A horse hoof wall does adapt to cold, short days through metabolism changes that slow growth. And luckily, a healthy horse hoof’s natural design works well on hard ground and in snow. Still, it’s frightening to head home in the afternoon after the temperature has dropped. A wet trail becomes a slippery one. Puddles turn into black ice. Snowdrifts create more hazards for your horse.
Here, we’ll give you the pros and cons of three winter-shoeing options (no shoes; shoes in front only; shoes on all four feet). Then we’ll give you a rundown of traction types and snowball-management techniques.
We’ll also give you a rundown of the latest horseshoes and hoof boots for winter and provide 9 at-a-glance winter-hoof-care tips.
(Note: This information is designed for those who live in areas that experience light to moderate snowy and icy conditions. If your winter conditions are extreme, you’ve probably learned that riding isn’t a realistic expectation most of the winter.)
Here are three winter-shoeing options. Discuss all options with your farrier.
(Tip: Is your farrier a winter warrior? Some new graduates or farriers from warmer climates may not be experienced with winter hoof needs, so be sure to ask a new farrier in your barn about his or her experience.)
Winter-Shoeing Option #1: No Shoes
Pros: A bare foot keeps your horse’s hoof directly on the ground; if the hoof is healthy, it’ll be more likely to develop a strong frog and bars. He may be very surefooted. If you shoe your horse the rest of the year, his hooves will have a chance to recover from the shoes’ constrictive nature. A bare hoof doesn’t usually ball up with snow.
Cons: By removing shoes, are you removing support that your horse might need? Bare hooves can be bruised on hard ground, particularly if the soles are thin or flat. Overgrown or imbalanced hooves don’t have good traction in winter conditions. You might tend to overlook your horse’s hoof care; check his bare feet daily and get them trimmed regularly.
Beware of rough surfaces (such as on a gritty road or abrasive indoor footing) that can wear down barefoot hooves, due to the slower winter hoof growth. He may need shoes or hoof boots for protection. Finally, you’ll need to ride your barefoot horse regularly to keep his hooves conditioned; sporadic all-day rides can damage the hoof and even cause what’s called road founder.
Note: If your horse becomes sore-footed when his shoes are pulled and doesn’t recover quickly, call your veterinarian; your horse might need shoes or hoof boots for protection so he can exercise. Be sure to rule out other causes of lameness before assuming the condition is just shoe-removal soreness.
Winter-Shoeing Option #2: Front Feet Only
Pros: This is the most common choice. Your horse’s hind feet reap the benefits of a barefoot lifestyle, while the front feet are shod according to your preference. This is an especially good option if your horse needs front shoes for therapeutic reasons.
Cons: Your horse’s legs work together like a machine. Any major difference in traction between his front and hind limbs may affect the timing of his gaits, especially the trot. Watch for brushing (when any foot makes light contact with any other foot or limb), forging (when a back foot strikes the sole of the front foot on the same side), interference (when any foot strikes the inside of any limb), and lower-leg injuries, particularly when the shoes are first pulled.
Also, your horse can catch his front shoes on debris or fences buried in the snow, which can cause an injury. And, since he uses his hind legs for traction (especially when going downhill), he might slip if his bare hind feet aren’t healthy or if the terrain is slick.
Winter-Shoeing Option #3: All Four Feet
Pro: Your farrier will be able to apply and remove traction devices.
Cons: Many boarding barns simply don’t allow horses to wear hind shoes (especially with added traction) if they’re turned out with other horses, to help avoid an injury in case of a kick. Also, your horse can catch his shoes on debris or fences buried in the snow, which can cause an injury.
Tip: Listen to your farrier’s advice. Shoeing solutions aren’t universal. What’s best for one horse in your barn may not work for another. Base your decision on your horse’s use, condition, and hoof quality. You can make any necessary changes over the course of the winter.
Winter Shoes & Boots
Discuss your winter plans with your farrier, and ask him or her for the best shoe and/or boot to meet those needs. Here are some options to consider.
*Flat shoes. Among plain, flat shoes, aluminum may have slightly better traction on frozen ground than steel, but no shoe will be much help on ice. Most aluminum shoes for pleasure horses are “wide web” styles for optimal ground-contact surface. Some farriers like to try a “rim” shoe, or a half-round shoe. See your farrier for more information.
*Plastic shoes. The new plastic shoes offer a different approach to winter shoeing. They may be more flexible on your horse’s foot, and help your horse keep his balance over hard, uneven ground.
*Hoof boots. You can now find hoof boots with removable winter studs.
There’s no guaranteed way to protect your horse from slipping on ice or becoming injured in snow. The four common traction options listed here provide a modicum of safety only if you pay attention to riding and turnout hazards, and avoid trails on icy and/or snowy days.
