Winter hoof hazards
With the change of the season come some challenges in caring for your horse’s hooves. Here are answers to some of the most common cold weather-related hoof questions.
n the depths of winter, certain aspects of your horse’s health and care demand your immediate attention: Is he warm enough? Is his water bucket iced over? Is he holding his weight? As you focus on these pressing questions, it can be easy to overlook seasonspecific tasks related to hoof management. But your horse’s feet are subject to some particular stressors during the cold-weather months, and if you don’t address them you may find yourself looking at a compromised hoof and wondering what exactly went wrong.
The following questions represent some of the hoof-care challenges that commonly arise during the winter, and the answers provide information on managing or preventing those problems so your horse stays sound and is ready for spring.
You have noticed a winter reality: The rate of hoof growth tends to slow at this time of year. New hoof wall emerges from the coronary band, growing down toward the toe, so defects---assuming the underlying issue is resolved---will move in that direction. A defect, such as the horizontal crack you describe, is a marker that reveals the rate of hoof growth.
It takes about a year for a horse to grow a new hoof, but the progress is not steady. Growth is much faster in the spring and summer months than in the winter. Several factors contribute to a slower growth rate in the cold weather months, including decreased circulation associated with less activity and fewer nutritional resources because of the lack of fresh pasture.
There’s no need to limit turnout when pastures are frozen. In a friendly herd, your horse will adopt a comfortable and safe activity level on his own.
Slower hoof growth may mean you can stretch time between farrier visits for another week or two during the winter, assuming your horse is sound with well-balanced hooves and no ongoing issues. But, as you’ve noticed, it also means it will take more time for problems to be resolved.
The best way to encourage hoof growth in winter is to increase your horse’s activity with more turnout or riding time. This will encourage circulation, which promotes growth and overall health. Feed supplements containing biotin will improve the quality of the hoof growth but won’t affect how quickly it is produced.
As your experience shows, frozen ground can be hard on a horse’s feet. The concussion of footfalls against the unyielding surface can lead to both bruising and general footsoreness. A frozen field can be as hard as concrete, a surface you’d never consider suitable for a gallop. So use a bit of common sense when riding and slow down when the footing is frozen. A good rule of thumb is that if your horse’s footfalls make a ringing noise, the ground is too hard for anything more than walking. On the other hand, there’s no need to limit turnout when pastures are frozen. In a friendly herd, a horse will adopt a comfortable and safe activity level on his own.
If your horse does become footsore during the winter, call your veterinarian. He can locate a bruise with hoof testers and/or by paring the sole to detect discoloration. If your horse has a bruise, your veterinarian may recommend shoeing with pads to allow the area to heal and prevent further bruising.
But just as important as diagnosing bruising is ruling out other causes of hoof soreness. Mild “ouchiness” is a commonly overlooked sign of chronic laminitis. Even though pastures aren’t lush this time of year, at-risk horses can still develop laminitis or may be contending with pain from a flare-up that began in the fall.
Hoof bruises are associated with repeated concussion on hard ground, but abscesses can arise from different sets of circumstances.
Abscesses are pockets of pus that form when bacteria enter the hoof capsule and multiply in the moist, anaerobic conditions. Because the hoof wall is rigid, pressure from the pus builds quickly and can be quite painful. A horse with an abscess can go from sound to three-legged lame literally overnight. The pain persists until the abscess drains, either through a hole made by a farrier or veterinarian or by bursting through the sole, heel or coronary band on its own.
Alternating periods of wet and dry weather, a common winter scenario in many parts of the country, can lead to abscess formation. These conditions cause the hoof wall to expand and then contract quickly, causing tiny cracks to develop that allow bacteria to enter. Horses who have weak, brittle feet are at an even higher risk for abscesses in the winter months.
You can prevent winter hoof abscesses by improving your horse’s hoof quality as much as possible before the cold weather arrives. This may involve the use of a supplement or specialized trimming to strengthen hoof walls, heels and soles over time.
If your horse does develop an abscess, your farrier and veterinarian will coordinate efforts to locate it within the hoof and, if possible, drain it.
Your role in follow-up care will likely involve repeated soaking and wrapping of the hoof, possibly for several weeks. This isn’t an easy job in the depths of winter, but it’s important for restoring your horse to soundness.
The icy accumulations in your horse’s hooves form when the snow melts slightly after touching the sole, then refreezes as it comes in contact with the shoe. You’ll notice that unshod horses hardly ever have this problem. Ice balls can cause a horse to slip and fall. Even if he doesn’t, the accu- mulation can lead to hoof imbalances that strain tendons, ligaments and muscles to the point of injury. It’s a problem that you want to avoid.
The advice to try cooking spray, petroleum jelly or vegetable shortening is well-meaning and, in theory, make sense. All of these products will keep ice from sticking to the metal of the shoe. However, in wet, wintery conditions they tend to wash away---and thus lose effectiveness---quickly.
