The History of Modern Hoofcare.
Keratex Equine Hoofcare is the recognized expert and worldwide leader
when it comes to dealing with horse hoof problems and intelligent
preventative care. In order to develop
ideal solutions, our scientists have gone back to basics to find the
causes of hoof problems. As a result, we often challenge traditional
beliefs about hoofcare.
Tradition, by definition, implies old. Nearly twenty-five years ago, before we
started researching new hoofcare methods, we looked at what was
available within the traditional hoofcare armory. As scientists, we were
concerned that most traditional hoofcare products were in some way oil
Because of our 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
We 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
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 our 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 we 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, we 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,
we investigated the effects of water on hoof horn. What we 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
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, we 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
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 our 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, we were able 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. We
were 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 our findings that water can
have a long term and devastating effect on the quality of hoof horn if
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
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. We found straw best for
keeping the hooves in good condition - the traditional bedding material.
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.
We know that 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
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
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
Proper hoofcare is, and always will be, one of the most important
aspects of horse management. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most
We appreciate your interest in animal wellness and healthy hooves.