Brittle hoof is one of the many horse conditions that both explains as well as labels a health problem. Brittle hoof is exactly what you would think, a condition where the hoof itself, including the horn and the hoof wall or exterior, becomes dry and cracks easily, leading to lameness as well as the chance that fungus and bacteria can get into the hoof.
Brittle hoof is common in some breeds, leading researchers to believe that there is a hereditary component to the condition. Breeds that are more prone to brittle hoof include Welsh Ponies and New Forest Ponies, but almost any other type of chunky horse or pony, often described as cobby, can have the condition in their line. Horses that are raised in very wet or soft and moist pastures or areas that are then moved to dry, sandy or stabled conditions with straw or pellets for bedding may also develop the condition, due to the change in the surface that is in contact with the hoof. Since some breeds have lived generations in wet, marshy conditions it only stands to reason that these breeds will have the greatest problem in adjusting to dryer surfaces that will absorb moisture from the hooves. Horses bred for dry areas rarely show signs of brittle hoof, probably due to early elimination of breeding stock that showed the condition.
Brittle hoof poses a problem for treatment of the condition using traditional methods. In most cases shoes are used to protect the hoof when it is damaged, however when a horse has brittle hoof they usually cannot hold a shoe as the hoof will simply splinter or shatter when the farrier tries to attach the shoes with nails. There are some special shoes with clips that can be used in extreme cases to provide the hoof with the protection of a shoe without putting additional strain on the hoofs by trying to attach the shoe with nails.
One of the most important considerations to help a horse with brittle hoof is to get moisture into the hoof as well as seal in the moisture that is produced by the body. There are many different sealants for hooves that work very well, but these should only be used if there is no infection or injury to the hoof, as this can actually seal in the anaerobic bacteria, leading to very serious problems. Treat and completely eliminate any fungus or bacteria before using sealant. In addition there are many hoof conditioners on the market that may be moderately helpful in treating brittle hoof provided they are used when the condition is first noticed. If you are using hoof sealants or conditioners be sure to follow all manufacturer's directions as well as remove all residue before adding more coats of the product. Too many layers of either conditioner or sealant can lead to improper absorption of moisture and can actually contribute to the problem.
Feed supplements that contain biotin, zinc and methionine are often recommended by farriers and vets, especially if the horse is largely feed hay and grain rations rather than being out on pasture. Most horses on pasture will get enough biotin through fresh grass, but zinc and methionine can be helpful. Another easy ways to help a horse with brittle feet is to provide a muddy area of the pasture or exercise area and tether them so they stand in the moisture for 20-30 minutes per day.