The Effect of Climatic Conditions on Hoof Horn - Wet/Dry


The Effect of Climatic Conditions on Hoof Horn - Wet/Dry


I am a working Farrier in the United Kingdom. I have also worked in Northern Europe and I have spent time with Farriers in Australia and the United States. It seems to me that almost without exception, as Farriers we all encounter hooves that are suffering environmental distress. Each Farrier I have spoken to relating to this subject considers their own environment to be the worst for hooves. The reality is that until we had the ability to meaningfully measure the effects of the environment on hooves, we have been unable to formulate a simple system to assist us in the proper hoof care and management of these damaged feet. Follow this Link for Keratex Products

Hoof horn is at its strongest and most durable when it has a stabilised moisture content of around 25%. Unfortunately here in Northern Europe most horse-owners, seeing hooves in this condition, would pronounce them to be too dry. But that is exactly as they should be to withstand the stresses of work and shoeing. Even if the moisture content of horn cannot be maintained at this sort of level it is essential to control and stabilise moisture at a constant level otherwise cracking will occur.

Because of the climatic conditions in this country, wet Winters and then Summers interspersed with wet and dry periods, hoof horn is certainly too wet for probably five or six months of the year, starting when the hooves are saturated with water from high Winter rainfall.

When hoof horn is saturated it swells to accommodate excess water molecules. The swelling causes the surface cracks and defects to disappear leading the uninformed observer to believe hooves are at their best when they are wet. Although they may look better, the horn is actually very weak when saturated with water – just like your fingernails after you have sat in the bath for too long, when they can be easily bent and torn. Everyone has heard tales of shoes being ‘sucked’ off in the mud. Well, for a start it is physically impossible for mud to exert sufficient suction on a properly fixed horseshoe to pull it off, but it is easy for a shoe to be twisted off a water saturated hoof when it goes down through the mud onto hardcore. You would be amazed to see the number of old horseshoes dug out when renovating the surface of field gateways on popular hunting routes.

Given that hoof horn is strongest when it has a low moisture content of 25% one might assume that as hooves dry out after a wet Winter that they will become stronger as they dry. In reality we know that the reverse is the case –with the hooves becoming brittle and cracking. How can this be? Is it genetic? This may be partly in certain breeds. Is it nutritional? Usually it is not. The simple answer, coming from extensive scientific research, is that it is caused by a change in the molecular structure resulting from excess water drying out of the horn too quickly. If your horse has a good shiny coat that grows and moults at the right time of year then it is almost certain that there is no nutritional deficiency that will affect horn growth or quality – hair, skin and horn are all based on the protein keratin, so if the coat is good and the hooves bad that points to an environmental cause affecting the quality of the hooves – WATER!

(Dr Melinda Duer of Cambridge University has very recently written a paper about her research on hoof horn using very advanced NMR technology and has proven that once horn goes through the wet (saturated as in winter) dry cycle, some of the intermolecular bonds are irreparably damaged and will not repair naturally)

Since hoof horn is dead, with no blood supply, it is impossible for feed supplements to repair visible horn as once the horn is produced by the cells in the coronary band it dies off and becomes cornified. In real terms feed supplements are inappropriate for the majority of horses with bad feet. As yet, despite all their claims, no feed supplement manufacturer has claimed to stop the effect of rain water on hoof horn. Needless to say there will be those horses with a deficiency, but, here in England particularly where we tend to overfeed and over supplement our horses, they will be very few and even these should not be fed a supplement until a horn sample has been tested to determine what it is deficient in.

It is my belief that horses that are fed the top brand hoof supplements (not copies masquerading as the same) do no harm. If a horse was deficient in some of the micronutrients necessary for good structured horn growth and a supplement were to supply that need, then I believe the better structured horn may be less susceptible to damage from the climatic pressures placed upon it.

In non-technical terms imagine hoof horn to be made up of blocks (keratin molecules) held together with cement (intermolecular bonds). When the hoof takes on excess water the water molecules force the blocks apart and stretch the cement making the hoof weaker.

When the hoof dries out too quickly the ‘blocks’ move partly back into place, but the ‘cement’ is damaged and there are gaps between the ‘blocks’. The lack of integrity of the molecular structure causes the hoof to crack and split under stress. A complication when the hoof is in this condition comes from the horn being more porous and easily absorbing water. This again swells the hoof and on a hot day it will dry too quickly, setting in motion the wet/dry cycle that is so damaging.