A more reliable preventive
Alternating periods of wet and dry weather, a common winter scenario in many parts of the country, can lead to abscess formation.
Ice balls can cause a horse to slip and fall. Even if he doesn’t, the accumulation can lead to hoof imbalances that strain tendons, ligaments and muscles to the point of injury.
tactic is to have your farrier put snow pads between your horse’s shoes and hoof. They have a convex bubble in the center that pops with each step, forcing snow back out. Another good option is snow “rim” pads that don’t cover the entire sole but extend just far enough from the shoe to prevent snow from accumulating. As long as manure and muck aren’t allowed to build up in the hoof, both products will keep snowballs from forming.
A quick point about on-the-spot solutions for ice balls that have already formed: You’re right that prying the ice free with the claw of a hammer isn’t a good idea. A better solution would be to slightly melt the ice with a hair dryer so it falls free on its own.
The answer is, “It depends.” You have several options when it comes to traction devices and you’ll want to talk to your farrier about which is best suited for your horse. You’ll need to consider several factors, including the fact that with increased traction comes increased torsion and stress on muscles, bones and ligaments. Therefore, you’ll want only as much “grip” as is necessary for your conditions. Traction options include: • Swedged or fullered shoes, which have a groove on the ground-facing surface to increase “grab.” These are similar to rimmed shoes, which have a raised edged around the inner, outer or both rims.
• Tungsten carbide, a superhard material in several products including Borium and Carbraze, is applied to steel shoes either before they are sold or by the farrier on-site using a forge. The rough material digs into smooth, hard surfaces and can be applied to the heels or toes of a shoe or across the entire surface.
• Calks are broad, square projections built into the heel of the shoe. Because these are permanent fixtures, you commit to that level of traction until an entirely different shoe is put in place.
• Studs are set into holes at various locations on the shoe and come in different shapes designed to conquer various footing challenges. Long, narrow studs dig into mud, while studs that are short and squat are better for gripping ice. Some types of studs are pounded into holes in the shoe before it is attached to the hoof. Removing those studs requires removing the shoe, but the same shoe can be replaced, sans studs, right away. Other studs are screwed into threaded holes by a rider after the shoe is on the horse and can be removed later while the shoe is still in place. Removing tight screw-in studs can be a physically difficult job, but they offer the most versatility.
With both calks and studs, you’ll also want to consider the safety of other horses that share a turnout space with your horse; a kick from a shoe with either can cause significant lacerations.
For unshod horses, the only way to increase traction is hoof boots designed for slick footing. There is a learning curve to fitting and applying boots, so it’s a good idea to try them out before the weather turns. Some manufacturers make traction devices that can be added to existing boots, so if you are already using a particular style or brand, explore that option first.
First of all, make sure you are actually dealing with thrush. All horse feet smell a bit, but thrush has a distinct knock-you-over rotting odor. This multi-organism infection will also create a blackish ooze on the underside of the hoof, particularly in the clefts and crevices near the frog. Mistakenly treating a hoof for thrush is a waste of time and money---plus it can lead to complications that cause other problems.
In areas of the country where winter means long stretches of freezing temperatures, thrush may actually clear up on its own because the causal organisms cannot survive subzero conditions. In more moderate climates, however, the realities of wintertime horse keeping can trigger or exacerbate the condition.
Horses tend to spend more time in the stalls during winter and, if those stalls are not fastidiously cleaned, that means more time standing in organic matter that provides nourishment for thrush organisms.
Muck stalls daily or even twice a day if your horse is spending more time indoors than out. Confinement to a stall also means less movement, which is a significant contributor to thrush. Exercise is good for hooves because with every step a horse takes, they expand and contract to push out mud and muck. Provide as much turnout time as possible in the winter months to help reduce your horse’s chance of developing thrush.
Also, pay attention to the places where your herd congregates during turnout. Although “clean” mud doesn’t contribute as much to thrush as dirty bedding does, chronically moist conditions in a pasture can make it difficult to clear up. Spread gravel or wood chips in the run-in shed or popular congregation areas to give his hooves a chance to dry out.
A variety of effective over-the-counter products are available for treating thrush. Any formula you choose will work best if the solution penetrates the crevices of the hoof. A good application technique is to wrap the end of a hoof pick in cotton, dip that into the solution, and then swab it into the depths of the hoof.
Horsekeeping in winter is a challenge, for sure. You’ve got a lot to keep track of, and shorter days with freezing conditions don’t make it any easier. But don’t overlook your horse’s hooves at this time of year. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t, and addressing it now will help ensure you can get back in the saddle once the weather breaks.
Muck stalls daily or even twice a day if your horse is spending more time indoors than out.
GET A GRIP: Studs (right) come in different shapes designed to meet various footing challenges. A rim pad (left) can prevent snow buildup.