For most of us, "winter care" means blanketing our horses, increasing their hay rations and adjusting their turnout schedules. What may not leap immediately to mind, however, is hoof care.
Yet cold weather takes a toll on your horse's feet. Hooves not only grow differently in winter but are susceptible to several season-specific problems. What's more, frozen ground, snow and ice present challenges that call for specialized equine footwear.
Here's what you need to know about how winter weather can affect hoof health and what you can do to keep your horse sound and happy.
You probably won't notice the biggest change in your horse's hooves this winter: They grow more slowly than at other times of the year.
This is the sum of many factors. "Hoof growth is influenced by the horse's overall health, his environment, the amount of exercise he gets (or lack thereof), the work he is asked to perform and the quality of his hoof care---these influences shift with the changing of the seasons," explains Michael O'Brien, CF, a farrier serving horse owners in Maryland and Northern Virginia. "Typically, horses work less in the winter, graze less, spend more time in stalls eating hay, burn calories to keep warm and so on. And after autumn's first few freezes, field grasses have significantly fewer sugars and other nutrients than they did during the spring. As a result of all of these factors, hoof growth typically slows in the winter and accelerates in the spring."
Terry Dokken, CJF, president of the Minnesota Farriers Association, narrows it down a bit more: "Most theories come back to circulation in the hoof. When it is cold, horses tend to move around less and horse owners do not ride as much. Less exercise or movement means there is less circulation in the hooves and, therefore, less growth."
High-tech imaging done by Ric Redden, DVM, supports the idea that hoof circulation diminishes in cold weather. "We know from numerous venogram studies that horn growth is dependent on active, productive solar papillae and, for some reason, sole growth influences horn tubule growth," he says. "Decreased ambient temperature, altered activity and nutrition could alter the growth response of the solar papillae and be part of the formula. We really do not understand the specifics but it is clear to me that it is all about circulation."
Regardless of the reasons behind it, the impact of slower hoof growth depends on a horse's particular circumstances. Obviously, it may mean your farrier needs to visit a little less often. "You may be able to have farriery work done every eight to 12 weeks rather than every six to eight weeks," says Dokken. This, however, applies only to sound horses with healthy, well-balanced hooves and, ultimately, the rate of growth for each individual horse.
On the other hand, slow hoof growth delays the resolution of some problems. "Any cracks and defects will take longer to grow out, even if the cause has been adequately addressed," says O'Brien, who adds that even healthy feet may be adversely affected by slow replacement of hoof wall worn away by work. "Usually it's not a problem because so many horses work less in winter, but if a barefoot horse is asked to work hard---and wears his feet faster than they grow---he needs to be shod."
The best way to offset the slower winter hoof growth is to increase your horse's activity with more riding or turnout with an active herd. Supplements containing biotin can improve the quality of hoof wall but won't necessarily increase the rate of growth.
Winter Hoof Woes
Frozen ground can be as unyielding as concrete. The concussion of each footfall on hard ground can lead to soreness and bruises. You probably won't notice a hoof bruise until your horse is "ouchy" or even outright lame. You may be able to spot a bruise on your horse's sole---a darkened area possibly accompanied by a small crack---but often there will be no outward sign. In either case, a call to your veterinarian is in order. She can use hoof testers to pinpoint the area of soreness and then pare down the sole to reduce pressure on the bruised area. You'll want to coordinate all of this with your farrier, who may recommend shoes or hoof pads to prevent the problem from recurring.
You can prevent some hoof bruises when riding your horse over frozen ground by using a little common sense. If your horse seems reluctant to move out, don't force him. And listen to the ground even if your horse is moving fine---if your horse's footfalls produce loud ringing sounds rather than muffled hoof beats, slow down.
In many areas of the country, winter means alternating spells of wet and dry weather. These conditions can cause the hoof wall to expand and contract, allowing bacteria to invade the capsule, where they can multiply and produce a painful abscess.
An abscess causes acute lameness seemingly overnight. You'll undoubtedly call your veterinarian, who will pinpoint the site and, if possible, drain the abscess. Your farrier can help with follow-up care, which can go on for several months if the abscess "breaks" at the coronary band and causes a disruption in hoof growth.
Horses with weak, shelly feet are more likely to develop abscesses in the winter. "Water affects horn tissue much like it does a cardboard box," says Redden. "Excessive moisture can cause debilitating horn weakness that frequently causes indirect abscesses, in which bacteria enter sensitive tissue through fissures in the sole/wall junction."
If your horse is prone to abscesses, anything you can do to improve his hoof quality and mass before the winter weather sets in will be helpful, says Redden. "The average foot requires a minimum of 15 to 20 millimeters of sole depth. Large feet require 25 to 30 millimeters, heavy thick walls and a strong heel and frog. Using a four-point trim and/or shoeing method to accelerate capsule growth prior to long periods of wet or inclement weather is the best way to prevent routine problems that haunt weak feet."
Winter brings both advantages and disadvantages for those whose horses are prone to this smelly multi-organism infection of the hoof. Subzero temperatures are "not a friendly environment for bacteria and fungal problems of the hoof," says Dokken, who urges owners to use this weakness to their advantage and "work harder on treating thrush-type problems in the colder winter months."
In areas where the temperatures don't dip below freezing, however, the moisture in winter ground can simply feed a chronic thrush problem or create a new one. Treating and preventing thrush requires a cooperative effort between the horse owner, farrier and veterinarian. The first step is removing as much affected tissue as possible, followed by killing the organism with any one of many products designed for the job and, finally, altering the horse's footing where possible to keep his feet consistently drier.
When wet snow gets tightly packed into a shod horse's foot, it melts slightly as it comes in contact with the sole, then quickly refreezes as it touches the cold metal of the shoe. This process forms "ice balls" within the center of the shoe
that can lead to tripping, soreness and even injury.
"The colder the temperature, the more these ice balls will occur," says Dokken. "When it's slushy, the ice balls will develop and then fall out, but when the temperature gets really cold, the ice can be so compacted that people go after it with screwdrivers and hammers," an ill-advised measure that can lead to puncture wounds to the hoof and/or handler.
You've undoubtedly heard many "home remedies," such as coating the hoof with cooking spray or petroleum jelly. The efficacy of these methods is questionable, however. "Sure, they can help," says Dokken, "but only for a very limited amount of time."
A more effective option is anti-snowball pads, which are heavy plastic or rubber inserts that go between a horse's shoe and foot. They have a convex "bubble" that forces snow or ice out with each step.
Anti-snowball rim pads, often called just "rims" or "tube pads," offer the same protection, but without covering the whole hoof. Instead, a raised tube ridge emerges from underneath the shoe, preventing snow from accumulating. Dokken finds the two kinds of inserts similarly effective and says that pads and rims fail only when manure or mud packs into them, allowing a snowball to form on top of that muck.
For the most part, horses stay fairly comfortable in winter when their caretakers are on alert and prepared for the challenges of the season. In fact, most need only a few minor accommodations to manage even the most extreme temperatures. The same applies to their hooves. Keep an eye on them in winter, continue your regular care, and be ready to step in if anything looks amiss. But don't worry, chances are your horses will make it through to spring happy and healthy.