Caring for Your Horse’s Hooves in Winter

When winter's icy fingers reach across the landscape, it's time for owners, riders and trainers to make some adjustments in their horse care routines. And it's not just a matter of chipping ice out of the equines' water buckets and currying globs of dried mud out of their furry coats. Winter has an impact on hooves, as well, and no one knows that better than Certified Journeyman Farrier Wes Goff, who shoes performance horses from his base in Canada.

In the colder months, most horse's hooves grow a little more slowly, unless they are very active. Slow growth, coupled with many people's reluctance to ride in chilling winds or icy footing, means that hooves often don't get looked at, picked out, or trimmed as frequently as they would in more temperate conditions. But reduced activity is no reason to ignore your horse's feet, says Goff.

Neglect can have a number of unfortunate consequences for your horse's hoof health. An animal who stands all day in a wet, muddy paddock, or a poorly mucked stall, 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. Moreover, horses with overgrown feet that have to negotiate rock-hard, frozen paddocks or trails may develop chips, cracks and ragged edges that can compromise the integrity of the hoof wall.

The Upside of Winter Hoof Care

Believe it or not, winter can have an up side in the hoof care picture. Goff notes that winter hooves rarely suffer from dryness. And because horses generally aren't stamping their feet at flies in January, they're also 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.

Moreover, many horses are worked less regularly in the winter months so owners often can save money on shoeing by allowing their horses to go barefoot – or at least without their hind shoes.

Winter also is a good time to address hoof growth problems that have cropped up during the summer months. Sand cracks, white line separations, flares in the wall, and other signs of stress that can allow fungal or bacterial infections to work their way inside and turn portions of the hoof wall cork-like and crumbly, can be trimmed out more aggressively during the winter 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.

Thrush, probably the most common winter hoof problem, is easily recognized by its gray or black exudate and distinctively foul odor. It's 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; he or she will be able to suggest an appropriate medication, such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or a commercial preparation such as Koppertox® or Thrush-Buster®, to help fight the remaining crud.

To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

Goff says the decision to shoe your horse depends on the quality of the hoof he grows and the amount of work you expect him to do during the winter. Many horses are able to go shoe-less in winter, and you certainly will save money on farrier's bills, but there is no particular advantage to the time-honored practice of "letting the nail holes grow out," Goff says. "As long as the foot is healthy, and your farrier has been doing a good job, it's not necessary" to let the nail holes grow out.

A barefoot horse on frozen ground will tend to break off the old, necrotic portions of the foot, Goff adds, but good trimming also will do this. If you 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 sensitive he can barely move. The best time to pull the shoes, Goff says, is in the fall when the ground is still fairly soft.

Pulling shoes may not be an option if a horse continues to work hard throughout the winter, or if he has soft or shelly feet that disintegrate on frozen ground. The horse that remains shod will need some sort of traction device to help him grip the ice and snow such as studs or borium. Consult with your farrier as to what is most appropriate for your horse and the local conditions. The idea is to provide enough grip to reduce the risk of slipping-and-sliding injuries, but not so much that you risk straining tendons and ligaments.

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 impressive proportions and make walking extremely hazardous.

Coat Soles to Prevent Snow Build-up

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. Several designs are available, but Goff prefers the type with a plastic 'bubble' in the center because they are effective at popping snowballs out as fast as they can form.

Specially designed rim pads that allow you to see the frog and most of the sole of the foot, are another option. If you choose a snowball pad that covers the whole sole your farrier will apply a silicon, or another 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 problem with your horse, you can even ask for special medicated silicon that is particularly good at preventing microbial growth.

Generally speaking, says Goff, a good layer of mid-winter snow is a healthy environment for horses' hooves. It's the changeable conditions at the beginning and end of the season, when the ground repeatedly is freezing and thawing which are toughest on feet, especially for horses that grow a poor hoof anyway.