Winter Hoof Care

Derek Poupard, CJF

Winter is an ideal time to pull your horse's shoes if the animal is not being ridden extensively. If you live in an area with high snowfall, the horse is much less likely to pack snow in an unshod foot than one with shoes. Horseshoes tend to pack snow into hard snowballs and smooth horseshoes make excellent ice-skates.

Pulling the shoes and leaving the horse barefoot will always enhance the overall health of the feet (hoof wall will thicken, sole depth increase, heels expand, etc.). The improvement in the feet is due to the natural physiological process (increased circulation, movement and expansion within the hoof capsule) that occurs when the hoof is not restricted by the constrictive nature of horseshoes attached with nails. As a general rule, when shoes are pulled and intended to be left off for a period of time, one should trim the foot differently than when the horse is shod. For the horse to get maximum benefit from having the shoes pulled, the feet must be trimmed in a manner that provides the utmost protection to the bottom of the foot so the full physiology can be restored to the unshod hoof. When the shoes are pulled, the frog is left untouched and no sole is removed. The heels are moved back (lowered ) toward the widest part of the frog if possible. Additionally, some hoof wall is left on the foot to insure that the wall is higher than the sole, so that as the horse walks no weight bearing is placed on the sole. The hoof wall should be rasped at an angle from the ground surface, starting just outside the white line. The rasp is then used to remove the sharp edge around the perimeter of the hoof, which was created by rasping the foot at an angle. This will create a rounded surface to the edge to the hoof and thus, help prevent cracks and chips. The horse should be trimmed regularly while his shoes are off with the emphasis on keeping the edge of the hoof rounded sufficiently. The conformation, quality of the hoof and terrain will dictate whether all four shoes or just the hind shoes are pulled.

If your horse needs to remain shod because it is ridden all winter (i.e. fox hunters) and turned out daily, you may want to add pads under the shoes when the ground freezes. Pads may prevent sole bruises from the uneven, frozen ground. In areas that receive snow and icy weather, additional precautions should also be taken. A shoe with a fuller (crease) should always be used. Added traction can be achieved by using a hard surfacing material such as borium, or studs can be placed in the toe and heel of the shoe. When borium is used, it should be applied to the horseshoe as small "in-line" caulks in the heel, not large projections. In the toe area, the borium is melted across the entire toe of the shoe such that the tungsten particles are exposed, again avoiding large projections on the shoe. Borium applied as described will give excellent traction and prevent slippage. Large mounds of borium on the bottom of the shoe can place unnecessary strain on the horse's joints in the limb above the foot. If studs are used instead, there are two types available, drive-in which stay permanently, or screw-in which can be removed or changed to a larger or smaller stud as needed. There are also ice nails available that have a borium bubble on the nail head that grips the ground well. They are easy to use, as they just replace the existing heel nails. The disadvantage is that they tend to wear out quickly.

In areas with high snowfall, some type of snowball pad is essential to prevent your horse from walking on "stilts" from the snow packing in the foot. This snow can build a platform of several inches under the foot just going for a leisurely walk. This can be dangerous to both horse and rider. Snow will usually be thrown out of the foot at a trot, but it still remains dangerous. Moreover, the compressed snow can cause subsolar bruising, especially in thin-soled horses. It is important to be aware of this problem and to keep picking the horse's feet out as necessary. Cooking oil sprayed on the underside of the foot may be helpful, but it wears off quickly. There are three popular styles of pads used to prevent snow from packing in the bottom of the feet. Flat hard plastic pads can be used, on which cooking oil can also be sprayed. There is also a snow popper pad, which has a bubble in the middle of the pad that pushes off excess snow, and an inside rim pad (Hufgrip) that has a rim, which is higher than the ground surface of the shoe. On impact, this rim compresses and dislodges the snow. The rubber version of the rim pad seems to work better than the plastic version, but doesn't seem to hold up as well.

Horses hooves tend to grow more slowly in the winter months. It is thought that some of the circulation is diverted from growth to keeping the feet warm. However, this does not mean that hooves don't need attention. The unshod feet should be trimmed regularly (4-to-6 week intervals) and painted twice weekly with an appropriate hoof dressing. A very useful hoof dressing is a combination of 1 part pine tar and 3 parts cod liver oil mixed together. The ground surface of the foot as well as the hoof wall should be painted. A little extra care and regular attention during the winter when your horse is unshod will result in a stronger, healthier foot the rest of the year.

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