Winter Hoof Care For Horses

It's here. Maybe it's where you are, too. Snow, ice, wind...and worry. How do you know what to do to protect your horses when bad weather sets in? What can you do to prepare yourself, and your horses? Here are a few tips.

Anti-winter arsenal: Drive-in studs and hard-headed nails are some of the most popular traction devices, usually used in combination with an anti-snowball pad.

Photo: Hoofcare & Lameness

Scenario #1. You're at work, and you suddenly see sleet starting to fall. "I left the horses out," you moan to a co-worker. "It was so warm this morning!"

She just shrugs and quips, "Don't they just turn their tails to the wind or something?"

"It's not their tails I'm worried about," you mutter. "It's their shoes on that darn concrete pad by the barn. It turns into a skating rink every time there's a freeze." You start thinking of an excuse to go home early.

Scenario #2. You leave your daughter's pony in the paddock, and when you come out the driveway, you see that, once again, he has "escaped" to the big field, which is deep in snow. The pony seems delighted to paw for grass under the snow by the apple tree. You're late. You decide to let the pony stay there. When you get home, you are surprised to see the pony still standing in the same spot by the apple tree. At feeding time, he still doesn't come. Finally, you trudge through knee-deep snow to the pony, who is standing a full hand higher than he was that morning. The pony is standing on four balls of ice. He can't move. Desperately, you try to remove the snow with your fingers, but the ice is solid, and the pony almost falls over. He can't move, you can't get the snowballs out, and it's getting dark.

Scenario #3. You've pulled his shoes, and you're determined that you're doing what is best for your horse, who is turned out in an indoor arena every day and loves the layoff from training. One January day, the thaw comes, and the thermometer spikes to 50. You can't resist heading out for a trail ride, until you realize the thaw hasn't penetrated the woods. So, you hack on the road. Soon, your horse is mincing his steps, and you turn for home. The next day, he can't walk. Small purple semi-circles are visible on the bottom of his front feet, and his pulse is throbbing along his pastern.

Scenario #4. Your lesson's done. It was a great afternoon. You untack your horse and lead him out of the arena. The hay delivery truck is blocking the driveway, so you take the other way out, but realize you have to lead your shod horse across a slippery parking lot to your trailer. He starts out tentatively, then slips. Then he refuses to go forward. Or back. You can hear the hay truck starting up, and you know it will come barreling out of the barn toward you in a few seconds. You shout for help, but no one can hear you over the truck's engine.

Let's face it--people who claim to love winter don't have to take care of horses. They don't know about having to ride with longer stirrups because your leg won't bend with all those layers. They don't know about warming the bit. They don't know about immersion heaters for stock tanks. And they don't know about the fear that sits in your stomach as you wonder if it really is safe to turn your horse out, or ride him, or even lead him to the trailer to haul to a lesson at your trainer's barn.

Horror stories about snow or ice-induced injuries to horses are easy to come by. Interestingly enough, most of the worst stories come from areas in the United States where there is not often much snow, but where occasional blizzards or ice storms catch owners unaware, and horses far from the barn.

Many hints and tips are available from farriers and veterinarians, and both groups of professionals are anxious to help you prevent injury to your horse. Many products can be used on your horse to help him navigate through winter terrain, but the biggest help will be your forethought.

First of all, horses are not designed for winter. Nor are deer and other hoofed animals. Deer are easily chased down by coyotes in the deep snow, as their tiny hooves sink through. They can't escape. Horses have adapted to the cold by growing thick coats and adjusting their thermoregulatory systems so their ears and feet don't freeze, but their feet have not been quick to adapt. Adding shoes to the equation just seems to increase the odds of impending disaster.

Consider this: In Sweden, they race Standardbreds on frozen lakes by shoeing them with studded shoes. Each shoe has between six and eight studs in it!

