Chill Out on Hoof Care Concerns

Whether winter means a well-deserved break for your horse or the start of the "snowbird circuit," your horse's hooves might need some special "seasonal" attention. Exactly what adjustments you'll want to make depends on the type of winter weather you endure, how much and where you ride, and, of course, your individual horse.

In this article, Certified Journeyman Farriers Tim Quinn of Jeddo, Mich., and Richard Duggan, owner of the Minnesota School of Horseshoeing in Ramsey, Minn., walk you through top points to consider as cooler days descend.

Wet Weather Worries

In many parts of the country, winter means wet weather, from snow and chilling rains to high humidity. That can set the stage for an increase in bacterial and fungal issues, including thrush. And those can lead to hoof deterioration and lameness.

Since many of these trouble-causing organisms live in the ground, a hard freeze can help reduce the threat, notes Quinn. Without the aid of a hard freeze, you'll need to be vigilant about keeping your horse's living quarters clean and dry.

If he lives in a pasture that tends to get muddy, make sure he has access to a dry area, such as a regularly cleaned run-in shed. And keep up on your hoof- cleaning routines just as you would during the height of show season.

If your horse does get a bacterial or fungal infection (such as white line disease), first remove him from the wet, mucky environment. Then work with your veterinarian and/or farrier to assess the degree of severity and your treatment options. Cutting out infected tissue is usually part of the healing process, not only because it quickly removes the worst of the infection, but it also exposes the organisms to air.

"Air kills bacteria and fungus faster than anything," says Quinn.

Often, the treatment regimen will also include soaking the hooves in Epsom salts and/or an antiseptic solution (i.e., Betadine) and/or applying topical solutions. Luckily, most horses make a full recovery, but the process can sometimes take months.

Dryness Dilemmas

In arid regions of the country, dryness can actually be your biggest winter enemy. "When there is low humidity, hooves can be drier in winter than in summer," says Duggan. And when a hoof dries out, it loses pliability, which can reduce circulation to the hoof and cause additional problems, he explains.

Quinn adds, "A hoof is mostly moisture. The frog is about 60% moisture, and the wall is around 35% moisture. If it dries out, it won't expand and contract as it should."

Stalling your horse on wood chips or shavings can exacerbate the problem, he notes.

"You dry your hands with paper towels, and that's just what it's like," he explains of the absorbency of shavings and chips. "It soaks all the moisture out of the horse's foot. Even in winter, in a dry, cold climate, if a horse is in and out of a barn with wood shavings, you have to keep some moisture in the foot."

The best way to bring moisture back into the hoof is a point of debate. One old practice is to let the water trough in your paddock overflow. That way, your horse stands on wet ground every time he gets a drink and his hooves can soak up some moisture. Quinn is a fan of this method.

Duggan, however, feels that a horse that doesn't like to get his feet wet might not stand in the wet area long enough to soak up a useful amount of moisture. His preferred method for moisturizing hooves is to douse them with water for 10 to 15 minutes.

Quinn worries that this method could lead to oversaturation that can be harmful to hoof structures.

However, Duggan counters that he has soaked hoof specimens for several months and found no ill effects. "They have not become sponge-like. They become pliable," he says.

Duggan encourages horse owners to try an experiment: Take your horse's dry hoof between your knees and push the heels together as much as you can with your thumbs. Note the displacement of the frog. Then soak the hoof and repeat the pushing process. You should see a greater amount of displacement (flexibility). And that, says Duggan, "means circulation, means nutrition, and means less shock and trauma."

If you're hesitant to try either of these methods, or your horse's hooves need only a minor amount of added moisture, then hoof dressings might do the trick.

Quinn's favorite choice is a little untraditional: Corona ointment. He suggests daily applications, packing it along the frog and rubbing it into the sole and along the coronet band.

Since Corona not only contains moisturizers but is also an antiseptic, it can help battle bacterial infections.

The Barefoot Debate

Quinn and Duggan do agree on at least one thing: Shoeing is essentially a necessary evil, but if you have a chance to pull your horse's footwear for the winter, they encourage it. In fact, Duggan says, "It's imperative that people take shoes off their horses."

Shoeing, he explains, "restricts physiological movement of the hooves. It restricts normal changes in the form that occur in the horse's hooves. Circulation is altered, and biomechanical forces become abnormal."

Conversely, going barefoot allows natural physiological movement. "That means good circulation, which means good nutrition (to the hoof), which produces strong, healthy horn," says Duggan.

If you're concerned that your horse's feet will be sensitive and sore without shoes, Duggan suggests waiting a couple of weeks after pulling the shoes to see if any of the lameness subsides. Or, he notes, you can wrap the feet (with padding topped with vet wrap and duct tape to keep it in place) for the first few days when they might be most sensitive.

It's not always possible to let your horse go barefoot, of course. If you train and show through the winter (and your horse normally wears shoes), you might need to keep him shod. Certain hoof conformation issues might require that your horse have the support or protection of shoes year-round.

For instance, says Quinn, if your horse is flat-footed and/or prone to sole bruising, you might need to keep his footwear on.

