Winter Hoof Care for Horses

The Horse Barn

Winter Hoof Care for Horses

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Hoof care is important any time of year, but particularly so in winter when conditions are the wettest and most worrisome.

By Bryan Farcus MA, CJP; ©2007-2014 “Farrier-Friendly” Series It’s that time of year, once again, and I’m finding that the evening chores at the barn are getting a bit hurried. At times, it can be quite a challenge to use-up that last sparkle of daylight. Though I do enjoy the change of seasons, I tend to dread the thought of what inevitably follows. For horse owners, a shift from September to December can be a major concern. Buttoning-up the barn, securing that wobbly fence, and getting the winter’s hay stored are all time consuming and, perhaps, worrisome tasks.

Fortunately, our horses don’t have such cumbersome concerns. Horses are one of the most adaptable creatures on Earth, and with an appropriate level of care, their transition to winter is normally effortless. Seasonal change tends to be gradual, which allows our horses the time to adjust. Your horse’s coat and hooves are a prime example. Hooves, in particular, are designed to withstand an amazing variety of extremes. For instance, a healthy hoof can accommodate moisture change, tolerate temperature shifts, and adjust to various load requirements, all at the same time. To ensure that this process works as nature intended, it’s extremely important that all foot structures work in harmony. There are five that are primary.

These “functional five” are:

  1. The hoof wall: designed in a tubular fashion to absorb moisture from the ground, as well as retain its elasticity while weight-bearing.
  2. Sole: a callus tissue located at the bottom of the foot that functions as a pad to help absorb shock and reduce concussion to the internal bone column.
  3. White line: This connective tissue is approximately 2 to 4 mm in width and acts as a “buffer zone” between the wall and the sole. The appearance of the white line is a major indicator of how healthy the foot is. It can be referred to as “the window into the horse’s hoof.” Any distortion or disturbance in its connection to the sole is a hint of internal hoof stress. In such instances, it is a red flag that your farrier and/or veterinarian need to know about. Simply committing to routine farrier visits can go a long way towards treatment and in many cases prevention of problems.
  4. Frog: a softer tissue of a triangular shape that serves to provide traction and aids in the blood circulation of the limb, due to its expansion capabilities.
  5. Coronary band/periople: located at the top of the hoof, where the capsule meets the skin of the leg, is also a major player in the expansion mechanism of the entire hoof. This tissue is analogous to the cuticle of your fingernail. It provides a smooth, flexible connection between the wall and the skin. It also provides us with a great way to monitor the moisture within each hoof. When a hoof is beginning to lose moisture, the periople will become “scaly” or “chalky” in appearance. When over saturation of the hoof occurs the periople will appear “sticky” or “gummy,” quite similar to experiencing “dish-pan hands.”

Cold Weather Concerns

From time-to-time, conscientious horse owners begin to question their horse’s ability to brave those cold winter nights. As a practicing farrier, having worked in the “snow belt” regions of northwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, I have witnessed the incredible resilience of horses when faced with those wicked, bone-chilling temperatures. Interestingly, the most questioned condition of frostbite in horses is the least common. Most people assume that the horse’s toes chill just as rapidly as their own. Though it is true that horses, like most mammals, protect their vital organs against abnormally low temperatures by shunting blood supply from their extremities to aid in warmth, horses have a remarkable ability to shunt a great deal of blood from their hooves and still maintain normal function of their feet. According to an interview, conducted by Marcia King, Dr. Andris J. Kaneps of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, and professor at Oregon State University stated:

“We don’t understand blood shunting of the horse’s feet very well, but there is some type of protective role to the feet in cold weather. It’s empirical information because we know a horse can stand all day in a snow bank and not get frozen feet, whereas if you or I stood in a snow bank, we’d have frozen feet pretty quickly. The hoof capsule helps protect and many of the tissues in the foot can sustain some level of decreased blood flow naturally without being damaged.”

What’s In Your Forecast?

By most accounts, the best advice for preventing any cold weather complication for your horse is to make sure they have access to enough drinkable water (contrary to popular belief, eating snow is not enough), keep them in an area that allows them to move around freely, offer an adequate amount of forage, and provide a shelter for a chance to get dry and for a windbreak. If they have no access to a shelter, a weatherproof blanket can be beneficial.

Many horses are smart about using trees and even each other to stand tail-to-tail as a natural windbreak. Whether your horse is shod or barefoot, it’s important to maintain hoof care. Your farrier can spot subtle changes and take necessary steps to keep your horse’s feet in good working order.

It’s also a good idea to take notice of how your horse postures. Do they seem stable and sure-footed when moving about in the snow? Are they extremely uncomfortable in their steps and, perhaps, tender footed? During those wet, “packing” type snowfalls, a daily hoof picking can be helpful in preventing ice build-up and snowballing of the feet. In some cases, frozen mud or other debris may adhere to the sole and cause bruising. Again, your hoof pick can help. In both situations, you may even consider applying a non-stick solution to the bottom of their hooves. Common household products, such as Vaseline, cooking spray, or WD-40 spray can be very effective.

As a general rule, most horses can tolerate a “dry cold” much easier than a wet or damp chill. By preparing ahead of time and establishing a good wintertime routine, before that first flake hits, you can finally sit back, relax and without any worry, let it snow — after all, it is the season!

References & Resources:

  •, Dealing with Frostbite in Horses, Marcia King
  •, Baby, It’s Cold Outside; Tips to Keep Horses Healthy in Falling Temperatures, Erin Ryder
  • The Principles of Horseshoeing (P3) , Dr. Doug Butler and Jacob Butler

If you’ve enjoyed Bryan’s “Farrier-Friendly”TM articles online or in magzines, you can now find them in paperback. Now available at: Start your collection today! A great holiday gift for that special “horse-crazy” someone!

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