It’s winter time again, and, depending on where in the country you live, that could mean anything from cold rain and light flurries to blizzards and ice storms.
While you’re busy making sure your horse has a draft-free run-in shelter or deeply bedded stall and a cozy blanket, don’t forget his feet will need their own special care this season.
One of the most common winter worries is the loss of traction and bruised soles associated with ice and snow build up in the horse’s foot. Many owners opt to pull shoes off during the winter, as the natural hoof is typically very well equipped to handle a bit of snow.
However, pulling shoes isn’t always possible if the horse has lameness issues, a rigorous work schedule, or any other factors that preclude removing his shoes for a season.
Here, we’ll take a look at winter hoof concerns and the most common shoeing options available to horse owners.
To Shoe or Not to Shoe?
Like most equine decisions, the answer is “it depends”: on what kind of work the horse is doing, where and how he’s being kept and ridden, and any existing conformation issues or injuries he has to contend with.
The best thing you can do is have an honest discussion with your farrier about your horse’s condition and your plans for the winter. Do you plan to turn him out and give him the winter off, or will he be in regular training? Consulting an expert who knows your horse and his feet the most is the best way to ensure you’re making the best decision for your horse.
Slow Hoof Growth
One thing that will be consistent regardless of where you are is reduced hoof growth during the winter months. This has more to do with hours of sunlight than temperature or footing conditions, but you can expect hoof growth to slow consistently during the winter months.
The upside of slow growth is that you won’t need to call the farrier quite so much during the winter. The downside is chips or breaks will take longer to grow out, so unshod horses will still need regular hoof care (a daily pick and inspection for cracks, signs of thrush, or bruising should be adequate for sound horses with decent feet).
Snow and Ice Build Up
Another, even more dangerous winter weather concern is snow and ice build-up in the hoof. Snow build-up can reduce traction and increase the likelihood of a slip and fall and make it harder for a horse to regain his footing.
Snow and ice build-up isn’t as big a concern for the barefoot horse, but for a horse wearing shoes, the combination of slick metal and hard-packed snow can make turnout treacherous.
Winter Horseshoe Options
Fortunately, farriers have lots of options when it comes to keeping your horse safe during the winter. For horses that remain shod year-round, two of the most common choices are pads, which fit between the bottom of the foot and the shoe, and studs, which can either be permanently welded to the shoe itself or removable screws.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Shoe pads are rubber (or occasionally leather) inserts that are applied to the bottom of the hoof and held in place when the shoe is nailed on or riveted to the shoe itself.
There are lots of options available, but for winter traction owners can choose between anti-snowball rim pads or full coverage snowball pads.
Snowball pads are made of thick rubber and have a unique and distinctive “bubble” in the middle.
The bubble is convex (the bump points away from the horse’s foot, towards the ground) and prevents snow, ice, and frozen mud from building up in the foot, increasing traction and reducing the likelihood of slipping. The thick rubber is safe for sub-zero temperatures and will retain its integrity in even the coldest conditions.
The full coverage also has the advantage of offering some protection to the sole against ice clumps, stones, or jagged frozen mud.
Typically, full coverage pads are packed to prevent dirt and mud from sneaking in and putting pressure against the sole. Your farrier may use a special silicone or packing like pine tar and oakum to pack the pad and keep unwanted debris and moisture out.
Like with any shoe pad, there is a potential drawback in that a packed snowball pad does not allow the hoof to ‘breathe’ as it naturally would, which can cause some soles to soften. Using a product like Venice turpentine, Pine Tar, or Cavalor Dry Feet can help soft soles, but speak to your farrier first.
Like full coverage snowball pads, rim pads are made of rubber and installed between the hoof and horseshoe when the horse is shod.
Unlike snowball pads, rim pads do not cover the entire bottom of the foot. Instead, they form a rim on the inside of the shoe against the sole. As the horse walks and puts pressure on the foot, the rubber pad expands and contracts, helping to “pop” the snow out of the foot and providing better traction.
