A horse hoof wall does adapt to cold, short days through metabolism changes that slow growth. And luckily, a healthy horse hoof's natural design works well on hard ground and in snow. Still, it's frightening to head home in the afternoon after the temperature has dropped. A wet trail becomes a slippery one. Puddles turn into black ice. Snowdrifts create more hazards. for your horse.
Here, we'll give you the pros and cons of three winter-shoeing options (no shoes; shoes in front only; shoes on all four feet). Then we'll give you a rundown of traction types and snowball-management techniques.
We'll also give you a rundown of the latest horseshoes and hoof boots for winter and provide 9 at-a-glance winter-hoof-care tips.
(Note: This information is designed for those who live in areas that experi-ence light to moderate snowy and icy conditions. If your winter conditions are extreme, you've probably learned that riding isn't a realistic expectation most of the winter.)
Here are three winter-shoeing options. Discuss all options with your farrier.
(Tip: Is your farrier a winter warrior? Some new graduates or farriers from warmer climates may not be experienced with winter hoof needs, so be sure to ask a new farrier in your barn about his or her experience.)
Winter-Shoeing Option #1: No Shoes
Pros: A bare foot keeps your horse's hoof directly on the ground; if the hoof is healthy, it'll be more likely to develop a strong frog and bars. He may be very surefooted. If you shoe your horse the rest of the year, his hooves will have a chance to recover from the shoes' constrictive nature. A bare hoof doesn't usually ball up with snow.
Cons: By removing shoes, are you removing support that your horse might need? Bare hooves can be bruised on hard ground, particularly if the soles are thin or flat. Overgrown or imbalanced hooves don't have good traction in winter conditions. You might tend to overlook your horse's hoof care; check his bare feet daily and get them trimmed regularly.
Beware of rough surfaces (such as on a gritty road or abrasive indoor footing) that can wear down barefoot hooves, due to the slower winter hoof growth. He may need shoes or hoof boots for protection. Finally, you'll need to ride your barefoot horse regularly to keep his hooves conditioned; sporadic all-day rides can damage the hoof and even cause what's called road founder.
Note: If your horse becomes sore-footed when his shoes are pulled and doesn't recover quickly, call your veterinarian; your horse might need shoes or hoof boots for protection so he can exercise. Be sure to rule out other causes of lameness before assuming the condition is just shoe-removal soreness.
Winter-Shoeing Option #2: Front Feet Only
Pros: This is the most common choice. Your horse's hind feet reap the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle, while the front feet are shod according to your preference. This is an especially good option if your horse needs front shoes for therapeutic reasons.
Cons: Your horse's legs work together like a machine. Any major difference in traction between his front and hind limbs may affect the timing of his gaits, especially the trot. Watch for brushing (when any foot makes light contact with any other foot or limb), forging (when a back foot strikes the sole of the front foot on the same side), interference (when any foot strikes the inside of any limb), and lower-leg injuries, particularly when the shoes are first pulled.
Also, your horse can catch his front shoes on debris or fences buried in the snow, which can cause an injury. And, since he uses his hind legs for traction (especially when going downhill), he might slip if his bare hind feet aren't healthy or if the terrain is slick.
Winter-Shoeing Option #3: All Four Feet
Pro: Your farrier will be able to apply and remove traction devices.
Cons: Many boarding barns simply don't allow horses to wear hind shoes (especially with added traction) if they're turned out with other horses, to help avoid an injury in case of a kick. Also, your horse can catch his shoes on debris or fences buried in the snow, which can cause an injury.
Tip: Listen to your farrier's advice. Shoeing solutions aren't universal. What's best for one horse in your barn may not work for another. Base your decision on your horse's use, condition, and hoof quality. You can make any necessary changes over the course of the winter.