Also in Europe, the glamorous Swiss skiing resort of St. Moritz hosts polo and grand prix show jumping, in the snow. Once again, massive studs are used, along with special pads called "Huf Grips" that originally were made from old inner tubes. A small bead of rubber lines the inside of the shoe and makes snow pop back out of the foot.

Two lost artifacts of the horsedrawn age in America are sharp shoes--shoes with heel and toe calks that could be replaced and sharpened on icy days--and the snowball hammer. Every sleigh horse had a small, sharp-pointed, curved hammer made for it by its farrier. It hung from the rings of the hames, and the driver periodically stopped, got down, and used the snowball hammer to tap the snow out of the horses' feet. It probably helped the driver thaw out to get up and move around!

The Return Of The Snowball Hammer

A few years ago, the Southern New England Farriers Association held a contest in snowball hammer making, since it was once such an integral part of being a farrier in New England. Almost no one knew what one was--perhaps a hammer with a head shaped like a snowball?

Owners would be wise to encourage farriers to make them a proper snowball hammer. The point should not be pointed enough to gouge the frog or sole if your hand slips. Many people use knives, screwdrivers, awls, tire irons, or--worst of all--nails to clean out the snow. Veterinarians love to tell stories about puncture wounds caused by all sorts of bizarre instruments (even a nail file!) that became imbedded in the foot.

Think carefully before using any tool to whack a foot. Only hit the foot from the bottom, and never hit the wall, thinking that the snowball will drop out. Whenever you have a horse that is "snowballed," as we say in New England, don't move him. If the horse is stuck in an icy spot, spread sifted wood ashes or sand on the ice to help the horse feel more secure. When you lift a foot to knock the snowball out, have someone stand on the opposite side of the horse to steady him.

To Shoe Or Not To Shoe?

Yes, that is the question. Most normal-footed horses should benefit from a few months without shoes and nails, although they still will require trimming. Hoof growth tends to slow a bit in the winter, but you still should have the farrier come, particularly if the feet are prone to flaring or cracking.

One danger of pulling shoes is that it might encourage neglect in picking the feet out. You still need to be vigilant about thrush, particularly if horses stand near the gate or fence where they are fed and manure piles up there.

Another danger to the unshod horse is the perceived (but unproven) greater risk of "white line disease" or hollowed hoof wall problems.

Ask your farrier for advice on what is best for your horse. Horses with flat soles or low heels might be prone to bruising if they are turned out on frozen ground, or ridden without shoes.

If you live where the ground hardens but it usually doesn't snow, a "rim" keg shoe might be all your horse needs to get through the winter with his feet "held together" and your budget intact! Some farriers recommend "half round" shoes, which help a horse break over while the curved inner surface prevents snow buildup. On ice, however, the horse will slip, and additional traction will need to be added by the farrier.

Hoof Preparations

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, you might try bear grease...or bacon fat...or pine tar...or how about spraying "Pam" cooking oil on your horse's feet before you turn him out? Obviously, no scientific studies have been performed on any of these legendary methods for preventing snow accumulation in the foot, but one thing is for sure, it forces you to pick up the foot and (hopefully) clean it out before applying the substance.

A commercial product from Canada developed especially for snowy hooves is appropriately called Musher's Secret. It was used on sled dogs in the Iditarod race in Alaska; Huskies get snowballs, plus sore pads. The product is a combination of waxes, including beeswax, and the manufacturer claims it also protects the foot from the burn and abrasion of road salt and melting chemicals.

Bubble Pads

The classic solution to snowballing in many areas of the United States has been the use of "bubble" pads. These are full plastic pads that are nailed onto the foot with a shoe. The center of the foot has a bubble in the plastic that protrudes toward the ground. Snow pops out of the foot with each stride.

Bubble pads have their good points, and their drawbacks. If your horse is often turned out in winter and can wear full pads without any adverse effect to the health of the sole and frog, this is a safe, economical solution.