Rim pads have the advantage of not covering the bottom of the foot, which reduces the likelihood of debris or moisture being trapped against the sole.
Either used on their own or occasionally combined with rim pads, studs are an effective way of providing the horse with more traction over slick, icy, muddy, and snowy ground – all common winter footing problems.
While studs (also called caulks) will improve traction, they don’t prevent snow build up. If your horse is tender-soled, check his feet for signs of bruising or discomfort caused by stepping on jagged ice or frozen mud, both of which can bruise horses with sensitive soles.
When it comes to studs, you have two main options: screw-in studs or drive-in studs, as well as borium and ice nails.
A favorite of eventers and anyone else riding at speed on uncertain terrain, screw-in studs allow you to add or remove different styles of studs as necessary. Many owners and boarding stables also prefer screw-in studs because they can be removed for turnout, which reduces the likelihood of injury if your horse kicks another horse or steps on himself.
Screw-in studs provide the additional advantage of letting you select the type of stud best suited to the conditions you’ll be riding in.
Your farrier will drill holes into the shoe depending on stud placement – often two holes at the heels (although you may only actually use one of them), and sometimes another two holes towards the toe.
When not in use, you can either fill the holes with a small cork or rubber plug, or prepare to dig out packed in debris before screwing in the stud.
Regardless of which type of stud you use, it’s generally advisable to avoid walking your horse on concrete after the studs are in, and do not leave them in when your horse is not working. The elevation they provide can strain the lower leg if left in all the time.
Drive-in studs are similar to screw-in studs in that they’re added to the shoe itself, but drive-ins are applied by the farrier and are not removable.
They’re typically a little smaller than screw-in studs and don’t elevate the foot as much, which helps reduce stress on the tendons and ligaments (a chief reason why screw-in studs should be removed when your horse is “off duty”).
Drive-in studs may also be treated with hard-wearing metals like Borium to reduce wear and improve traction.
While they’re great for slippery situations and improving traction, they can cause injury to your horse or others if kicked or stepped on.
Borium “pads” are not really pads at all, but small amounts of super-hard metal welded to the bottom of the shoe, either in the forge or using an oxy-acetylene torch. Borium is hard and textured, so it increases traction wherever it’s welded to the shoe, usually at the toe and heel.
Borium is a brand name for tungsten carbide crystals combined with a carrier material. It’s a type of tube metal that is extremely hard and will often outlast the shoe itself.
Ensure your farrier has experience welding Borium first, as uneven Borium pads can cause twisting of the lower leg, which can lead to injury.
The strength and texture of the metal can make Borium shoes as dangerous a weapon in the paddock as studs, so be sure to follow the same safety procedures. Use bell boots if your horse tends to clip himself when moving or when trailering. Just like studs, Borium can cause additional damage if the horse steps on himself or kicks.
As the name suggests, ice nails are unique horseshoe nails designed to improve footing over ice. They have a pointed head that extends slightly further than the bottom of the shoe to add traction.
Depending on your needs and the horse’s way of going, your farrier may use one or more ice nails in place of regular nails. As with studs, they’re usually placed more towards the heel of the shoe.
Ice nails can be made from the same steel as your regular nails, which means they will get worn down if the horse is ridden regularly on hard surfaces, so expect to call your farrier earlier than usual.
Longer-lasting ice nails are available that are topped with metals like Borium, or other tungsten or carbide metals. While more expensive than traditional steel ice nails, these have the advantage of being much longer-lasting.
Winter riding may be a little chiller than your summertime hacks, but there’s still plenty of equine fun to be had in the winter. If your horse isn’t a good candidate for spending the winter barefoot, take heart! There are plenty of options available to help him stay safe this winter.
If you think studs, caulks, or pads may be right for your horse, consult with your farrier first and get his or her honest opinion about your horse’s foot and leg conformation, job, and conditions in your area. Adding unnecessary studs can cause pressure or changes to the horse’s joints, tendons, and ligaments, so be sure they’re a necessary safety feature before you invest.
What’s your solution to winter foot care? Share your story in the comments below!