When winter's icy fingers reach across the landscape, it's time for us to make some adjustments in our horsecare routines. And it's not just a matter of chipping ice out of water buckets and dragging around all those increasingly aromatic blankets. Winter has an impact on hooves, as well.
In the colder months, most horses' hooves grow a little more slowly (although that depends on the horse's activity level; horses who stay in regular work generally stimulate more hoof growth than those who are idle).
Veterinarian and farrier Tia Nelson, DVM, whose practice is based in chilly Helena, Mont., said, "Hooves change profoundly according to temperature changes—probably more than we know. I think growth slows in winter because the horses are putting their energy into survival, though the change is not as drastic in stabled horses as in horses out on the range."
Slow growth, coupled with many people's reluctance to ride in chilling winds or icy footing, also means that hooves often don't get looked at, picked out, or trimmed as frequently as they would in more temperate conditions.
Neglect can have a number of unfortunate consequences for hoof health. An animal who stands all day in a cold, wet, muddy paddock could develop a severe case of thrush, a fungal infection that takes hold in the soft tissues of the frog and heels, and can, if not treated, cause significant deterioration and lameness. (Easily recognized by its gray or black exudate and distinctively foul odor, thrush is best treated by getting the horse out of wet or muddy conditions. Once he's back on dry land and clean bedding, ask your farrier to trim out the worst of the infection and apply an appropriate medication to help fight the remaining crud).
Horses with overgrown feet who have to negotiate rock-hard, frozen paddocks or trails may develop chips, cracks, or ragged edges, which can compromise the integrity of the hoof wall. And bruising can be a problem when snow cover is thin, as well.
Said Nelson, "Hard, frozen ground plus no snow equals bruised soles. And horses who paw through the snow for their livelihood can get very bruised toes if the snow cover is thin."
But winter can also have an upside when it comes to hoof care. Winter feet rarely suffer from dryness, and because horses generally aren't stamping their feet at flies in January, they're somewhat less likely to break off sections of the hoof wall or open up the white line (the section of the foot binding the outer hoof wall and the sole) to bacterial or fungal infection.
Furthermore, since many horses are worked less regularly in the winter months, owners can often save some money on shoeing, allowing their horses to go barefoot—or at least, minus their hind shoes. The time spent without metal on their feet can help nailholes grow out and restore integrity to the hoof walls.
Calgary, Alta., farrier Don MacKenzie knows a bit about winter. "The foot is very good at adapting to its environment," he said. "If there's snow, a horse's sole will tend to become a little more arched or concave in order to discourage snowballs building up, and he'll grow bigger bars for support."
Nelson has noticed changes in the architecture of the hoof in winter, as well. "In barefoot horses who've had minimal farrier intervention, the heels raise and become a little hooked, and the frog gets a little scaly—it's almost like sharkskin, and I think it stops the foot from sliding forward to some degree."
Winter is a good time to address hoof growth problems that have cropped up in the summer months. Sand cracks, white line separations, flares in the wall, and other signs of stress, which may allow fungal or bacterial infections to work their way inside and turn portions of the hoof wall cork-like and crumbly (and unable to hold a horseshoe nail), can be trimmed out more aggressively in the winter months when the horse is on a reduced work schedule. The resulting foot may be temporarily less attractive than you'd like, but the hoof wall will be the healthier for it.
Dare To Go Bare
Should your horse go barefoot? That depends on the quality of hoof he grows and the amount of work you expect him to do during the winter. A great many horses are able to go shoeless in winter, and you certainly will save money on farrier's bills—but farriers differ on whether there's an advantage to the time-honored routine of "letting the nail holes grow out."
Many farriers believe that as long as the foot is healthy, and your farrier has been doing a good job, it's not necessary to give your horse's feet a break from wearing metal.
A barefoot horse on frozen ground will tend to break off all the old, necrotic portions of the foot, but good trimming (whether your horse is shod or unshod) will also do this.
"Try not to over-trim," advised MacKenzie. "If your horse has enough turn-out that he can really move around, his frog will plump up and his sole will toughen up, creating a natural foot that will throw out snow much better than a shod foot. I think 'less is more' in winter when it comes to trimming."
That's not to say that trimming should be neglected entirely; even if your horse is completely idle through the winter months, he'll still need regular visits from your farrier. But many people find that the schedule they keep in the summer months can be backed off to every eight weeks when the snow flies.
Of course, horses with "problem feet"--especially those with long toes and underslung or collapsed heels, those with signs of caudal heel pain, and those wearing trailers or bar shoes--may not be the best candidates for going bare.
If you do decide to let your horse go barefoot, it's important to allow him some time to toughen up his tootsies before the ground freezes solid and he becomes so ouchy he can barely move! The best time to pull the shoes is in the fall when the ground is still fairly soft.
"If you want to convert your horse to going barefoot, winter can be a great time to do that," said Nelson. "It gives him time to adapt—and then in spring you can decide whether you need to apply shoes again or not. Often, you find they're not necessary."
"When the feet are functioning as they should, horses do very well barefoot in winter," MacKenzie said. "It's important not to make your horse a four-legged couch potato, though. By exposing him to a variety of environmental conditions, you'll help keep his feet adapting and make them more resilient. Just because you're not using your horse as much doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to keep moving."
