Optimum winter hoof care will depend on many factors including geographic location, weather, the condition of the horse’s hooves, the type of ground/terrain being walked on, and work schedule (or lack of one) throughout the season.
Here are tips for how to combat eight common winter woes and maintain healthy hooves.
Depending on where you live, winter can bring alternating spells of wet and dry weather – conditions that can cause the hoof wall to continually expand and contract. Bacteria invading the hoof capsule via a wound or the protective outer layers of the sole can work its way into the sensitive laminae, multiply and produce a painful abscess (pocket of pus) that can cause acute lameness. Even a severe sole bruise caused by a stone or snowballing can develop into an abscess.
Treating abscesses involves soaking hot water and Epsom salts and poulticing. Your veterinarian may administer antibiotics to combat the infection, or anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling and help manage the pain. Your farrier may be able to locate the abscess and establish drainage, depending on the location. If necessary, shoeing or trimming can lessen the stress on the affected area.
Likely the most common winter hoof issue that horse owners face is “snowballing,” where snow gets compacted into the contours of the horse’s soles, leaves him walking precariously on a packed mass. This can cause the horse discomfort due to strain on the tendons, ligaments and joints. Falling on slippery surfaces also becomes a danger. Pressure from this balling up can also cause bruising of the sensitive sole which can lead to pain and even abscesses, as previously mentioned.
One solution is to remove the shoes during the winter months. In horses that require shoes year-round as they are under heavy work, or due to a hoof problem that requires therapeutic shoes, anti-balling pads can be applied. This includes rim pads, “bubble” or “popper” pads.
A note of caution here about shoe removal: If you decide to pull your horse’s shoes, you should do so before the worst of 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.
As noted above, concussion on frozen ground can lead to soreness and to sole bruises. While they may appear as a darkened area with possibly a small crack, other times they aren’t visible at all and hoof testers may be needed to pinpoint the affected area if the horse seems “ouchy” when moving.
Never force your horse to travel over frozen ground if he seems reluctant to do so. Shoes with protective pads may be necessary if you plan to do a lot of riding on frozen ground. Walkways that have jagged icy stretches can be made gentler (and less slippery) with regular applications of sand, shavings or non-clumping kitty litter.
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.
Thrush, a bacterial infection in the tissue of the frog, can be a problem in locations where winter tends to be wet rather than freezing cold. The ground moisture can create a thrush problem, or feed a chronic one. Your vet or farrier will need to remove as much of the smelly, infected tissue as possible, and then apply a product designed to kill the organisms.
Essentially, a healthy, well-shaped frog shouldn’t be susceptible to thrush no matter the damp or dirty conditions; it is badly-conformed (shrunken or atrophied) or poorly-placed frogs (not enough contact with the ground for necessary stimulation) which are most at risk. Your farrier should be able to trim the hooves to align the frog and heels on the same plane.
Regardless of the conformation of your horse’s hooves, make cleaning hooves part of your daily routine ‒ even in the winter when that task may get missed in the shuffle of blankets and snow-covered horses and frozen buckets.
Other Wet Condition Woes
Excess moisture can cause the hoof walls to become soft, which can cause more weight to be distributed to other parts of the hoof, such as the sole, bars, frog and even heel bulbs. Walls may start to crack or flare in places. Wet conditions can also lead to horses developing thin soles, which makes them vulnerable to bruising and disrupts weight distribution on the hoof. The best way to avoid these issues is to make sure stalls are clean and well-bedded and horses are not forced to stand in deep mud for long periods of time in their paddocks.
White line disease (or seedy toe), an infection of the tissues in the junction between the live foot structures and the hoof wall involving multiple fungal organisms and/or bacteria, is another problem. The best plan of attack here 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, a disinfectant can be applied. Ideally, the tissue will harden naturally and eventually be replaced by healthy, well-attached hoof again.
Working with your farrier and veterinarian to find solutions that work for you and your horse will ensure you are ready to hit the ground running in the spring.