For horse owners, winter is often a time of hibernation. Apart from keeping an abundant hay supply available for your horse (digestion of hay is what keeps up the animal’s internal temperature), there really is very little maintenance involved in winter care. After all, the show season has stopped, the diet and exercise routine is scaled back, and riding loses its appeal (I, for one, can rarely motivate myself to put on the eight layers of clothing it takes to keep comfortable on a winter ride!).
Hoof health, however, is a recurring concern in the wintertime. In colder temperatures, the animal’s hooves can become bruised and dry, while warmer temperatures bring lots of moisture that can lead to hoof infection. Both conditions should be watched for, as they can produce lameness and lasting damage to your horse’s anatomy.
Dry, Bruised Hooves
For my family living in Iowa, winter brings sub-zero temperatures that freeze everything over and make the ground hard as concrete. Hard ground and lack of moisture produces two problems: bruised hooves and dry, cracked, brittle hooves.
When your horse has bruised hooves, his movements will be ginger and he may try to lay down more than usual. The remedy for this is simple: move your horse indoors to an amply-bedded stall, and do not ride him until he appears to be moving around better.
When your horse’s hooves are too dry, they will begin to peel back layer by layer much like a dry, brittle human nail. In general this condition will not affect the health or movement of your horse, but there is the risk that your horse will move suddenly and a huge section of hoof will break off, leading to lameness and poor hoof growth. To treat dry hooves, soak them with warm water once or twice a day and apply petroleum jelly or a commercial hoof dressing to lock in the moisture.
If these topical treatments do not yield results in a week or two, you may need to adjust your horse’s diet. Weak, brittle hooves are caused by a lack of of biotin and methionine, so look for supplements that carry these ingredients such as Farrier’s Formula. In general, though, a good all-around mineral block (which your horse should always have available anyways) should do the trick.
Wet, Infected Hooves
Winter in Iowa isn’t always predictable, and some years we experience mild, wet weather or a lot of fluctuation between freezing and above-freezing temperatures. Wet environments increase the risk for the bacterial infection known as thrush, and an alternating dry/wet environment can create an opportunity for a hoof abscess.
Thrush is a foul-smelling infection of the hoof caused by the anaerobic bacterium spherophorus necrophorus. In addition to the smell (similar to athlete’s foot), thrush breaks down the tissue of the frog, turning it into a cheesy, crumbly mess that is often accompanied by a slimy black discharge. Thrush doesn’t usually cause lameness, so the only way to watch for it is with regular hoof cleaning.
“Anaerobic” means the bacteria that causes thrush lives without oxygen, so simply moving your horse to a dry environment is sometimes enough to kill off a mild infection. Often, however, this is not the case. To begin the treatment routine, dig out the crumbling parts of the frog with a hoofpick. Then sponge the frog with an antibacterial solution (we always used a 1 part bleach/1 part water solution, but a diluted Lysol solution, antibacterial soaps, and iodine all work well), and repeat this process once or twice a day until the infection is cleared up. Application of a commercial thrush-killing ointment often helps to speed up the disinfection process.
Hoof abscesses are bacterial infections that result from a breach in the hoof tissue, often caused by a puncture wound or a nefarious, wheedling rock. However, alternating dry-wet conditions (as caused by fluctuation between freezing and above-freezing temperatures), means that the hoof is constantly expanding and contracting, and this can lead to a breakdown in the hoof tissue and an opportunity for bacteria to enter and infect.
Abscesses are easily noticeable because your horse will suddenly become lame. The hoof will be warm to the touch and and the animal’s digital pulse (taken from right above the coronary band or higher up on the pastern) will be noticeably strong. Like thrush, abscesses also produce a bad smell. If you notice these symptoms in your horse, please be advised that this is an emergency. Abscesses usually must be drained, requiring cutting of the tissue that only a professional is truly equipped to handle. After the drainage cut is made, an epsom salt poultice is used to draw the wound. The hoof is then packed and wrapped with an antibacterial dressing, and this process is repeated for some weeks until the infection is gone. Every abscess is a little different, however, and your veterinarian will know the most appropriate method of treatment.
Shoeing in Winter
I would like to offer a final thought on shoeing in wintertime. Because your horse will most likely be off his performance schedule, the hooves are not wearing down as quickly and there is no immediate need for shoes. Shoes might help to prevent bruising on hard ground, but they are more likely to increase the risk of slipping and falling. Furthermore, the hoof contracts in freezing winters, meaning that the shoe nails are likely to fall out or halfway out. Loose shoes are extremely dangerous, for the horse can trip and fall or get the loose shoe stuck somewhere, panic, and then rip the shoe out along with a large part of the hoof. Since there is not a huge need for shoes in winter, I encourage you to allow your animal to go barefoot, get fat, and enjoy his season off.