How to prevent ice balls

The rock-hard accumulations of ice and snow that can get packed into a horse’s feet can cause lameness and injury. Here’s how to keep them from forming.
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One winter hazard that riders in northern climes know well is ice balls. When snow and ice get packed under a horse’s hoof, it warms up slightly against the sole, then freezes readily against the cold metal of the shoe. The ice can quickly build up until the horse is walking on a hard, solid mass of frozen material, called “ice balls” or “snowballs.” The wetter and more dense the snow, the more likely it is that snowballs will occur. “Slushier” ice will fall away from the foot more readily, and light, dry snow won’t pack well, but wet or icy snow can easily get compacted into a tight, hard block.

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 Walking on the uneven mass even for a short time can cause a number of problems from tripping and sliding to strains or sprains of the muscles, tendons and joints. Persistent snowballs can lead to bruises and hoof cracks. Horses do OK much of the
time when there is snow all around, but once on a firm surface, many
will teeter as if they are on high-heeled shoes.

Removing large masses of ice from under your horse’s feet can be difficult, and by the time you discover them, the damage may already be underway. It’s better to take measures to prevent them from forming:

1. Let your horse go barefoot. Coming into contact with the cold metal of a shoe encourages wet slush to freeze solid. If you won’t be doing much riding in the cold months, consider leaving your horse barefoot over the winter. Snow and ice can still build up on unshod hooves, but the accumulations tend to be smaller and easier to remove.

2. Add anti-snowball pads. If your horse wears shoes throughout the winter, ask your farrier about anti-snowball pads. There are two types: One is a heavy plastic or rubber insert that covers the horse’s sole and features a convex “bubble” that forces the snow and slush out with each step. The other, called a rim pad or tube pad, consists of a raised rubber tube that circles around the inner perimeter of the shoe but does not cover the frog or sole. Both are about equally effective at keeping out the snow and ice, but you’ll need to be diligent about cleaning your horse’s feet because mud and manure may build up under the pads.

3. Try a home remedy. Ask a group of horsepeople about snowballs and you’ll hear plenty of suggestions for substances to apply to a horse’s soles to prevent snow and ice from sticking. These home remedies are not as effective or long lasting as anti-snowball pads, but they may be helpful at times, especially if ice is only an occasional problem where you live. Thick, sticky preparations, such as Vaseline or Crisco, are more effective than thinner ones, such as cooking spray or baby oil. However, avoid using motor oil, WD-40 or other potentially caustic or hazardous substances. If you wouldn’t want it on your own skin, do not apply it to your horse’s feet.

4. Get your horse hoof boots. If your horse tends to accumulate snowballs on your winter rides, hoof boots can help keep his feet clean and dry. Make sure you choose boots that fit your horse well, without rubbing, and that the treads provide the right amount of traction for the terrain where you ride. If your horse is shod, choose a model designed to be worn over shoes.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #448, January 2015.