Winter time can bring a host of different aspects to hoofcare - and a host of questions. Those horses who live in sub-freezing temps with snow and ice ... how does one cope with that? Can I ride in the snow? How come the hooves don't freeze? How do barefooted horses keep from slipping? What about winter abscesses? Stone bruising? Tender feet?
I want to cover a few questions today which I've run across most over the years.
1. Can I ride a barefooted horse in the snow?
Absolutely! In fact, I'd RATHER ride a barefooted horse during the winter. There's not steel around the hoof to capture and form "iceballs" which can make riding and moving pretty tough. There are all sorts of suggestions to keep the iceballs from forming on the hooves BUT ... the best way is to keep the horse barefooted.
The expansion and contraction of the hoof during loading will pop the iceballs right out! AND ... the loading of the hoof on the ground will form a nice 'suction' that helps to steady the hooves during movement. That doesn't happen with shoes because the shoes inhibit full expansion of the hooves and subsequent contraction. I'd much rather have my horse walking on snow and in icy conditions barefooted or booted rather than trying to navigate trails on iceskates!
2. How do the hooves stay warm? How come they don't get frostbitten?
Mammals protect their vital organs against severe cold by shunting blood away from the extremities to the core through . Horses shunt a lot of blood away from their feet protecting the hooves and providing a very functional foot. The hoof capsule helps protect the internal foot, and many of the tissues in the foot can tolerate some decreased blood flow naturally without being damaged. It's been theorized that "arteriovenous anastomosis" (AV shunts) that divert blood from an artery to a vein in order to bypass capillaries, is the protective function that takes place to help the horse hooves keep from freezing but it has not yet been proven. In fact, there is no explanation that has been found about how horses hooves stay viable in freezing conditions but they do -- they do a good job of it. Keep them moving! And be rest assured that horses that live outdoors 24/7 don't have any more foot circulatory issues than those kept in stables.
On the other hand, foals should not be left to their own devices in sub-zero freezing weather. They CAN suffer frostbite to their feet and limbs.
3. Getting your horse's hooves trimmed during the winter time may be spread out to every 6 - 8 weeks instead of every 4 - 6 weeks. The hooves slow their growth rate down during the winter. It picks up again in the spring time. But, this means there are slower remediation times during the winter, too ... Hoof cracks and other defects will take longer to grow out than in seasons of temperate climates even with adequate hoofcare and trimming.
4. Hooves may bruise more easily in the winter time due to the hooves mostly being soft from the snow and mud and other wet conditions. Frozen ground is HARD ... can be as hard as concrete and stones frozen into the ground are totally unyielding. I like to allow the heels to grow a bit taller in the wintertime so a good bevel from the seat of corn/heel purchase back and down to the widest part of the frog can be administered. Another 1/8th of an inch or so of heel can make a big difference in the winter comfort of the hooves. I also like to make sure the horse can get onto dry surfaces a bit each day in order for the hooves to dry out some. As always, good movement will help to ensure good circulation in the feet and help keep the hooves overall healthy.
5. Horses with weak, shelly feet are more likely to develop abscesses in the winter. "Water affects horn tissue much like it does a cardboard box," says Ric Redden. "Excessive moisture can cause debilitating horn weakness that frequently causes indirect abscesses, in which bacteria enter sensitive tissue through fissures in the sole/wall junction." Weak, shelly feet can be strengthened through diet and movement. The less processed feed and the more LIVE forage feed, the better. Feeding a small variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds along with some herbs is a small way but most effective way to help toughen up horses' hooves. If your horse is prone to abscesses, anything you can do to improve his hoof quality before the winter weather sets in will be helpful. But, its never too late to start.
6. If your horse is prone to thrush then wintertime can be your friend. Thrush bacteria and yeast like WARM, moist, dark and anaerobic environment. So freezing temps are great to help with this situation. Do what you can heartily over the winter to combat and eradicate any thrush and yeast issues. Again, diet plays a big role in this.
Generally speaking, horses do well in the colder months. They thrive in temps between 40 and 60 degrees farenheight. If they're healthy to start in the fall then with a few changes in husbandry and the way the horses are fed, they can easily remain healthy and sound through the winter time as well. Keep an eye on the hooves and keep up with regular hoofcare. They should be fine throughout the season.
Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here: www.thepenzancehorse.com Gwenyth also offers an online home-study of Natural Hoofcare 101 ... please go here: www.integrativehorsecourses.com to view information and to register.