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Feeding for Hoof Health and Barefoot Trimming

Barefoot trimming is technique where the horse's feet are trimmed to replicate the wear that a horse’s hoof would sustain should it be undomesticated. Horses in captivity don't wear down their hooves in the normal manner due to the fact that in most instances they are not given the time or environment in which to produce wear on their hooves. Normally the growth exceeds the wear and the hoof becomes too long and hoof deformities occur. If you were to note the wear pattern on a horses shoe there would be obvious wear around the front so it appears rounded. This is the way horses try to wear their feet. The practice behind barefoot trimming is to file the hoof back so that the toes don't "run away" and the breakover* point remains where it belongs.

*Breakover point is the point at which the toe leaves the ground.

Barefoot trimming stops the horse chipping its hoof and allows the horse to go longer between trims. The optimal form and length is different for every horse the same way fingernails are different on every human. This means there is no one way to trim a horse and in fact all four of the horses feet may be of different lengths and shapes. The goal for barefoot trimming is to let the hoof grow in such a way that indicates the normal wear pattern for the horse and keep the hoof at a length that best suits them. Since many horses lives are cut short by feet and limb deformities there are many benefits associated with barefoot trimming.

It has been shown that the internal structures of the horses hoof start to deteriorate if the horse is shod and they are built to support weight and hit the ground. If the horse's weight is being suspended off the ground by shoes the digital cushion begins to lose structure and become weak. Luckily these structures are able to regenerate and grow tough again but only through removal of shoes. One of the common mistakes is that the horse owner will remove the shoes and the horse may appear lame due to the softening of the digital cushion so the owner will put shoes back on. This in fact worsens the problem as on shoes the structures continue to weaken. The only way to strengthen the horse’s feet is to remove the shoes and let the horse recuperate naturally.

Diet Selection Helps Prevent Common Hoof Problems

Diets with high levels of NSC (>15%) (i.e. most grain based diets) can contribute to laminitis through carbohydrate (NSC) overload of the intestines and the hindgut. 

1. Acidosis in the hindgut.  Fructans and starch overload in the hindgut can cause acidosis, resulting in a rapid decline in pH and sudden death of the intestinal organisms. These organisms release highly toxic endotoxins, which contribute to the cause of laminitis. 

2. Carbohydrate overload of the intestines.  Too much soluble carbohydrate in the intestinesins causes increased uptake of glucose. This causes the horse to produce higher levels of insulin, and the horse becomes insulin resistant.  High levels of insulin causes laminitis.  High levels of circulating glucose also cause nutrient partitioning and storage of carbohydrate of fat leading to obesity. Obesity is recognised as a major contributor to laminitis.

Laminitis can usually be avoided by feeding low NSC feeds, together with exercise, to avoid obesity. Select feeds with a low NSC (<15%), reasonable protein and sulphur amino acid content, and oil to maintain hoof integrity and vascular function in the hoof.  Regular hoof trimming is also recommended to maintain a balance that allows the laminar attachments to be evenly loaded is essential to ensure adequate blood circulation into the hoof.

What is the Digital Cushion and How/Why Does it Deteriorate?

Claudia Garner  -