Hoof dressing

Many people love to put hoof dressing on their horses’ hooves – it makes them feel like they are doing something good for their horses, and the hooves look nice after. But is it beneficial or detrimental?

I am often asked by my trim clients if they should use hoof dressing on their horses. For many, it has always been a part of grooming. They seem to like the shine and claim it is “good for their horses”, though they may not be exactly sure what it might do for them. For others with horses that have hoof problems such as cracks, chips, or fungal/bacterial issues, hoof dressing is often a go-to for prevention and treatment.

Four factors that affect hoof health

Let me begin by saying that hoof dressing won’t cure anything on its own. In some cases, it may even be detrimental. Let’s first look at the factors that do significantly contribute to hoof health.

1. Diet is a mainstay in overall hoof health. The hoof is not static. It is an adaptive, growing and vital tissue that requires maintenance by way of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Without the proper building blocks, hoof integrity can be compromised. Good quality forage, supplements as needed (after hay testing), and any feeds are all factored in. Changes in diet take time to impact hoof health, but maintaining good nutrition is essential.

2. Activity and exercise are critical for hoof health. Standing in a stall is one of the main contributors to hoof demise. Horses should be turned out as much as possible (24/7 is ideal), but daily exercise in addition to turnout will help promote hoof growth and health. In this regard, hooves are like muscle. They grow better and develop more when they are used. Circulation is enhanced by activity and exercise and is essential for the growth of healthy tissues.

3. Genetics also play a part in hoof health, but we cannot do much to change this aspect. The important thing to remember here is that if your horse has genetic contributors to hoof problems, you must remain diligent in controlling the factors you can. Being aware of tendencies and doing what you can as early as possible in the horse’s life can make genetics less of a problem. 

4. Trims and regular farrier care are essential in maintaining a hoof that can support the horse. Poor balance or irregular surfaces can lead to cracks and chips and poor alignment overall. Legs and hips can suffer as a result of hoof problems. Going too long between trims or “do it yourself” rasping or trimming can contribute to some real problems if we are not watchful.

These are the four cornerstones for healthy hooves. There are factors that will serve to compromise the integrity of the hoof. Prolonged exposure to urine and manure will eat away at tissues and damage the hoof. For this reason, I discourage stall life. Nail holes are a direct line into the soft tissues of the hoof. For this reason (and others), I discourage shoes. Shoes can also limit the movement of the hoof wall, making it less adaptive to surfaces and being under the load of the horse. Exclusive exposure to either excessively dry or excessively wet conditions can promote fungal or bacterial growth.

Hoof dressing – pros and cons

So is hoof dressing ever a good option? When determining if it will be of benefit, consider the following:

  • The healthy hoof wall will resist moisture, but the sole, frog and coronet can absorb moisture. If you apply hoof dressing to a healthy hoof wall, you will get a shiny hoof. But nothing else will change. Any applications you want “absorbed” must be applied to the parts that possess that function.
  • Hoof dressing used on a poor quality hoof horn can help create a barrier, but the more essential building blocks of a healthy hoof should also be promptly considered and addressed. Just providing a barrier will not cure any problems.
  • If the hoof has been invaded by bacteria or fungus, specific treatments must be undertaken and applied to the frog, sole and coronet as indicated. Old holes from shoes can also be treated. But do not rely on “absorption” from the hoof wall. Read directions and use antimicrobials as directed by your farrier to address specific issues such as thrush, white line disease, etc.
  • Chipping or cracking hooves generally require a full approach to healthy tissue and keratin production. Hoof dressing alone will generally not fix much. Some hoof dressings can even be more drying.
  • While a lot of hoof dressings claim to promote hoof growth and circulation, they do not. To promote healthy hoof growth and circulation, the horse must eat well, drink well, and move. Plain and simple. No topical application will fix growth or circulation.
  • There are disinfectants and barrier products as well as antimicrobials that can be applied in the form of a hoof dressing, but rarely will they be effective unless used as just one pillar of an overall approach to a healthier horse.
  • Making a hoof look shiny does not make it healthy. The old expression “beauty is only skin deep” is so true. A shiny hoof does not a healthy hoof make.

Your farrier is happy to advise you on the use of hoof dressings specific to your horse’s needs! Don’t fall prey to labels. Ask your professional farrier for advice on the need or desirability for hoof dressing.