How do horse hooves grow?
A great question - and would you believe it, the answer is: It depends! We can say, however, that hooves, on average, grow 1 cm a month.
What factors play a role in hoof growth? Lots.
- The season. Hooves tend to grow a bit faster in the warmer months.
- Moisture. Dry climates, like deserts, typically slow hoof growth down.
- Illness or fever. Sickness will slow growth, and often leave a ring around the hoof.
- Injury. The coronary band, as well as other hoof structures, may slow or deform growth when injured.
- Nutrition. Better nutrition equals better hoof growth. This is where we get to learn oodles of stuff from Dr. Clair. Nutrients that play a key role in hoof development are: methionine, zinc, copper, biotin, and fatty acids. Methionine is an essential amino acid (meaning that the horse cannot make it himself) that contains sulfur. The keratin associated proteins found in the hoof wall require adequate sulfur. As other amino acids are also necessary for hoof health, it is best to insure that the entire amino acid balance in the diet is optimal rather than supplementing individual amino acids.
Copper and zinc are trace minerals that are often lacking in forages. Even if supplemented, if the levels in the diet are poorly balanced their utilization may be reduced, and so overall balance is important. Copper is necessary for synthesis of elastic connective tissue and the formation of the disulfide bonds in keratin and zinc insures the proper enzyme function of a number of metabolic pathways associated with keratin formation. Fatty acids help with the pliability of the resulting hoof and biotin is important for cementing fats and proteins together resulting in a hardening of the cells. Phew - this is a great example of why a properly balanced diet is key - you can't just supplement willy-nilly!
Choose your supplements wisely!
- Movement. Hooves that move around in pasture, turn outs, paddocks, regular exercise, etc. grow better.
- Loading of the hoof. Uneven loading of the hoof can slow the growth down, and sometimes just in that area.
- Biomechanics. How the horse moves can influence hoof growth.
- Soundness. This relates to loading and biomechanics, and often includes injuries to the hoof and/or soft tissues of the leg.
- Don’t forget about genetics - it’s what makes your horse “special” and one of a kind.
That’s a bunch of factors. Even with all that going on, you are likely to get 1 cm, give or take, per month. It’s a long process!
Here’s something else to consider. The vast majority of horses grow asymmetrically. That means their hoof maybe grows more toe than heel, maybe more on the inside than the outside, or maybe more on the outside than the inside. This is the critical reason why your farrier must maintain a regular schedule, even if your horse is desperate to grow some hoof, for whatever reason. Perhaps, if your horse lives in South Dakota, and it’s winter, and he grows absolutely symmetrically, you might be able to go one week longer between visits. Otherwise, keep your farrier on a schedule that works for your horse. Some horses are four weeks, some are eight, it will depend. Work with your team to determine the best schedule!
Our buddy Ernest Woodward, Farrier, adds that regular maintenance is beneficial so that you are not overcorrecting an extreme situation, which requires a significant adjustment in terms of your horse "getting used" to his new hooves after a trim. By routine and frequent trimmings and shoeings on a tight schedule, you create a uniform shoeing cycle with no extremes, which helps your horse grow more hoof correctly. Maintain the hoof without dealing with extremes (too long here, too short there) and the hoof will be happy, comfortable, and grow well. A specific example of this would be a horse that grows a lot of toe, and while you think this may be great, it's the heel that takes the brunt of this as the toe grows out, and often times can prevent the heel from growing at all. Staying on top of this with regular hoof care and trimming prevents this type of situation, and your horse will thank you for it!
Proper (and consistent) hoof care will only help your horse.
The key to hoof growth is blood flow, and the keys to blood flow are movement, diet and overall health.
Please feel free to share your experiences with hoof growth. I will delete any posts that refer to the "barefoot vs. shod" debate, this is not the forum for that discussion! You can share your stories of how barefoot or shod helped your horse, but I won't allow any chatter about one being better than the other or one works for every single horse, because we know it does not! Thank you for respecting that!