Winter Hoof Care
Here are nine expert ways to help keep your horse’s hooves healthy all winter long. • Think ahead. Meet with your farrier to discuss any adjustment of the shoeing or trimming schedule over winter. Set farrier appointments in advance. Form a Plan B if a shoeing appointment is on a “snow day” when driving may be hazardous. • Eliminate hazards. Prepare the area around your barn and pasture for winter. Remove anything that can be an under-snow hazard to a loose horse. Fence off low areas where water collects. Inspect fences, and remove wire fences that can trap a hoof. • Create safe paths. Decide in advance which barn and pasture areas you’ll plow and where snow piles will go. Chart the safest paths between stalls and turnout area. Consider using landscaping materials, such as pea rock or wood chips, to “pave” the paths to provide better traction in light to moderate snow conditions. • Stock up on traction aids. Keep a supply of shavings, old carpets, and sand on hand to spread on icy areas. • Increase turnout time. Allow your horse maximum turnout time to get used to footing changes. • Check blanket fit. Make sure that your horse’s blanket fits properly and straps are snugly in their keepers. Remove any excess strap length. Your horse can catch a shoe heel (especially one with added traction) on blanket straps and become entangled. • Plow turnout. Consider plowing a small turnout area for your horse, if the area is accessible and the snow is deep. • Limit sand and salt use. Use loose sand and salt for traction only on pathways, not in your horse’s turnout area. If Left: Allow your horse maximum turnout time to get used to footing changes. In deep snow such as this, consider plowing a small turnout area, even if your horse has shelter. Inset: Meet with your farrier to discuss any adjustment of the shoeing or trimming schedule over winter. your horse ingests sand and salt grains, he could suffer colic (a digestive disorder that can be fatal). • Let pastern hair grow. Pastern hair protects the hoof head in winter. Keep a hairdryer handy to dry legs if scratches (a lower-limb infection caused by prolonged contact with dirt and moisture) becomes a problem. — Fran Jurga, editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and author of the informational Hoof Blog, www. hoofcare.blogspot.com.
Even if you scale back your riding time during winter months, or even give your horse the winter off, you need to promote his health in every way possible. Your basic horse-care routine won’t change significantly in the winter. You’ll need to keep up your horse’s medications (if any), hoof care, grooming, and regular veterinary checks.
Your horse’s basic nutrition requirements also won’t change; he’ll need adequate water, forage, supplements, warmth, and exercise. The only changes will be his winter-specific risks and your risk-avoidance strategies.
Here’s a winter-feeding checklist to help your horse stay healthy and colic-free.
Encourage sufficient intake. Your horse needs clean water and plenty of it. If he lacks sufficient water to digest his feed, he’ll be at risk for colic (abdominal pain that can indicate a life-threatening condition), the leading killer of horses. His 10- to 12-gallon daily requirement may be higher in winter, because he’ll be relying on hay and perhaps grain, both of which have very low moisture content (10 to 15 percent moisture) compared with fresh pasture grass (60 to 80 percent moisture). Monitor temperature. Offer your horse water between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which will encourage him to drink enough water to stay hydrated. If he needs further encouragement, add warm water to his feed (such as hay cubes/pellets, pelleted feed, and beet pulp) to create a slurry. To keep ice at bay, invest in a water heater, tank de-icer, or heated water bucket. Use a rubber bucket. When plastic water buckets freeze, they can be hard to empty; some crack when slammed against the floor or frozen ground as you knock ice loose. Heavy, black rubber buckets are much better at taking the abuse associated with daily ice removal. Check for dehydration. Signs of equine dehydration are dry gums and teeth, lethargy, and dry, hard manure. Test with capillary-refill time; the skinpinch test doesn’t work well through winter hair. Use your thumb to put pressure on your horse’s gum, when it turns white, take your thumb away and count the seconds until the gum turns pink again. If the change takes more than two seconds, dehydration is a concern.
