It's the height of summer. Temperatures are soaring, the ground is scorched. This explains why your client's horse's feet are dry, chipped, cracking, even abscessing - right? Well, actually, no.

Extreme weather and ground conditions definitely pose a challenge to the health and integrity of your horse's feet, but they don't have to be overwhelming. The survival of the species depends on sound feet. Nothing is more critical. No foot, no horse always has been a central truth. The hoof is not built to crumble under challenges - it's designed to survive.

Genetics complicates this issue to some extent. Breeds that evolved to survive desert conditions may be better suited to withstand summer weather than modern breeds created with other strengths in mind. However, the metabolism of what makes a strong, resilient hoof is not different between breeds. What is different is how vulnerable they are to weaknesses in their nutrition.

Hoof structure is over 90% protein. Inadequate protein is not a common nutritional issue but in horses on pastures in summer that are becoming dry and dormant, it can definitely be a problem. Protein drops quickly in aging pastures. This can occur before calorie levels drop enough to see weight loss. When you see pastures failing, supplement with a high protein source like alfalfa or flaxseed meal.

Even more important and less understood is the role of minerals in hoof health. Free calcium is required to form the bonds in hoof protein that give them structural stability. Adequate calcium intake is part of this, and so is adequate chloride to keep down bicarbonate that could bind the calcium. (Translation: adequate calcium and plenty of salt to provide chloride.)

Trace minerals are minerals needed in very low amounts compared to minerals like calcium, and also play a major role in hoof integrity. Zinc is required for every step of cell activity in becoming the keratinocytes that form the hoof structure, as well as for forming the structural protein of the hoof wall. Zinc is also the most commonly deficient mineral in the United States and around the world.

Studies have confirmed that low zinc status results in slow hoof growth, weak connections, thin walls and weak horn. 

Zinc and copper together also play a key role in protecting the fatty layers of the hoof wall. Hooves, like fingernails, have a shine and slippery feel when healthy. This comes from fats incorporated into their outer structure. Zinc and copper are essential components of the antioxidant enzymes that protect those fats.

Copper is also required for enzymes that form the reinforcing protein cross-linkages in hoof tissue. Hoof issues linked to copper deficiency include cracks, sole hemorrhages, abscesses, thrush and laminitis.

Of the potential nutritional causes of poor hoof quality, trace mineral deficiencies are the most common. To correct this, you need to supplement with good levels of copper and zinc and a supplement with low or zero levels of manganese and iron which can compete for absorption of those minerals. The results will speak for themselves.