However, the pads can be difficult to fit with certain types or sizes of shoes, and some riders complain that the popping of the air bubbles changes the horse's stride. If a horse is in training, this can be a problem. Even more often, riders complain that they are distracted by the "pop-pop-pop-pop" of the pads as they train. Eventually, they adjust...and can work on their cadence and rhythm by listening to their pads popping!

Another problem with bubble pads is "blow outs," which most often occur when the sun comes out and riders can't resist hacking on a tarred road. The bubble either breaks or the abrasion with the road surface wears the bubble flat, so it has less effect in the snow. Always clean out any manure or dirt collected around the shoe so that the bubble pad can do its job.

Anti-Snow Rims

Remember the Swiss polo ponies with their inner tubes? "Huf Grip" style pads now are available in plastic or rubber, front and hind. These pads fit under the shoe, and are trimmed and riveted so that a thin gasket lines the inner edge of the horseshoe. The frog is open, so it can be cleaned.

Dressage riders seem especially fond of these pads. The drawback to the "snow rims" is their cost and the fact that the farrier needs to know how to apply them correctly.

Borium and Hard-Surfacing

Leave this one to the farrier. A hard-surfacing rod is "grit," basically a hard material like tungsten, packed in a rod of softer metal, such as brass. The farrier uses a torch to apply areas of the rod to the ground surface of the shoes. For practical purposes, most hard-surfacing is simply called "borium," although that is not technically correct.

Hardening is applied for two reasons. One reason is to increase the wear of a shoe, as is often the case with carriage or police horses. As the soft metal wears down, it exposes the tougher grit. Farriers develop a signature design for applying borium to a shoe. Some "puddle," "splash," or create intricate parallel lines. Some farriers study the wear on old shoes to figure out where a horse needs the borium, although this can be detrimental to a horse, since the borium "grabs" the street and makes breakover more difficult if applied incorrectly.

The second reason to apply borium is for traction on ice. In Vermont (and perhaps elsewhere), people who live on dirt roads always have favored "sandpaper retreads" in winter. These are cheap tires that wear quickly, but the retread rubber is layered with sandpaper, which becomes exposed and gives good traction. Hard-surfacing or borium dots or buttons on a shoe can help a horse keep his feet on ice, but can cause a lot of stress to lower leg joints and tendons if the horse is ridden or driven on pavement. The hard-surfacing has a very different composition from the smooth steel of a normal shoe, and it "grabs" the shoe onto the pavement, making the horse work harder to lift the foot and, theoretically, to recover from the impact. Protective winter shoeing shouldn't be a precursor to therapeutic shoeing for suspensory injuries in the spring!

Horse owners on a budget often complain about the cost of hard-surfacing or borium until they figure out that the same set of shoes will last much, much longer, since they aren't likely to get worn down! Another detractor to hard-surfacing and borium is that the points can break or fall off, and that the rider is often scraped by the rough material while cleaning the foot.

Any horse shod for the first time with hardening should have a fine-grit applied. The grit can become more coarse in subsequent shoeings, as the horse gets "legged up" to the increased stress on his joints and tendons, particularly if he is worked on hard ground.

Studs

Plenty of riders are traction specialists these days--reiners want no traction at all, eventers want the right traction on the right day, and the rest of us fall somewhere in between. If we aren't using traction devices, we wonder if we should be; and if we are using traction devices, are we doing the right thing for the horse?

Traction devices for winter come in three forms: removable studs, drive-in studs, and hardened nails.

Removable studs are the type used by event riders. The farrier drills and taps the shoes for stud holes where he or she deems them best for the horse, then recommends a few sizes of studs for different conditions. Every farrier has a theory of where to place the stud holes in the shoe (and how many to drill) and what size studs to use for what purpose. Much like choosing the color of ski wax on a winter's day, it is up to the rider to decide what size or shape of studs to use. Riders must be responsible for keeping the stud holes oiled and plugged up with cotton when the studs are not in use. And don't lose the studs!

