Horses are among the most adaptable creatures on earth. With an appropriate level of
care, their transition to winter is normally effortless.
From time to time, conscientious horse owners question their horse's ability to brave those cold winter nights. As a practicing farrier, having worked in the "snow belt" regions of northwestern PA and eastern OH, 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 a 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.
In a recent 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."
Healthy Hooves are Resilient
Seasonal change tends to be gradual, allowing our horses 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.
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. The primary "functional five" are:
1) The hoof wall: designed in a tubular fashion to absorb moisture from the ground, as well as retain elasticity while weight-bearing.
2) Sole: a callus tissue 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 2-4 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 a hoof?s health. 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.
4) Frog: a softer tissue of triangular shape that serves to provide traction and aids in blood circulation of the limb, due to it expansion capabilities.
5) Coronary Band/Periople: located at the top of the hoof, where the capsule meets the hair skin of the leg, it 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.
What's In Your Forecast?
Whether your horse is shod or barefoot, it's important to maintain his 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 note your horse's posture. Does he seem stable and sure-footed when moving about in the snow? Is he extremely uncomfortable in his steps? 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 his hooves. Common household products, such as Vaseline, cooking spray, or WD40 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 sit back, relax and without any guilt, let it snow--After all, it is the season.
References & Resources: www.petplace.com , Dealing with Frostbite in Horses, Marcia King www.thehorse.com , 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
For more than 15 years, Bryan S. Farcus, MA, CJF, has been combining the skills of horseshoeing, teaching, and riding. He is a Certified Journeyman Farrier through the Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association and holds certification in Equine Massage Therapy. Bryan served as director of a Farrier Studies program at a private equestrian college for 10+ years. Upon invitation, he presents demonstrations and group discussions on basic hoof care and horsemanship. Bryan is the creator of a select line of ?Farrier-Friendly?? products and authors a series of Farrier-Friendly? articles in horse magazines throughout the US. Bryan currently works with horses and their owners in Ohio and West Virginia. Visit him at: www.farrierfriendly.com or firstname.lastname@example.org