As outside temperatures plummet and precipitation becomes increasingly frozen, horse owners may opt to stay inside more often than not. Horses are well cared for – they get fed plenty of high quality hay, have fresh and unfrozen water, get regular turnout, and have access to shelter.
While horses may not be ridden much during the winter months, they still need regular hoof care. In fact, horse hooves may require more attention in the winter than they do during the summer. Hooves grow differently in winter, and mud, snow, and ice present additional challenges.
Hoof growth slows in winter, mostly in response to how much the horse moves around or is exercised. Generally, horses graze less and spend more time standing in their stalls or paddocks eating hay in winter months. Movement frequency appears to be directly related to blood circulation in the hooves. As movement declines, so does blood circulation, which leads to slower hoof growth. If a horse is healthy and has well-balanced hooves, he may need less frequent visits from the farrier. However, slower hoof growth also slows resolution of some hoof problems such as cracks or other hoof defects. Hoof quality can be improved by feeding a supplement that contains biotin; however, since it takes nearly a year to grow out a completely new hoof, biotin supplementation should begin well in advance of winter months.
Unfortunately, winter conditions present additional problems when it comes to equine hoof health. Frozen ground is very unyielding and can sometimes be quite uneven. Contact of a hoof with this type of ground can result in sole bruises, which may lead to lameness. Horses that have sole bruises may benefit from shoes with or without pads. Consult with your farrier to determine what will work best with your horse.
Your horse may also be more susceptible to hoof abscesses during the winter months, especially when there are alternating times of wet and dry weather. When the weather abruptly alternates between wet and dry conditions, the hoof wall expands and contracts, which allows bacteria to enter small holes or cracks in the hoof. When bacteria multiply inside the hoof, painful abscesses will form. Proper hoof care that leads to adequate sole thickness is important to obtain before winter sets in.
Thrush is an infection of the frog and sulci of the equine hoof caused by multiple organisms that may be characterized by a foul smelling discharge. Chronic thrush infections can lead to degeneration of the horn of the hoof. Thrush can be a problem in locations where wet conditions persist for long periods during the winter without periods below freezing. When thrush becomes a problem, the affected areas of the hoof should be removed, the organism should be treated with a product designed for combatting thrush, and the horse’s environment should be changed to something that is drier and is routinely cleaned of feces and urine.
Finally, snow balls can be a real problem for shod horses. Wet snow gets lightly packed in the shod hoof and melts slightly when it contacts the sole. It then refreezes when it touches the cold, metal shoe. The ice balls that form can lead to tripping, slipping, soreness, and injury. Home remedies such as spraying the hoof with cooking spray or petroleum jelly may work for a short period of time, but are generally ineffective. Convex plastic or rubber inserts that go between the horse’s hoof and shoe are a more effective method to prevent hoof snow balls. Discuss options with your farrier.
Caring for your horse during the winter may be challenging. However, your horse is fairly well equipped to manage winter weather conditions. Regular hoof care and proper nutrition should get your horse through the winter and have him ready to ride in the spring.