Check his teeth. Have any necessary dental work done before winter hits, so that your horse will get the maximum benefit from his hay this winter. Feed for warmth. If your horse has a dense coat and is turned out with free-choice hay, his internal heater will work around the clock. Horses are designed to heat themselves through the digestion of forage (hay or pasture) in the hindgut. A plentiful supply of good hay is your horse’s best defense against cold; it’s also your best way to help him avoid colic, founder, and ulcers associated with incorrectly feeding grain. Analyze the hay. Have your hay analyzed so you’ll know whether your horse’s nutritional needs are being met. If it’s lacking in specific nutri- ents, ask your veterinarian to advise you about adding a supplement to your horse’s diet.
Supplement with care. Select your supplements on the basis of hay analysis; give your horse only what he needs and your hay lacks. Good hay provides adequate protein and high fiber, which produces heat from digestion. Check his weight. Horses can lose weight very quickly. In very cold weather, inadequately fed horses will burn their stored fat. Next, if their ration remains inadequate, they’ll begin to burn protein from their muscles. Check your horse’s weight regularly to protect him from unseen weight loss, using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. Remove his blanket, if you use one. Reaching under his winter coat with your hands, firmly check his withers, back, hips, and ribs. Learn his normal, healthy contours. Watch the weather. Unusual cold can lead to unexpected weight loss. If extra-cold weather is on the way, increase your horse’s forage. Tip: Use a small-hole hay net for extra hay rations. This not only will keep the hay off the ground, but also will encourage your horse to eat small amounts safely and continuously as nature designed him to do.
Maintain his weight wisely. If your horse loses weight, try increasing his hay ration, or feed him a leafier type of hay that has a higher protein content. Grain adds very little warmth; fat adds calories, but not warmth. Consult your vet. If your horse is still losing weight, consult your veterinarian about adding a small amount of grain to your horse’s diet, then add it in carefully and gradually. Offer plenty of salt. Salt is an essential element of your horse’s diet year-round. It’s not overkill to have a salt block in his stall, run-in shed, and pasture or dry lot.
Offer daily exercise. Regular exercise will help decrease your horse’s colic risk. Fulltime turnout will allow him free movement day and night. However, sometimes, only daytime turnout is possible. And icy footing makes any turnout impossible. In that case, hand-walking is better than nothing. If necessary, lay down used bedding to create a walking path.
Watch for shivering. That said, watch for shivering. If your horse is shivering, he’s not just cold, he’s too cold. Under normal circumstances, if he’s fit and in good condition, he shouldn’t be shivering. Bring him into a shelter (out of wind, rain, and snow), blanket him, and call your veterinarian immediately. Know blanketing risks. Blankets can rub, restrict movement, and — oddly — cause horses to become both overheated and chilled. Protecting your horse is one thing; holding in moisture from sweat is quite another. A horse that sweats under his blanket on a sunny day can become overheated and dehydrated; since he’s wet, he can also become extremely cold during the night. Know when to blanket. Of course, some horses need a blanket. Blanket your clipped horse, as well as your very old, young, or thin horse. Also blanket your horse if you move him from a warm zone to a cold zone midwinter, as he’ll lack his natural winter coat. Practice safe blanketing. If you use a blanket, remove it every morning. Brush off the blanket, and groom your horse. Check your horse’s body condition and for any signs of blanket rub. Re-blanket him at suppertime. — Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.horse-sense. org; www.jessicajahiel.com), an internationally-recognized clinician and lecturer, and award-winning author of books, articles, and columns about horses, riding, teaching, and training. Her trademarked system of teaching and training, Holistic Horsemanship, is based on establishing and enhancing communication and trust between horse and rider.
Horses are designed to heat themselves through the digestion of forage (hay or pasture) in the hindgut. A plentiful supply of good hay is your horse’s best defense against cold.
Your horse needs clean water and plenty of it. If he lacks sufficient water to digest his feed, he’ll be at risk for colic, the leading killer of horses.
Regular exercise will help decrease your horse’s colic risk. Fulltime turnout will allow him free movement day and night.
Salt is an essential element of your horse’s diet year-round. It’s not overkill to have a salt block in his stall, and one in his paddock or pasture, runin shed, and dry lot.