Written by: Colleen Archer

Learn how to recognize and deal with winter hoof care woes.

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Pam Mackenzie photo

When it comes to winter hoof care, “one size doesn’t fit all,” says Doug Butler, Ph.D., CJF, FWCF and author of The Principles of Horseshoeing. “Each horse and situation is unique.”

Canadian winters present several challenges, which can affect not only traction and hoof quality, but can lead to lameness if left unchecked. Optimum winter hoof care will depend on many things including geographic location, the condition of the horse’s hooves, the type of ground he walks on, and his scheduled use, or non-use, throughout the season.

Horse-Canada consulted with Dr. Butler and spoke to Ontario-based farrier, Adam Ellens, who studied under Dr. Butler, and to Marie Leginus, a farrier from British Columbia, about some of the most common winter concerns for horse owners. Here, they share tips for how to combat winter woes and maintain healthy hooves despite the conditions.

Snowballing

In areas of the country with heavy snow fall, probably the most common issue that horse owners deal with is “snowballing.” This is when snow gets compacted into the contours and crevices of the horse’s hooves, which leaves him walking on balls of snow.

Ellens said, “The balling up of snow on the bottom of the foot can cause the horse discomfort due to strain on the tendons, ligaments and joints. Pressure from balling up can also cause bruising of the sensitive sole.”

“Most of my clients have the shoes removed in the winter to prevent snowballing. In cases that require shoes year round, however, especially if the horse has a foot problem or is to be routinely ridden during the winter months, anti-balling pads are applied to the shoe.” A popular choice is the rim pad, a continuous bead of rubber that follows the inside web of the shoe, and is riveted onto the shoe before it is nailed on.

Another choice, referred to as the “bubble” or “popper” pad, covers the bottom of the foot and has a “bubble” full of air in the middle. When the bubble pushes against the snow, the snow should pop out of the shoe. These are often used with horses that tend to bruise easily or have sensitive soles. Many horse owners prefer rim pads to bubble pads because the bottom of the foot is visible and can be cleaned. No matter which pads are used, though, they should be checked frequently to make sure they haven’t ripped or loosened around the rivets as they wear.

Ellens also noted that some owners apply a cooking spray or grease to the hoof in an attempt to prevent snow from balling up, but said this will only work temporarily. Though snowballing is more common in shod horses, it can also be a problem for those who go barefoot in the winter.

Bruising

Concussion on frozen ground can lead to soreness and to sole bruises. While bruises may sometimes appear as a darkened area with possibly a small crack, other times they aren’t visible, and hoof testers may be needed to pinpoint the affected area.

Never force your horse to move out over frozen ground if he seems reluctant to do so. Shoes with protective pads may be necessary if you plan to do much riding on frozen ground. (See the July/August issue for advice on dealing with sole bruises.)

Thrush

Thrush can be a problem in locations where winter tends to be wet rather than freezing cold. Moisture in winter ground can feed a chronic thrush problem, or possibly create one. Treatment includes having your vet or farrier remove as much of the smelly, infected tissue as possible, and then using a product designed to kill the offending organisms. Every attempt should be made to keep the hooves as dry as possible.

Make cleaning hooves part of your everyday routine. If your horse spends time in a stall, keeping the stall clean is also important. The ammonia in urine is hard on the horse’s frog and can make hooves susceptible to thrush. Manure should be removed daily from stalls and from small holding paddocks.

Thin Soles

Leginus said that wet conditions can also lead to horses developing thin soles, which makes them vulnerable to bruising and disrupts weight distribution on the hoof. “I’ve had a few of my clients use a mixture of iodine and formaldehyde on their horses’ soles that are thin. It has made a world of difference in these horses. Their hooves improve [as the soles thicken] because their weight [is distributed better].”

Soft Hoof Walls

Excess moisture can cause the hoof walls to become soft, which creates a few problems. “Without a strong hoof wall, more weight is distributed to other parts of the hoof, such as the sole, bars, frog and even heel bulbs, making them a bit more overworked,” said Leginus. “The hoof wall’s being soft means little or no strength for the whole hoof. Walls start to crack or flare in places.”

White Line Disease

Wet conditions are also a factor in white line disease (or seedy toe), which is an infection of the tissues in the junction between the live foot structures and the hoof wall involving multiple fungal organisms, bacteria, or both.

The best plan of attack for a horse with white line disease is to keep the tissues dry and expose them to air. Your vet or farrier should remove the hoof wall in areas where there is no longer any connection to the foot. Once the infected tissue is exposed, your vet or farrier will recommend that a disinfectant be painted on. Ideally, the tissue will harden naturally and eventually grow out and be replaced by healthy, well-attached hoof again.