Nelson has one other reason for preferring horses go barefoot if possible. "I have nothing to base this on but common sense," she said, "but shoes are steel, and steel absorbs a lot of heat. Between the shoes and the nails, which are driven right up into the structures of the foot, it sucks a lot of heat out of the hoof. I'm convinced that it makes a difference in a creaky older horse. I'd rather see an arthritic horse wear hoof boots when necessary in winter and go barefoot, than wear a shoe."
Getting A Grip, And The Power Of Popper Pads
Pulling shoes may not be an option if your horse remains in hard work throughout the winter, or if he has soft or shelly feet, which disintegrate on frozen ground. A hoof with slowed growth in winter is also one that can't take as much wear, simply because new horn isn't being produced as quickly to replace that which has been worn or chipped away. It's up to you and your farrier to decide whether the shoes can stay or go.
For the horse who remains shod, you'll need to provide some sort of traction device to help him grip the ice and snow. The bare hoof acts like a suction cup, the rims of the hoof wall digging into the snow and the concave surface of the sole working to discourage the formation of snowballs. But a horse on a plain set of shoes is denied that natural traction. He will slip and slide as if he's standing on pie plates.
If you live in an area where winter means rain and mud rather than ice and snow, you might be able to get away with using aluminum shoes instead of steel. Being a softer metal, aluminum grabs frozen ground somewhat better, and it will stand up to light-to-moderate work in soft footing (such as an indoor arena). Rubber and plastic shoes, however, don't function as well in winter as one might suspect. Both turn very hard and slippery in cold conditions and provide less traction than a metal shoe.
For most of us, though, steel shoes with added traction are the best option. When you choose a traction device for your horse's shoes, brainstorm with your farrier as to what will work best for your horse and your conditions. The idea is to provide enough grip on ice and snow to reduce the risk of slipping-and-sliding injuries, but not so much that you risk straining tendons and ligaments.
For some situations, a drive-in or screw-in caulk (or "stud") is the best choice. Screw-in studs give you flexibility--if one stud is gripping too much or too little, you can change it in a matter of minutes.
Some farriers prefer to go with borium (a.k.a. tungsten carbide), a hard alloy that can be welded on the shoe, either in flat "smears" on the toe or heel, or built up into little caulks. Borium is hard-wearing and can help you get extra weeks out of your shoes, but it can also be fussy to work with in cold weather and not all farriers are as keen on it as they once were.
There are also "ice nails," special horseshoe nails designed with high-traction heads that bite into snow. As they can provide a surprising amount of traction, which can lead to torqued or wrenched joints, most farriers only use a couple of ice nails per hoof rather than shoeing exclusively with them.
Said Nelson, "I like using ice nails. I don't like to see traction overdone; I would rather they still have the ability to slide a little bit."
The placement of your traction devices is also highly individual. Most people prefer to put them on the heels, but in some circumstances a toe grip is an option. Those with driving horses sometimes prefer four studs per shoe, two on the toe and two on the heel.
The shod horse in winter also has to contend with the build-up of snowballs within the rims of his shoes. If the snow is wet and packs well, these snowballs can sometimes reach surprising proportions, and make walking (much less trotting or cantering) extremely hazardous. He may be in particular trouble if he wears bar shoes.
If your horse is only outside in snow occasionally, you can coat his soles with grease or petroleum jelly to help prevent snow build-up (some people even use an aerosol cooking spray such as Pam). But "snowball pads" are a better solution.
There are several designs of snowball pad available, all of which fit between the shoe and the sole of the hoof. The type with a plastic "bubble" in the center are very effective at popping snowballs out as fast as they can form. There are also specially designed rim pads, which allow you to see the frog and most of the sole of the foot, and work well in most weather conditions (the tubular ridge flexes as the horse's weight descends on the pad to dislodge the snow from the sole). The down side is that they tend to collect a lot of bedding and manure.
If you choose a snowball pad, which covers the whole sole, your farrier will apply a silicon or other flexible sealant between the foot and the pad, to help keep moisture, debris, and bacterial and fungal growth, out of the foot. If thrush is a chronic problem with your horse, you can even ask for special medicated silicon, which is particularly good at discouraging microbial growth.
Weathering The Change
Generally speaking, a good layer of mid-winter snow is a healthy environment for a horse's hooves. It's the changeable conditions at the beginning and end of the season, when the ground is freezing and thawing repeatedly, that are toughest on feet, especially for those individuals who grow a poor hoof anyway. Horses who stand in water and mud for prolonged periods may end up with excessively soft hooves, and the suctiony environment of the mud can make it tough to keep shoes on, as well as exposing the hoof to all kinds of pathogens. No wonder the prime seasons for hoof abscesses are late fall and early spring.
At the periphery of the seasons, some farriers suggest a regular (once or twice a week) application of a hoof sealant such as Tuff Stuff. The idea is that the sealant mimics the natural coating of the hoof, the periople, which protects the hoof against moisture loss and the invasion of bacteria and fungi. Painting a sealant on immediately after shoeing, and over all the nail holes on a regular basis, will help minimize the structural damage done to the hoof and seal the inevitable entranceways for bacteria and fungi, as well as help keep the nails in tight.
On the whole, though, Nelson said hooves do better without topical treatments. "If you get out of the way of living things," she said, "it's amazing how well they do."