Traction Option #1: Hard-Facing Material
What it is: Hard-facing material (such as borium) consists of soft steel and tungsten carbide, a material tougher than steel. Brand names include Hard-Surfacing, Stoody Borium, Carbraze, Hartwell Composite Rod, and Drill-Tek. Hard-facing material comes in foot-long rods of varying diameters and “grit” levels; it has more “grab” than a horseshoe’s soft steel.
How it’s applied: Your farrier will use an oxyacetylene torch or welding unit to “melt” portions of a rod onto your horse’s shoes. The material may be splattered lightly (called puddling) or applied in chunky nuggets. Your farrier may also add clips to the shoes.
Pros: Hard-facing material improves traction on frozen roads and trails, and may extend the shoe wear.
Cons: Hard-facing material on front shoes won’t help your horse if he slips on a hind foot. It doesn’t help your horse in snow and is only a slight advantage on ice, and may create a false sense of security. It causes unequal shoe wear, and a lost shoe will create a true imbalance. Nuggets lift his foot off the ground, removing healthy frog contact.
The added traction may cause jarring and affect gait, as the shoe grabs the ground slightly longer than normal. Some veterinarians suspect danger of tendon damage and early fatigue. Your horse can tread on – and lacerate – an opposite pastern.
Nail holes will wear more quickly than the shoes. If you reuse shoes, they may require larger nails than usual for fatigued holes, causing increased hoof-wall damage. A new shoe may be required for each shoeing if the material isn’t properly applied.
Finally, hard-facing material can damage stall, trailer, and aisle mats, and can damage soft pavement of driveways. Nuggets may rip your clothes or skin when you pick up your horse’s foot.
Best if: You ride your horse on pavement and/or frozen ground. The material also gives him improved traction during turnout.
Expert tips: If you’re concerned about snowballing, use this material with a snowball pad. Use this material only if your farrier knows how to apply it safely. Don’t use on kickers.
Traction Option #2: Duratrac/Frost-Rib Nails
What they are: Duratrac nails are regular horseshoe nails with extra-large, dome-shaped heads made of hard-surfacing material. Frost-rib nails have ribbed heads for added traction. Your farrier can apply and remove these nails as needed, or you can leave them in for the season.
How they’re applied: Your farrier will drive two to six of these special nails into your horse’s shoes; two (one on each hoof branch) is most common. He or she may make extra nail holes or use existing holes.
Pros: No welding is needed, so there’s less margin for error, and less experienced farriers can apply the nails safely. Your farrier can change traction location without removing the shoe. Traction nails extend shoe wear, especially that of aluminum shoes.
Cons: Duratrac and frost-rib nails may affect the timing of breakover (the point at which the heels leave the ground), which can cause tendon and ligament strain. Large nail heads will lift your horse’s feet off the ground, removing healthy frog contact.
Your horse may lacerate an opposite foot or coronet (where hoof and hair meet). Like hard-facing material, you’ll need to use the nails with snowball pads for safety in snow.
Duratrac nails may also give you a false sense of security in adverse conditions. They can rip clothes or cut skin on humans and damage rubber mats or flooring. They’re dangerous for horses turned out in groups.
Expert tips: Not all farriers carry these nails. Don’t try to drive the nails in yourself, since the material will ruin a regular hammer.
Traction Option #3: Drive-In Calks
What they are: Drive-in calks are tiny tungsten-carbide tips (or studs).
How they’re applied: Your farrier will drive the calks into your horse’s shoes permanently; the shoes will look as though they have BBs embedded in them.
Pros: Drive-in calks offer variable amounts of traction according to the size of the calk head, which can be adjusted to fit your needs; overall, they’re an excellent traction aid. They’re an especially good option if you ride your horse on pavement.
Cons: The extra grip may change your horse’s gait, throwing him off balance and putting him at risk for shoe/limb contact. Calks can rip rubber mats, damage your skin, and cause pastern cuts. Plus, large calks can cause painful pressure points if left on too long.
Expert tip: Let your farrier recommend drive-in calks; this will likely mean he or she prefers to use them and is experienced in their application.
Traction Option #4: Screw-In or “Ice” Calks
What they are: Screw-in or “ice” calks are similar to drive-in calks, but they have a threaded base, making the calks removable.
How they’re applied: Your farrier will drill calk holes in your horse’s shoes (at the toes and heels, or only at the heels), then use a tap to thread the holes to hold the studs.
Pros: You’ll be able to remove the calks for arena work and/or riding in good conditions, then reinsert them, as needed. Like drive-in calks, traction amount can be adjusted according to your needs.