Note; the moisture control system operates from internally thus we cannot introduce or increase the moisture levels externally. In very hot dry conditions, it may be helpful to try to prevent the horse from becoming dehydrated.

A further problem occurs when horn splits and cracks in summer and the first thought is to soak the hoof in water to introduce some moisture. We now know that this is totally contraindicated because it exacerbates the whole problem. Soaking the already damaged hoof horn on a warm day causes the horn to initially swell to accommodate the water molecules and then during the heat of the day all the newly introduced water dries out and the hoof shrinks back again causing further damage to the molecular structure. Hosing or tubbing dry brittle hooves will only exacerbate a problem that was caused by water in the first place and is definitely not recommended.

If it were possible to dry saturated horn slowly and in a controlled way over several weeks the molecular structure would rebuild itself to become both dry and strong, but that of course is totally impractical. It must be understood that there is a big difference between dry horn with a low moisture content and dry brittle horn that has been damaged during rapid drying out. Most people in Northern Europe will only normally see the latter, but unfortunately this condition has become synonymous with the warmer conditions in summer and is now generally accepted as a normal occurrence, which of course science has proved otherwise.

Another important factor to consider is the way in which certain breeds are very much compromised by living in wet climates. The Thoroughbred for instance has only existed in Northern Europe for around three hundred years and before that its male ancestors, the three Arab stallions, came from a desert. Again it seems to be part of tradition that Thoroughbred hooves are expected to break up in summer – and they do with alacrity and they probably have done so each year since breeding started in the 1700’s.

Science has clarified the cause and effect of environmental water on hoof horn and furthermore has provided the products to repair and protect it.

For many years, centuries even, there was little more available within the Hoofcare armoury than concoctions of different oils and greases, but now not only has research shown that these products are mostly contraindicated and can actually damage hoof horn, but also many Farriers and Vets are actively persuading their clients against their use.

Undoubtedly, some of these oily hoof preparations can give the hoof a pleasing and shiny appearance, but these marginal benefits do still have an adverse effect on the molecular structure of hoof horn and as you will have read earlier it has more than enough to cope with environmentally without further damage being caused by well meant, but inappropriate treatments.

So, if oil and grease have become a dubious tradition then what is the future?

Note; at this point I would like to apologise for mentioning product and brand names. These products have been in the market place for many years. I feel as I have no financial gain from their mention or sales of them, I can freely advocate the only products I have found I have had continued success over a long period of time providing the horse owner has followed the protocol as stated without compromise.

Keratex, who are at the forefront of modern hoof care have amongst their range two specific products that have been specially developed to repair and protect hooves against the effects of environmental influences.

Keratex "Hoof Hardener" is the only product (it is Patented) that actually repairs the molecular structure of hoof horn after it has been weakened by the effects of water. It does this by a process called cross linking and adds atoms to repair the intermolecular bonds which support the molecules of keratin that make up the major part of hoof horn and give it optimum strength. (Do not confuse this product as just Formaldehyde. It is a complicated formula that will not work if anything is added or removed from the formulation)

Having recognised that water is one of the main culprits in the cycle that weakens hoof horn Keratex developed "Hoof Gel" This liquid actually provides a protection to the whole hoof capsule that works in the same way as the ‘breathing’ fabrics used for country clothing. (i.e. Gortex)

Hoof Gel stops all types of moisture, including urine, from entering the hoof, but it still allows air into the hoof and lets gases and excess moisture out. But it has many other benefits. It disinfects the hoof with every application and by preventing environmental water getting into the hoof it keeps the hoof capsule in a more healthy state by excluding the organisms that cause such conditions as seedy toe, white line disease, thrush etc. as the organisms responsible for these conditions are all carried into the hoof in absorbed environmental water.

The result of using Hoof Gel is that the hoof is virtually cocooned in an invisible coating that protects the horn and other hoof tissue without compromising any of the natural functions, so that the hoof develops to be naturally stronger and healthier. It also makes the hooves easier to clean, by shrugging off water and mud, and helps stop manure etc, adhering to the sole and frog.

Due to the influence of environmental factors in Northern Europe the molecular structure of most horses hooves will be in some way affected and the symptoms may range from slight cracking around the nail holes to frequently lost shoes and ripped away hoof wall.

