the importance of a healthy gut for healthy hooves

By Cheyenne Korbutt-Brown

We are all becoming more aware that what we feed our horses directly affects their health and therefore their hoof quality. We’ve all heard that you should keep sugars and starch to a minimum and the importance of mineral balancing but many owners are shocked and confused when I mention gut health.

How does my horse's gut health affect their feet?

This is a very complex subject but I will simplify things for ease of reading.

Correct nutrition is paramount for a healthy horse and this includes the hooves.

Feed the wrong things and you will end up with an overweight or underweight horse with underlying health conditions and poorly feet. However, you can feed all the correct things and still end up with the same results.

For correct feeding to work, the gastro-intestinal tract (the digestive system) needs to be functioning properly. When this is happening as it should, food is broken down in the stomach and then fermented in the hindgut. Essential nutrients are released along with vitamins and minerals which are then absorbed by your horse. The horse then utilises this nutrients to produce energy, repair cells and produce healthy hair and hoof horn.

However if the Gastro-intestinal tract is not healthy then these nutrients will not be broken down or absorbed properly. If the hind gut becomes too acidic through incorrect feeding then good gut bacteria can not survive and gut walls become inflamed. Bad bacteria multiply in this new environment and release toxins into the body.

In the process of fermentation, good gut bacteria will produce vitamin, A, B, K and volatile fatty acids. The horse needs these vitamins and nutrients to produce healthy hoof horn. One of the compounds made by good bacteria in the hind gut during fermentation is Biotin. Biotin is commonly supplemented to horses to promote healthy hoof growth however, if this compound is made in abundance in a healthy gut, it would be more beneficial to feed the gut, not feed biotin.

The lack of these nutrients can cause flaking or crumbling hoof horn, inability to hold a shoe, thin soles, foot soreness, increased bacterial infections such as thrush and whiteline disease, inflammation and decreased blood flow to the feet. Mineral imbalances will further comprise the production of new hoof horn. You May find your horse's feet grow slowly or not at all and any hoof horn produced is of poor quality.

How can I Improve my horse's gut health?

To simplify, you need two fundamental components to a healthy gastro-intestinal tract; A good, fibre based diet and healthy gut bacteria.

Horses are designed to eat fresh vegetation packed full of fibre. Horses are browsers as well as grazers and thrive on a variety of constant vegetation or forage. Grains and cereal based foods can upset the PH balance of the gut and the delicate gut flora within. If the diet is as natural as possible, generally, good gut bacteria will be present. However, this bacteria can also be affected by medications (commonly antibiotics and wormers) stress, ridden work, companions and stabling. With this in mind, you may choose to feed a gut supplement. There are so many on the market but the ones below have the best results.

  1. Prebiotics- Improve the health of the gastro-intestinal tract by feeding the good gut bacteria already present. Prebiotics are fibres that pass through the stomach unharmed.
  2. Probiotics- Living microorganisms (the good gut bacteria) that reach the hind gut alive and multiply. Prebiotics prevent bad gut bacteria, improve the immune system and decrease toxins from bad bacteria.

I would encourage you to keep the supplements as natural and chemical free as possible to not further upset the balance of gut flora. I would also avoid ant-acids as these further decrease the absorption of essential nutrients, vitamins and mineral. Ant-acids will only give temporary relief in the stomach but will not help the hind gut.

How can I tell if it's my horse's gut causing their bad feet?

It’s true that there are many reasons for poor hoof quality but if there are other signs of gut discomfort or digestion issues you can be pretty sure that gut health will have a significant role to play in hoof health.

Some of these symptoms include;

  1. Discomfort when touching the stomach
  2. Bad or grumpy behavior
  3. Gassiness (a by product of bad gut bacteria)
  4. Loose stools, undigested food in stools, liquid following stools
  5. Tightness in the hind end in movement and lifting
  6. Crib biting
  7. Wind sucking
  8. Weaving

The last 3 symptoms are often seen as bad habits but are actually as a result of severe stress and/or pain.

Many horses will have gut issues and show none of the above. If you feel you are feeding correctly with a mineral supplement and have ruled out underlying health conditions but your horses feet still aren’t healthy then this is a good indication the gut is not working as it should.

To Conclude, Gut health is as important for healthy feet as good nutrition. Think of it as a fire triangle. You can’t have fire without oxygen, heat or fuel. The same can be applied for healthy feet- you need A healthy gut and correct nutrition but you can't have only one or the other.