Winter Choices for Horses’ Hooves

Horse Tales by Judy Van Put

With winter comes a whole host of extra care that is needed to keep horses safe, healthy and comfortable. Their hooves tend to grow more slowly during this time of year and are less able to adapt to the cold and wet weather and icy, hard ground. It’s the horse owner’s responsibility to make sure the horse is adequately prepared for the conditions they’ll face with during winter months. In addition to providing your horse with the best hay and feed, consulting with your farrier will be helpful in determining what would be the best course of action to take.

Winter Choices for Horses’ Hooves

For horses that are shod only on the front feet, consider whether your horse will need to negotiate hilly conditions, as having a difference in traction of the front and hind feet, especially in hilly areas, may cause your horse to slip more often. Photo by Judy Van Put

There are three options commonly used in winter hoof care:

  • Going Barefoot – Under certain conditions, this is a good option. It helps horse feet to go without shoes for a while, as it enables feet to expand in natural growth. The frog and bars of the feet will benefit from being in closer contact with the ground. The barefoot horse is also less likely to get any snow buildup and may be more sure-footed without shoes. This is a good option for a horse that will not be ridden on hard roads during winter or not ridden often. However, if your horse has hoof problems, they may need the protection shoes offer. If your horse is turned out on rough, hard surfaces, going barefoot might not be the best; sole bruises can result in horses that have thin soles, and hooves may be worn down quickly. If your barefoot horse becomes sore or lame, be sure to contact your veterinarian and/or farrier.
  • Shoeing Front Feet Only – This is an option many horse owners choose, especially for a horse that is not being ridden often on hard surfaces. It’s also a good option for a horse that could go barefoot but has problems with its front feet. One thing to consider, however, in shoeing just the front feet is that your horse’s natural gait might become disrupted from having extra weight on the front. You might see a greater incidence of forging (when the hind foot strikes the front foot). Also, having a difference in traction between the front and hind feet, especially in hilly areas, may cause your horse to slip more often and it may cause a disruption in gaits, especially at trot.
  • Shoeing All Around – There are a number of products available that offer good traction in snow and ice. Borium (a composite of soft steel and tungsten carbide) is often brazed onto steel horseshoes to increase the traction of the shoe on slippery surfaces. Another product is Drill-Tech. Similar to Borium, Drill-Tech has the advantage of being able to be heated up in the forge and applied to the bottom of the shoe rather than using an oxyacetylene torch. Other brand names are Carbraze and Hartwell Composite Rod. With these products, the carbide rod is melted with the torch and puddles are dropped on the underside of your horse’s shoe – one on each heel and two spaced evenly on the toe, so there is good traction. It may also extend the life of the shoe. However, if your horse has been used to aluminum shoes you will have to switch to steel shoes, as Borium and Drill-Tech won’t “stick” to aluminum.

Other traction devices include Duratrac or Frost-Rib Nails and drive-in or screw-in calks. Duratrac or Frost-Rib Nails are special horseshoe nails for winter – they have extra-large dome-shaped heads to provide extra traction. They can be nailed in like regular horseshoe nails, with six in each shoe, or just one on each side. Unlike Borium or Drill-Tech, they can be used with aluminum shoes. Because there is no welding or forging necessary, they are quick and easy and relatively inexpensive, and can be removed easily. These special nails work best for horses that have their shoes re-set often and have strong, excellent quality hooves. These are not a good choice for horses with poor feet, as they will erode the nail holes in the horse’s hooves, can cause rot and can cause the shoes to loosen prematurely.

  • Drive-in Calks: These calks are like studs and are made of the same material as Borium or Drill-Tech. They are driven into the bottom of horseshoes. The head of the calk comes in different sizes and can be tailored to the needs of your horse. They provide excellent traction, especially on hard roads. However, caution should be used as they can tear rubber mats and can cause cuts if your horse forges or goes off-balance and hits another limb.
  • Screw-in Calks: These studs are removable as they are screwed into the bottom of horseshoes. You will need to have your farrier drill calk holes in the shoes and leave threads for the calks to screw into. You can also adjust the size of the calks for the traction needed. However, there is more care and upkeep needed. Due to the size of the calk or stud, your horse may be uncomfortable standing around, especially if they’re only applied at the heels. You’ll have to remove the calks fairly frequently and will need to keep the calk holes cleaned and oiled.

If you opt to keep your horse shod during the winter, snow pads are recommended. The two kinds most commonly used are:

  • Rim Snow Pad: Shaped like a horseshoe, it fits underneath your horse’s shoe, with a “tube” or “tunnel” of plastic or rubber that lies inside the inner edge of the shoe. The flexible tube or tunnel moves enough to prevent snow from building up under the shoe which can cause a strain on your horse’s tendons. They enable you to clean out the hooves each day. Especially in winter, when mud is a common problem, thrush can develop if a horse is standing for long periods in mud or a dirty stall without regular hoof cleaning. It’s important that the pads fit your horse’s hoof correctly; they generally need to be trimmed carefully.
  • Bubble or Snowball Pad: This pad fits over your horse’s foot and covers the sole completely. It has a bubble or convex dome to prevent snow from building up. As the horse walks, the bubble or dome pops away from the sole and keeps snowballs from forming. These pads work well in areas of deep snow. It’s a good idea to use packing underneath the pad, but there’s the chance that even with packing, dirt and debris may get underneath and cause a problem with the foot, since the foot is completely covered by the pad. It’s of great importance that your farrier is experienced with fitting bubble or snowball pads properly.

You can prepare for best winter care of your horse’s hooves by being aware of the condition and health of its feet and knowing what your horse’s degree of turnout and riding schedule will be. Consult with your farrier in advance of their next visit so that they are prepared to best outfit your horse for the winter weather to come.

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