Abscesses

In some areas of the country, winter means alternating spells of wet and dry weather – conditions that can cause the hoof wall to continually expand and contract. If bacteria then invade the hoof capsule, they might multiply and produce an abscess that needs to drain.

Abscesses are painful and can quickly cause acute lameness. They should be dealt with by your vet, with follow-up care by your farrier. (See the September/October issue for tips on treating a hoof abscess.)

Coronary Band Injuries

Accidents from slipping on ice, getting cut by a piece of sharp ice or being scraped by a hoof stud/cork caused by overreaching, can sometimes lead to coronary band injuries. The coronary band is located at the junction of the leg’s hairline and the hoof, and it provides the majority of nutrition to the hoof. Because there is a rich blood supply to the coronary band, injuries in this location often bleed profusely. Clean the wound gently with water, control the bleeding with a pressure bandage of clean gauze and call your vet to examine the injury. Since these injuries can be complicated by the loading and unloading of the hoof, which results in constant movement of tissues, the risk of contamination and infection due to the proximity to dirt, manure and other debris, plus compromised blood flow to the hoof. (See the March/April issue for more information on dealing with coronary band injuries.)

BAREFOOT OR SHOD? 

To shoe or not to shoe during the winter continues to be the big question. There are several factors which come into play, and the decision must be made on an individual basis.

Assuming a horse doesn’t have a hoof issue which requires shoes full-time, the two main reasons horse owners choose to shoe over the winter are to prevent wear and to add traction. The type of footing a horse will encounter and the amount and type of work he will be asked to do over the winter months both affect this decision.

Sometimes, however, other factors can come into play. Take Bobbi Connell, manager of Otterson Lake Farm in the Ottawa Valley, for instance, who has a most interesting case in her Warmblood, Velvet. While the mare doesn’t need to wear shoes in winter to prevent wear, Velvet doesn’t feel secure enough to work without them. When she’s barefoot, Velvet is so concerned about winter footing that she simply won’t move forward. “Velvet loses her confidence barefoot,” noted Ellens, who said he adds traction devices to her shoes in the form of studs/corks, “so that she feels secure and doesn’t slip.”

According to Dr. Butler, for any horse that is to be used on slippery surfaces, “some sort of traction shoeing is needed for the safety of horse and rider.”

There are several different approaches to achieving traction on snow and ice, including installing studs/corks, or welding Borium (a metal containing tungsten carbide granules) to the bottom of the shoe. Writes Dr. Butler: “Interchangeable traction studs are more desirable than Borium when encountering different types of weather and ground in competition or on the road. Short studs are used in place of Borium to create traction on hard roads. They may then be replaced by larger studs when travel is to be across soft and slippery terrain or when snow is on the road.”

“Borium-coated rivets or bolts can be improvised and used in place of studs. They may be preferred on some surfaces.”

For a temporary and inexpensive means of sharp-shoeing a horse for traction, Dr. Butler sometimes uses a mud or frost nail, or a nail which has Borium on its head.

While, in some cases, shoes can be a necessity, Dr. Butler writes: “If the horse is to be used infrequently or not at all during the winter months, the best choice would be to pull the shoes, trim the hooves, round the edges to prevent the horse’s hooves from cracking, and allow the horse to go barefoot. This is especially true in areas where there is frequent snowfall.”

Owners who opt to pull their horse’s shoes, should do so before winter hits. If the shoes are removed after the ground has frozen and become jagged, the hooves will be vulnerable to damage. If the shoes are pulled about six weeks earlier, the hooves will have a chance to grow out horn damaged by nails, and the farrier can trim and shape them in preparation for the conditions.

Though cold temperatures tend to slow down hoof growth, and some horses may not require trims as often as in warm weather, horse owners should maintain a regular trimming schedule based on their horse’s needs. It is certainly preferable to avoid damage control, and focus on maintaining the hoof instead.

Ellens pointed out that slower hoof growth in the winter can delay the resolution of some problems. For instance, cracks and other defects will take longer to grow out, even when the cause has been addressed.

Another winter negative, said Ellens, is that “in extremely cold temperatures, the moisture in the hoof may freeze on the surface. This makes paring of the hoof difficult, and may make it more subject to surface cracking.”As such, he said it’s a good idea to bring your horse into the barn a couple of hours before your farrier arrives, in order to give the hooves a chance to “defrost.” Some people even soak their horses’ hooves in warm water to prepare for their farrier’s visit.

Dr. Butler sums up the discussion nicely with: “The question of preparing your horse for winter is best answered by a qualified farrier whom you trust. He or she can give you an expert opinion after you have explained your horse’s condition, its riding regimen, its stable environment, and its intended winter use.”