Cons: Studs can break. If you use them improperly, your horse’s hooves will become imbalanced, which can cause him injury and put you at risk for a fall. You’ll need to remove the calks after riding or turnout, which requires a wrench and oil; otherwise, your horse will be forced to stand in an awkward or elevated position. You’ll need to clean and oil the calk holes regularly to keep them in good repair, then apply plugs.
Expert tips: Observe your horse wearing various stud sizes and heights to judge which type allows him to engage in the most natural and comfortable stride. Don’t use jumping calks for winter traction.
9 Winter Hoof-Care Tips
1. Think ahead. Meet with your farrier to discuss any adjustment of the shoeing or trimming schedule over winter. Set farrier appointments in advance. Form a Plan B if a shoeing appointment is on a “snow day” when driving may be hazardous.
2. Eliminate hazards. Prepare the area around your barn and pasture for winter. Remove anything that can be an under-snow hazard to a loose horse. Fence off low areas where water collects. Inspect fences, and remove wire fences that can trap a hoof.
3. Create safe paths. Decide in advance which barn and pasture areas you’ll plow and where snow piles will go. Chart the safest paths between stalls and turnout area. Consider using landscaping materials, such as pea rock or wood chips, to “pave” the paths to provide better traction in light to moderate snow conditions.
4. Stock up on traction aids. Keep a supply of shavings, old carpets, and sand on hand to spread on icy areas.
5. Increase turnout time. Allow your horse maximum turnout time to get used to footing changes.
6. Check blanket fit. Make sure that your horse’s blanket fits properly and straps are snugly in their keepers. Remove any excess strap length. Your horse can catch a shoe heel (especially one with added traction) on blanket straps and become entangled.
7. Plow turnout. Consider plowing a small turnout area for your horse, if the area is accessible and the snow is deep.
8. Limit sand and salt use. Use loose sand and salt for traction only on pathways, not in your horse’s turnout area. If he ingests sand and salt grains, he could suffer colic (a digestive disorder that can be fatal).
9. Let pastern hair grow. Pastern hair protects the hoof head in winter. Keep a hairdryer handy to dry legs if scratches (a lower-limb infection caused by prolonged contact with dirt and moisture) becomes a problem.
When you ride your horse in snow, snowballs can accumulate in his feet. As they build, he can look as though he’s standing on top of grapefruits!Snowballing presents several problems: Your horse will be imbalanced and at risk for a fall; and traction devices are useless if his shoes don’t touch the ground.
Even small amounts of snow can compress invisibly inside your horse’s shoes, becoming a solid, frozen brick. This compacted snow can cause severe sole pressure, as well as sole and frog bruises.
To prevent snow accumulation, you can fit your horse with snow pads. Here are several options; ask your farrier which one might be best for your horse.
Snowball Option #1: Snow Rim Pad
What it is: A snow rim pad is a perimeter pad that sits under your horse’s shoe; a tube of plastic or rubber lies inside the shoe’s inner edge.
Pros: Snow Rim pads effectively keep snow from collecting inside your horse’s feet. They also may provide some stability on ice and are often used in combination with traction.
You can use rim pads with bar shoes and most therapeutic shoes. Most of the foot bottom is still visible and cleanable. You might not notice any change in your horse’s way of going; some horses wear snow rim pads all year. They require very little maintenance.
Cons: The tube may wear out if you ride your horse on abrasive surfaces; watch for wear around the rivets. A shriveled frog and flat foot may not provide enough push to remove snow.
Expert tips: Snow rim pads must fit the shoe; some farriers are inexperienced in how to trim them. Try snow rim pads first; move up to a full bubble pad (below) only if necessary.
Snowball Option #2: Bubble Pad
What it is: A bubble pad is a full plastic pad that covers your horse’s entire foot to prevent snow from building up. As your horse walks, the pad’s domed center pops snow away from his hooves. When riding indoors or on a dry trail, you’ll hear a popping sound with each stride.
Pros: Bubble pads are generally preferred for deep-snow conditions and are often used in combination with traction. They’re effective in snow and may also provide stability on ice. They can be helpful to horses with flat feet and shriveled frogs. They’re economical. Some boarding barns require such pads if you turn your horse out with other horses.
Cons: A bubble pad will cover your horse’s entire foot and may trap debris underneath. Lack of air circulation can lead to thrush. You may have a “blowout” if a pad pops. Riding over abrasive surfaces causes premature wear. Pads may cause nail-hole fatigue. Quality varies between manufacturers. Pads can’t be used with heart bar shoes and some wide-web aluminum shoes, depending on foot size.
Expert tips: Pad application requires an experienced farrier to properly fit your horse’s foot and shoe. A too-large dome will be ineffective. Insist on quality pads. Your farrier should avoid placing packing (such as oakum) under the pads, which would freeze and bruise your horse’s foot.
Fran Jurga is editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and writes the informational Hoof Blog, www.hoofcare.blogspot.com.