There is a reason hoof supplements have a sizeable market. There is also a reason they tend to have the same ingredients.
There is often a strong nutritional component to poor hoof quality
The quality and integrity of the hoof wall, as well as resistance to infections, results from an interplay between genetics, hoof care/trimming and nutrition. Genetics can’t be changed. Inadequate hoof care is a huge factor that can result in things like cracks and flaring even in the strongest hooves. However, nutrition also plays a very important role and the hooves can mirror several common dietary deficiencies.
The hoof wall is over 90% protein. Protein deficiency severe enough to influence hoof growth or quality is unusual, but individual amino acid deficiencies are not – including methionine, needed for the cysteine which forms strengthening sulfur linkages. Lysine is another often deficient amino acid that is important in hoof protein.
A healthy hoof has shine and a slick feeling to its surface. This comes from a network of fats and waxes. These are easily manufactured by the cells so there cannot be a fat deficiency per se but horses on hay rather than pasture have very low fat intakes and may have dry coats and hooves that respond well to some fat supplementation.
Zinc is required for every step of cell activity in the keratinocytes that form the hoof structure, as well as for forming the structural protein of the hoof wall. Zinc is also the most commonly deficient mineral in the United States and around the world. Studies have confirmed that low zinc status results in slow hoof growth, weak connections, thin walls and weak horn.
Zinc and copper together also play a key role in protecting the fatty layers of the hoof wall. Hooves, like fingernails, have a shine and slippery feel when healthy. This comes from fats incorporated into their outer structure, which keep environmental moisture out but critical tissue moisture in. Zinc and copper are essential components of the antioxidant enzymes that protect those fats.
Copper is also required for enzymes that form the reinforcing protein cross-linkages in hoof tissue. Hoof issues linked to copper deficiency include cracks, sole hemorrhages, abscesses, thrush and laminitis.
Of the potential nutritional causes of poor hoof quality, trace mineral deficiencies are the most common. To correct this, you need to supplement with good levels of copper and zinc in a supplement with low or zero levels of manganese and iron which can compete for absorption of those minerals. Many horses will also benefit from some supplemental fat and the amino acids methionine and lysine. The results will speak for themselves.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD