Moisture and Your Horse’s Hoof
Wet feet are a common problem
Poor hoof quality can be the result of multiple factors, including poor nutrition, lack of proper trimming and shoeing, excess moisture, and genetics. One of the more common causes of hoof problems is too much moisture in the hoof. Horses that live in wet, humid environments, those that are bathed repeatedly, and horses that are kept on damp bedding or stand in the mud for long periods of time are at the greatest risk.
Too much of a good thing
To remain healthy, the hoof absorbs nutrients and moisture from the blood stream. If a horse is well-nourished and well-hydrated his hooves will be healthy. Even a hoof that is a little dry and cracked on the outside will have a healthy joint capsule on the inside. In fact, the cracks in a dry hoof are often superficial. However, the hoof is naturally porous and it will absorb moisture from the environment. If too much moisture is absorbed it negatively affects hoof quality. Imagine a simple paper plate: you can pour water over it and it runs off, but if you leave it sitting in water for days and days, it starts to deteriorate and break apart. The same thing can happen to your horse’s hooves.
The hoof wall is made up of a system of ridged, closely packed horn tubules. The tubules are arranged vertically and parallel to each other. The tubules are made up mainly of a protein called keratin. The keratin molecules are held together by hydrogen bonds. Hooves are at their strongest when the hoof tubules are dry and the hydrogen bonds are strong. In a hoof exposed to normal moisture levels, the sole is cupped, the hoof wall is sturdy and it operates as a shock absorber when the horse moves. When the hoof absorbs water from the environment, the water weakens and breaks the hydrogen bonds between the tubules, making the hoof too flexible and reducing the hoof’s structural integrity and shock absorbing capabilities.
A hoof that is constantly exposed to high moisture levels becomes increasingly soft and weak. The sole tends to flatten out and the hoof is no longer capable of properly supporting the weight of horse and rider. Soft feet can lead to lameness, particularly when a horse is asked to work on hard surfaces or is being exercised rigorously. Hooves that are continuously wet are also more porous and therefore more prone to bacterial and fungal infections. Soft hooves tend to develop deep cracks, chipped areas and flat soles where bacteria and fungus set up housekeeping. The sole of the hoof, which is the most porous section of the foot, is particularly susceptible to disease.
Often the outward appearance of the hoof is deceiving. Overly moist feet tend to swell so cracks are not as noticeable. The hoof may look shiny and healthy but problems are brewing. It won’t be long before the hoof wall crumbles, clinches pop, and disease sets in.
Reducing the amount of moisture your horse’s feet are exposed to can be as simple as making a few management changes. Keeping stalls clean and bedding on absorbent wood products helps dry feet out. If you are showing or riding your horse regularly, try giving sponge baths instead of soaking her with the hose. Make sure your wash area is free of mud and puddles to reduce the amount of moisture your horse’s hooves are exposed to.
If your horse lives outside during wet, muddy weather, provide a dry place, such as a well-drained gravel pad or covered shed, for him to hang out in. If you live in a wet, humid climate you may have to resort to turning your horse out in a covered arena with dry footing during the wettest season.
Don’t apply hoof moisturizers and dressings to the hoof wall and sole. The horse gets all the moisture and nutrients it needs from her internal blood supply. At best, these products end up wearing off, wasting your money. In the worst-case scenario, they develop a residual slime that can trap bacterial and fungus in the moist hoof.
Each horse is different
Horses are individuals and genetics plays a definite role in hoof quality. Some horses can stand in the mud all day and never have a problem, while some seem to struggle with bad feet no matter what you do. Good nutrition, sanitary living conditions, and appropriate moisture levels are beneficial to all types of horses. With a little attention to detail, and in some cases creative management, most horses can grow and maintain good quality hooves.