Because the horn structure usually needs repairing we would always start treatment with Keratex Hoof Hardener and then follow up with Keratex Hoof Gel as an on going maintenance and protection throughout summer and winter. We have found the following regime gives the best results on all conditions of horn. Read the instructions fully, but use the following application frequency:

An important note here!

It is always helpful to document the feet from the start. The documentation should be both photographic and hard records. These can be stored in your Farrier Management Software. Each time you re-shoe the horse it is important to record the feet again. This will be important for most owners at see the change from start to finish and as they continue the hoof care regime any further improvements can be seen.

Start off with Keratex Hoof Hardener over six weeks with the following frequency:

(For general use Keratex Hoof Hardener is best applied in the morning after the horse has been brought in for the night and the hooves have had a chance to dry off.)

Hoof Wall: Every day for the entire six weeks

Sole: Week 1: Every day

Week 2: Every other day

Week 3: Twice

Weeks 4 & 5: Once

Week 6: Every day

Week 6: Bring the horse in onto a clean dry bed and keep it in for a full seven days.

This is to allow the hoof structure to dry out thoroughly and hopefully revert

to a moisture content of around 25%. During this week do not allow the horse

out at all if possible and certainly not on grass or anywhere which is the slightest

bit damp. Keep the bed scrupulously clean and dry.

At the end of the sixth week after the horse has been kept in, and immediately after the last application of Hoof Hardener has dried, start applying Keratex Hoof Gel every day during winter or wet weather and two or three times a week in dry weather. Remember early morning dew preceding a hot sunny day can be quite damaging if it is absorbed into the horn and then quickly dried in the heat of the day, so continue using Hoof Gel all year round. Use Hoof Gel over the whole hoof, walls, sole, frog and heels

For those of you worried about appearance for showing or special events then that is easy with Hoof Gel. Just allow it to dry fully and then rub gently with a soft shoe brush. The result is a perfect natural shine that does not pick up grass or bedding. Farriers, Vets and show judges will appreciate not getting oil all over their hands!

This regime can be started at any time of the year, but it is of paramount importance to get the hooves absolutely dry before starting with Hoof Gel.

All the horse owners in our Farrier practice that have committed to following the above procedure planned the best time, both weather and for convenience, have seen their horses feet improve and in most cases to a higher level than they had previously experienced or had expected.

Keratex Hoof Hardener is a very advanced, and patented, formulation designed specifically for use on hoof horn and because of the way it works, by adding atoms into the structure, it is impossible to over harden the horn. Some of horse owners have been told by their Farriers that the hoof is getting too hard, but this is not the case. Unfortunately many Farriers are so used to working on soft water saturated horn, which is very easy to cut, that when the horn is at the correct moisture content they notice it is much harder to work on. Hard, dry horn is strong horn and should not be confused with the dry brittle horn that occurs after winter water dries out during hot weather.

Dry Hooves.

Although I do not have regular contact with very dry feet here in Northern Europe, I can draw on the experiences of farriers who regularly work on this type of hoof. I have limited experience from visits in USA and Australia when I have worked on these very dry hooves. I find dry feet much harder to cut and rasp and they do seem contracted when compared with wet, flat feet. Damage limitation to these feet seems just as important as maintainance.

Again I apologise in advance for a specific product recommendation

however, the Keratex Company do make a product specifically formulated for "dry hooves" This product is called Keratex Hoof Moisturiser.

This liquid paint on product was formulated for use in arid climates.

The moisturiser should be applied over the walls and soles, once every day during dry weather. The liquid will attract any moisture in the environment to the hooves. The moisture will only be absorbed up to or around 25% moisture level which will be maintained unless the hooves are placed into a constantly wet environment.

Afinal word of caution here, I do know that regular hoof soaking dry feet will create severe damage to dry feet and must be avoided at all costs as the sudden uptake of moisture will damage the hooves at molecular level. (An identical problem that plagues wet feet).


Please follow this link to purchase keratex products

David J Nicholls

RSS AWCF RJF NBHM NBBT CNBF Certified Lameness Specialist


Copyright © David J Nicholls – The Equine Lameness Prevention Organisation -[The Farriery Practice – 2012 –Colin Reeves- EPC Ltd


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