Removable studs work great on horses which are hacked on frozen ground, then worked indoors. They are a potential disaster in the hands of a lazy or disorganized rider or groom. Many riders lose their stud wrenches and their clean-out tools; Summit Tech in New Jersey has imported fluorescent orange stud tools from Europe, which farriers order engraved with their phone numbers and leave with clients, following the example of international-circuit farrier Seamus Brady. When the rider drops the wrench in the arena or in the snow or in the dark horse van, it is clearly visible. And when the same rider loses the studs out of his or her jacket pocket, the phone number is there to call the farrier and get more!

Still another hazard of studs is the potential for injury. Horses easily can cut their pasterns and coronets with the studs. Still, many horses seem to react favorably to the security of wearing them. Loading a horse in an icy parking lot, or onto an icy truck ramp, is easier if the horse feels confident; trailer and ramp mats won't last long, though, and the horse can seriously hurt himself if shipped wearing studs, even with shipping boots on.

Drive-in studs are a permanent part of the shoe, and they can range from tiny pimples of super-hard material to big calks. The studs are much harder than the steel of the horseshoe, so they "drift" right through the shoe. The farrier needs to take care that the "shoulder" of the stud is not positioned too closely to the edge of the shoe. These studs are much easier for the farrier to apply, and the rider cannot lose them, but the studs are not removable.

Tiny, inobtrusive, "flush" drive-in studs give the farrier flexibility in how deeply to seat them in the shoe, so that more or less material is protruding.

Before deciding if studs are right for your horse, decide if taking care of studs is right for you and your care regimen. Ask the staff at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center about the studded horse who hooked his stud on his blanket surcingle, went down, and broke his leg. Studs are serious equipment to add to a horse; also factor in a period of adjustment for the horse after it is first shod with any type of studs.

Hard-headed nails were once called "frost" nails; they have either pins or heads of a very hard material like tungsten. Standardbreds that race on very hard tracks, or on frozen tracks, have been equipped with these types of nails for years. Some farriers object to them, saying that the nail holes are not where the horse needs traction; others find them a real asset, since a horse that is normally not used in winter simply can have one or two nails pulled and replaced with hardened nails to get some traction.

A special advantage of hard-headed nails is that they protrude more, and provide more traction when the softer steel of the shoe wears down. A trainer can get a feel for what sort of traction a horse likes by how it trains at different heights.

Common Sense For Slippery Conditions

"Keep your horses in!" is the most common advice most farriers give to horse owners for winter safety, but horses need the exercise and social interaction of outdoor life in groups.

Prepare an emergency kit today for winter hoof emergencies, no matter how your horse is shod and even if he will be in a stall all winter. An emergency might force you to move your horse, and if your Saddlebred is in a stall with show shoes on, you have to be able to get him out of the barn and into a trailer.

First of all, consider investing in a set of four boots for your horses, such as "Easy Boots." If your horse is found stranded on a frozen pond (it happens!) and you need to lead him home, these are the best footing you can offer your horse. They don'tcome with studs, but some enterprising farriers have customized them for emergency situations in ice storms, where horses were "stuck."

If your horse is shod with borium, hardened nails, or drive-in studs, make sure he is wearing bell boots during training and during turnout.

If your horse has any difficulty standing quietly without being tied or having his feet picked up, work on this problem now.

In a little toolbox, store rolls of duct tape and vet wrap, a hoof pick, the snowball hammer your farrier made you for Christmas, wound medication, cotton gauze, a tin of beeswax, and a stiff brush. Your barn should have a good pair of creased nail pullers and a pair of "pulloffs," and you should know how to remove a shoe in an emergency. You also should tape your farrier's and veterinarian's phone numbers to the inside of the box, along with the numbers of neighbors, the local police or other emergency personnel, and an understanding horse-handy friend you can call for help.

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at www.hoofcare.com. Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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