The History of Modern Hoofcare.
Keratex brand products are the recognized worldwide leader when it comes to dealing with horse hoof problems and intelligent preventative care. In order to develop ideal solutions, the company's scientists went back to basics to find the causes of hoof problems. As a result, they often challenge traditional beliefs about hoofcare.
Tradition, by definition, implies old. Nearly twenty-five years ago, before Keratex started researching new hoofcare methods, they looked at what was available within the traditional hoofcare armory. As scientists, they were concerned that most traditional hoofcare products were in some way oil or grease-based.
Because of their scientific appreciation of the structure of hoof horn it came as no surprise that tests with oil-based products showed considerable deterioration of the horn structure at the molecular level. These oils soften and weaken the horn. They have a tendency to replace natural moisture and prevent the hoof from breathing by sealing the structure. They were able to conclude that oil and grease-based conditioners provided no positive benefit to hoof health. In fact they were undesirable due to the way in which they compromise horn quality.
The fact that oils and greases were supposed to impart a pleasing appearance to the hoof also proved short lived. Dust and bedding soon attach to the surface, and in contact with urine, they become emulsified and water soluble. Oil and grease provide little protection for the hoof against important environmental influences.
Over time this scientific research was systematically confirmed by vets and farriers around the world. They generally recommend against the use of oil-based conditioners due to the problems they see caused to the horn structure following repeated use of these preparations.
Apart from these oil-based hoof conditioners very little else was available to owners twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the thought then was unless you soak the horses hooves in oil at least once a day, you were not caring for your horse. In fact those who never used oils, against all the traditions of horse management, were doing their horses a greater service and most likely did not suffer the hoof problems of the oil and grease devotees.
Another problem encountered early on was the traditional belief that it was almost part of horse ownership to expect feet to deteriorate during Summer months. The traditional remedy was to soak hooves in water a couple of hours a day.
As scientists, the company could not accept that the horse had evolved with a natural deficiency, or function, that caused the hooves to break up regularly during the drier months.
Of course there is nothing wrong with the horse. The hooves are breaking up as a result of the environment in which horses are kept.
Recognizing that the majority of horses have Thoroughbred blood in some proportion, and that the Thoroughbred is fundamentally a desert horse, they investigated the effects of water on hoof horn. What they found in the laboratory was again contrary to the thoughts of the traditionalists.
The structure of horn is designed to be at its strongest and most resilient when it is dry. The chemical structure dictates this - it is irrefutable. When horn is wet it absorbs water, swells appreciably, becomes more flexible and has reduced structural strength. Consider human fingernails after bathing as an example.
While the horn remains wet, during Winter for instance, it is stabilized in this weakened and swollen state. Unfortunately, the hooves tend to look better during Winter because the cracks close up and seem to disappear giving the impression, wrongly, that hooves are best when they are wet.
It is this weakened state of the horn which gives rise to the often heard remark about shoes being sucked off in the mud. In reality the surface area of a horse shoe is insufficient to produce enough suction to pull it off the hoof.
What most likely happens is that the water sodden hoof goes down through the mud, perhaps at a gateway, onto firmer standing and simply twists the shoe off the weakened horn.
So having established that wet horn is weaker and that absorbed water has a considerable effect on the molecular structure of horn, they were led to consider the effects of excess water being dried out of the hoof, as would happen in Spring and early Summer.
When horn absorbs water and swells, the effect is to disrupt the normal keratin molecular structure to accommodate the newly introduced water molecules. This causes the chemical and electrical bonds between adjoining keratin molecules to stretch to let in the water molecules. This stretching, which is associated with the hoof swelling while wet, causes the bonds to weaken. However, while the hoof is constantly wet, the intermolecular structure of the keratin is supported by the water molecules. If the water molecules are removed too quickly, as would happen when the weather dries, the remaining keratin structure is left in a very weakened state. If the water is removed slowly over a controlled period of time, about twelve weeks, the bonds will re-adjust and repair to a dry state.
Because weather patterns have evolved over the years, it is not unusual to go from five months of high rainfall and low temperatures to high temperatures and no rainfall in a matter of days. This causes the ground to quickly dry. The higher ambient temperatures will dry out the hoof in a couple of days, causing the hoof to shrink back to its normal dry size.
Farriers will confirm that if they shoe a wet hoof on a hot day it will quite often shrink sufficiently in just a few hours for the clenches to rise - giving some magnitude to the problem.
This sudden reduction in water content, with the associated shrinking, will leave the hoof in a weakened state. This will result in cracks as soon as the hoof is stressed. The hoof structure also becomes more permeable, allowing any moisture easy access.