Concussion and Traction Concerns

Hard, frozen ground increases concussion, and farriers often notice an increase in abscesses during winter for this reason, says Quinn. Equipak (a fast-setting liquid urethane product) or pads can help reduce the risk by offering protection and some cushion, he adds.

In addition, says Duggan, if your horse is shod in winter and spends any time outdoors, whether being ridden or turned out, he'll need some sort of traction to prevent slips and falls. And when it comes to choosing a traction device, adds Quinn, smaller is better.

Too much traction can stop a hoof too fast and too hard, potentially causing soft tissue damage in the limb. In addition, large caulks (studs) can cause wounds if the horse hits itself or kicks another horse.

"Out West, I've seen people use some pretty big traction devices," he says, "but if a horse 'caulks' itself, I've seen them out of commission for six months."

His preference is a small tungsten carbide (borium) pin, about half the size of a pencil eraser. "It's not big enough to stop the foot totally," he says. "It's small enough to just scratch the surface and give the horse a chance to keep his feet under him. If he kicks another horse, the pin is only sticking out about an eighth of an inch."

If you do use caulks or carbide pins, you might consider outfitting your horse with bell boots or over-reach boots. These can protect your horse's coronets and heels from the traction device if your horse does interfere.

Traction devices do come with a higher price than basic footwear, so ask your farrier about cost before making a decision. And make sure that your farrier has experience using the particular type of traction device you're considering, since this work does take skill to accomplish correctly.

Snowball Fight

Snowballs are another serious winter issue for horse owners to consider. When snow packs into the hoof and accumulates, your horse might literally end up walking with small mounds of snow under each hoof. Besides being uncomfortable, those snowballs can lead to instability and put your horse at risk for damaging slips and falls. Adding regular pads, anti-snowball pads, or rim pads to your horse's shoes can help prevent trouble.

Anti-snowball pads, sometimes known as "poppers," have a hollow, convex dome or "bubble" in the middle, explains Quinn. As snow packs in and pushes against the dome, the dome pushes back and "pops" the snow out before it can accumulate.

Since the anti-snowball pads cover the entire bottom of the hoof, they can be particularly useful if your horse is flat-footed, or lacks "vertical depth," or if you have reason to be concerned about sole bruising and abscesses, says Quinn.

While some traditional pads have packing between the pad and the sole, anti-snowball pads should not be packed, since that would interfere with the bubble's popping ability. If you ride frequently on hard surfaces, such as roadways, realize that the bubble might wear down and lose its popping ability.

Unlike anti-snowball pads, tube rim pads, also known as snow rim pads, don't cover the entire sole. Instead, what looks like a piece of rubber tubing is riveted around the inside edge of the shoe before the shoe is nailed in place. When the horse moves, the tubing flexes, shoving out any snow around the shoes' edges and preventing accumulation.

Quinn prefers tube rim pads over full pads, feeling that they interfere less with the frog's natural function. Riders often appreciate that these pads allow them to see their horses' frogs, which lets them to keep better tabs on their horses' hoof health.

Of course, using any type of pad is likely to increase your farrier bill. But you can usually use the pads through two or more shoeings.

Shoes tend to aid snowballing, because snow typically begins to accumulate and pack in at the shoe's edges. So if your horse goes barefoot, snowballing might be less of an issue. However, if your horse does have a snowball problem--or if you haven't implemented any anti-snowballing tools then get hit by a sudden storm--you can try an old-timer solution. Grease the bottom of your horse's hooves with cooking oil, "Pam" spray, Vaseline, or a similar lubricant. This might prevent snow accumulation for a short period, but will require frequent application.

Don't Forget the Basics

Proper winter hoof care also requires some tweaks to your horse's diet. Winter, of course, means no fresh pasture. Hay might be deficient in protein and some minerals, particularly as winter progresses and the forage has been stored for an extended period. This means your horse might be missing some key nutrients that affect hoof health.

Talk to your veterinarian about your horse's current diet and whether adding supplements, such as those below, might benefit your horse's hoof health:

  • Biotin, a B-complex vitamin that supports horn growth;
  • Methionine and lysine, essential amino acids;
  • Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), an anti-inflammatory agent that might contribute to hoof health;
  • Zinc, a mineral that assists with keratin formation and horn growth.

Even with proper nutrition, don't be surprised if your horse's hooves don't grow as fast as they do during the warmer months.

"Horses have physiological acclimation to the season," says Duggan. "In winter, they grow more hair, and the circulation of the hooves slows down. A sedentary horse and reduced circulation combine to cause slower growth of the horn."

A horse normally on a six-week trimming schedule might be able to go eight weeks between trims when the weather's cold.

But don't take it for granted that your horse can go a few extra weeks. As in any season, overgrown hooves are prone to cracks and chips. Winter's hard and icy surfaces present much more risk of those ragged edges developing if you wait too long for a trim.

Similarly, keep up on your routine care and cleaning, even if you don't ride as much. Your horse will likely appreciate the attention, and you'll be able to spot little problems before they become real trouble.

Take-Home Message

Winter can mean some extra planning and care to keep your horse's feet in their best condition. But if you manage him properly, you'll be able to enjoy these fly-free months despite the ice and chill, and you can help your horse put his best hoof forward come spring.

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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