can surely tell you a thing or two about this). The outer layers of the hoof wall can actually show fine cracks, but typically on all four hooves and distributed throughout the hoof wall. Normally, however, these are not a problem, as they only affect the outermost layer of wall horn and disappear on their own when the surrounding area becomes humid again. The hoof is not only supplied with moisture from the outside, but also from the inside. A study by the University of Edinburgh has shown that in a healthy hoof, moisture from the outside does not even penetrate a millimeter into the horn. A kind of natural moisture barrier is therefore assumed in the hoof, so that horses do not have any stability problems with their hooves even in wetter zones of the earth or in excessive rainfall. Another study has shown that it is primarily the hoof sole that absorbs moisture from intensive watering, but not the hoof wall. The loss of moisture in hot summer periods is therefore only responsible for superficial cracks, but not for individual deeper cracks on isolated hooves. A good example of this are horses in desert areas: these horses typically have very firm, compact hooves and rarely have problems with wall breaking. If dryness were a problem for hoof elasticity, horses in these areas would not be able to walk healthily.

Injuries as a cause of cracks in the hoof?

In addition to the reasons already mentioned, injuries can also lead to hoof walls breaking off or cracks. In the simplest case, your horse can step on a stone with the hoof wall at an unfavorable angle and therefore break off a piece of the wall. The worse the wall connection was previously, the more likely it is that a wall will actually break out in such an event. However, this is very rarely the case with healthy, compact hooves.

Injuries can not only occur from below, but also from above: if, for example, there is a scar on the coronet, it may be that the corium there is restricted in the production of horn. This case is one of the few irreparable causes of hoof cracks, because the already scarred dermis cannot be cured again. However, such cracks are often unproblematic if the rest of the hoof is well nourished and balanced.

Injuries to the hoof capsule also include nail holes from nailed horseshoes. These holes both mechanically weaken the hoof wall and provide entry points for bacteria and fungi. A healthy hoof usually copes with these artificial injuries for a while, just as it would with a natural injury. However, if the hoof is already weakened by leverage or nutritional problems, the nail holes are often the icing on the cake, leading to the final breaking off of the hoof wall.

Caring for brittle hooves and cracked horns

So you see: the causes of hooves breaking out and cracks in the hoof are very diverse.And their treatment is just as varied! Because the problems in the hoof can only be permanently solved if the cause is identified and combated. Solutions that only serve to conceal the problem (e.g. stapling cracks or attaching fittings with elevators to keep the wall from mechanically breaking away to prevent), bring no lasting improvement in the hoof situation and can even worsen it in the long run.

With this knowledge, we can now better answer the question asked at the beginning: does hoof fat help against cracked hooves? The answer is very clear: yes!

Because the only thing hoof fat can do is slow down the drying out of the outermost layer of the wall of the hoof. This means: if your horse has superficial cracks in the hoof wall in extremely dry times and you would like to eliminate them, you can first water the hooves and then seal them with hoof fat. In this way you can slow down the evaporation of the moisture in the outer wall layer - but the hoof does not get any additional moisture from the fat!

But in all other cases - if there are deeper horn clefts or hoof walls break off due to improper nutrition or leverage - treatment with Huffett is pointless.

Brittle hooves therefore need one thing above all: the elimination of the cause, e.g. a change in diet, improved stable management and adapted hoof trimming. Apart from that, as the owner, you can provide the best possible support by ensuring that no bacteria or fungi can settle in the cracks during daily care. In many cases, your farrier will cleanly open up the existing gaps and show you how to keep things clean between trimming intervals

Author: Nathalie Kurz



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