Tradition, recognizing the change in hoof structure from wet to dry, thinks the solution is simply more water. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
More water just starts the process again with the hoof swelling. During Summer, the high ambient temperatures will soon dry out the absorbed water causing the hoof to shrink again. Therefore the traditionalist who dedicatedly hoses the feet every day, or stands the horse in a stream for an hour or so, is just making it worse. It's not his fault, as the tradition he follows does not appreciate the cause. This is how modern research can so easily contradict years of tradition, associated with years of cracked hooves. Little wonder that horse owners think it is a normal occurrence for hooves to crack in Summer.
Although the initial work on the transitions of hoof horn from wet to dry was carried out in the UK, it was interesting to note that some horses in Saudi Arabia started to experience severe hoof cracking with no apparent cause. However, it was possible to trace the cause to newly installed irrigated feed paddocks. The horses' hooves were getting wet while they fed and then suddenly drying in the very high ambient temperatures. The company was able to recommend a Keratex hoofcare product which stopped the problem. This experience highlighted the effect of changing from a natural environment. It further supported findings that water can have a long term and devastating effect on the quality of hoof horn if left unchecked.
A few simple examples which correlate directly to the effects of water drying out hoof horn:
Wet clay placed in the hot sun soon cracks because it dries too quickly. Potters soon discovered that if they dry their newly made pots slowly they would not crack.
Trees cut for timber are dried or seasoned for several years to allow the moisture to dry out slowly. Rapid, uncontrolled drying will cause fresh cut wood to crack or "shake".
Marine archaeologists, when preserving sunken wooden ships, continually spray the wood to prevent it from drying out. If this long sodden wood were to dry too quickly it would soon disintegrate into dust.
Bedding is perhaps not immediately thought to be associated with hoof quality, but it is one aspect of horse management with which we are in complete agreement with tradition.
During recent years we have seen an increase in different types of bedding materials, with wood shavings becoming very popular. The high absorption of these new beddings can also exacerbate problems with wet hooves by promoting even faster drying.
It is all due to a micro organism called micrococcus ureus.
Micrococcus ureus is an anaerobic organism which thrives in an airless environment. Its main claim to fame is its ability to convert urea, in urine, into ammonia. You may have noticed the pungent smell of ammonia in some stables and, more often than not, these will be stables using one of the new bedding materials.
The new bedding materials are dense, with no air circulation, and are absorbent, so they tend to remain damp. All in all the perfect environment in which micrococcus ureus can reproduce and prosper.
Everyone professes to have the cleanest and driest bedding in their stables. But, unless every bit of damp bedding or urine is removed, micrococcus ureus will find it and very quickly start producing ammonia.
Ammonia will dissolve natural oils and fats which protect the horn. The unprotected horn can then absorb urea, which will de-structure hoof horn and soles at the molecular level. It unwinds the keratin molecule, breaking the intermolecular bonds and leaving the hoof and sole soft and weak. Usually the horn below clenches will start to crumble, the sole will become prone to bruising and there will be an increase in fungal and bacterial infections in the hoof capsule.
These symptoms are becoming increasingly apparent in horses kept on these new types of bedding.
Tradition dictates that straw be tossed every morning, to ensure a good circulation of air, then stacked to dry with air passing freely through. Equally, the structure of straw allows urine to drain through more effectively, with little wetting or absorption. Soiled straw is easy to identify and remove. All this helps prevent the development and reproduction o micrococcus ureus and ensures low concentrations of ammonia in, or under, clean straw bedding.
Deep littering with any type of bedding is to be discouraged in the interests of good hoof health for the same reasons as stated above.
In some areas good straw bedding is difficult to come by. If wood shavings are the only viable option, then it is essential to take care to properly protect the hooves and soles against the effects of ammonia.
The horse is a roaming animal. In its natural habitat it would not be in constant contact with dung and urine. This is not the case with stabled horses, so it is not surprising to find that hooves have no natural protection against the effects of ammonia.
A relatively new hoof disease, which has only been formally diagnosed in recent years, is now becoming a major concern for vets and farriers. We refer to onychomycosis, or White Line Disease, as it is more commonly known.
Although information is still evolving around White Line Disease, certain aspects provide valuable insight. It does not affect all horses. It is not transferred by farriers' tools. The prognosis against future infection is not good for horses showing symptoms, even though all infected tissue is removed. It is therefore considered essential to introduce some preventative procedure against future infection. Until more definitive data is available as to the cause, all horses should be considered at potential risk.
There is an opinion that White Line Disease may only affect horses with an abnormal immune system, perhaps as the result of a medication regime. White Line Disease has now been identified around the world and considerable work is being done to find out more about this debilitating hoof condition.
Proper hoofcare is, and always will be, one of the most important aspects of horse management. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most commonly neglected.
We appreciate your interest in animal wellness and healthy hooves.