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Winter Riding on Ice and Snow

Performance-horse farrier Dave Werkiser summarizes strategies to protect your horse in the snow and ice of winter

┬ęPractical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

If you ride in hard-winter conditions, you need to consider reducing footing risks by means of one or more of the methods detailed here. If your horse wears bar shoes--increasingly popular nowadays to provide extra support for hard-working performance horses--these safety measures are even more important, because the increased surface area and reduced frog contact of such footwear make them more slippery than regular shoes.

Nails and Studs
If your horse spends minimal time on slick surfaces and doesn't travel through much snow, specially designed horseshoe nails or studs may provide enough traction.

Ice nails have a chiseled head that extends beyond the plane of the shoe, acting much like the cleat on a golf shoe. Your farrier can put one or more on each shoe for additional traction; if he uses only one or two per shoe, he'll place them as far back toward the heel as possible. Made of the same relatively soft metal as ordinary horseshoe nails, ice nails are subject to wear; if you do a lot of road riding, they probably won't last the four to six weeks between shoeings.

Dura-Tec nails are shaped much like a normal nail and extend only slightly beyond the shoe's plane, but they're topped by a drop of very hard tungsten or carbide steel. These specially treated heads function like a slight smear of borium, biting into virtually any kind of footing. As with ice nails, your farrier can use one or more Dura-Tec nails, always placing them first in the posterior holes of the shoe and working forward. Because of their treated heads, Dura-Tec nails last longer than ice nails. But if you're doing much more than simply going from the barn to the indoor arena and back, they won't provide enough extra traction; you're probably better off using borium.

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Screw-in studs, like those that jumpers and three-day event horses use in wet weather, go into holes your farrier creates: at the at the two heels of each hind shoe or of all four shoes; you screw the studs in before each ride and remove them afterward. The up side of screw-in studs is that you can select the size you need for each riding situation and your horse doesn't have to wear a traction device in his "off" hours. The down side is that maintaining the holes and screwing the studs in and out is a hassle. (Never leave these studs in. They elevate the foot too much for permanent wear, altering balance and stressing the heel bulbs.)

Drive-in studs, smaller than screw-ins and designed to be left in place, have heads treated for extra traction, like the Dura-Tec nail's. Your farrier hammers them permanently into specially created holes at the heel of the shoe. Unlike screw-in studs, they're hassle-free. They're also quite effective on slippery surfaces, providing about the same amount of traction as borium; these choice between these studs and borium might depend on your farrier's preference and whether he has the oxyacetylene torch needed to weld borium on.

Borium
The most versatile of the extra-traction options, borium is a substance containing tiny chips of super-hard steel that bites into virtually any surface--concrete and macadam, for example, as well as ice and snow. It can be used by itself in varying amounts to give shoes added purchase on ice, or in combination with pads for both extra traction and snowball protection. The important thing about borium is not to overdo it; more is not necessarily better. Because of its traction-enhancing properties, it can inhibit the natural lateral rotation of the foot that occurs as the foot lands and the horse moves over the limb. Too much borium halts that rotation, causing compensatory twisting elsewhere in the limb that can lead to lameness. So the key is to use only as much borium as you actually need.

Hoof Grips
If you'll be riding through much snow (especially hard-packed snow, which tends to ball up in feet more than soft, fluffy snow does), you'll probably need some sort of pad to keep your horse's feet free of snowballs. Hoof Grips are semi-pads placed between the shoe and your horse's foot; ideally, they're riveted to the shoe to keep them from sliding and tearing. The combined action of the pad lip and of a healthy, well-formed frog pushes snow out and keeps it from packing. Compared with snowball pads (see below), Hoof Grips' main advantage is that they leave the sole of the foot open so you can clean and inspect it--critical if thrush is a concern.

Snowball Pads
These pads, which cover the entire bottom of the foot, are the best choice if snow balling up in your horse's feet is a major problem. They're especially useful for a horse with recessed or diseased frogs because they don't rely on the action of the frog to keep snow out. (Then again, impaired frogs are more vulnerable to thrush, so you have to weigh the increased thrush risk against the superior snow-guarding action.) The pads' convex bulge tends to grip the ground, providing a bit of extra traction too--although if you need snowball pads, you'll probably want to use borium as well.

Snowball pads can be riveted to the shoe but don't have to be. They're thicker than Hoof Grips and tend not to slip and tear. They're more durable than Hoof Grips and will probably last you through the winter. When you have snowball pads removed in the spring, ask your farrier to examine your horse's feet carefully. If he deems it necessary (usually only if the feet are flat), he may leave a little extra sole at the first post-pad shoeing and ask you to paint the soles with Venice turpentine for about ten days to toughen up the sole tissue.

Farrier Dave Werkiser is based in Chester County, Pa.

This article was adapted from the November 1997 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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