A successful ramp-up of activity in the spring will be determined by your horse’s hoof health over the coming months. Take action now to get feet in tip-top shape, and keep them healthy for your horse’s lifetime.
YOU GOTTA MOVE IT OR LOSE IT
In addition to good nutrition and regular farrier care, frequent activity is needed to foster a strong hoof. Dr. William Moyer, professor and head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences department at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, feels that overall hoof strength and health has declined due to decreases in available pasture land and the ability of horses to be on the move. “Horses evolved as roaming, grazing animals, traveling long distances on a daily basis,” states Moyer. “Every tissue in their body, not just their muscle mass, is responsive to and strengthened by the stresses of travel and movement. If those stresses aren’t there, the tissues weaken.”
If long turnout periods or riding aren’t options, consider hand-walking as a daily supplementary activity (one that will also help you both work off any extra winter pounds).
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK...AND THE SNOW
A reduced workload and ground moisture can be reasons to skip shoes for the season. “In the winter, the average backyard owner pulls the shoes, trimming hooves about every six weeks,” says Matt Taimuty, CjF, of Fair Hill Forge in Federalsburg, MD. “As long as they’re checking the feet regularly, and picking them out so the horse doesn’t develop thrush, that’s just fine.”
“But if you have a high-performance horse who’s working year-round, the time of year and weather become almost immaterial, since it’s the requirements of the horse’s job and the type of footing they’re on that supersede weather and climate issues,” Taimuty continues. “Trim and shoe these horses appropriately, don’t let them get too long due to the extra stress it can put on the horse’s body and the risks of lameness.”
The Horse’s Hoof, an Arizona-based company and publication, supports horse owners choosing barefoot strategies. “Old-time farriers felt it was important to take shoes off each year, allowing feet to get the natural expansion they need and creating a healthier foot,” says co-owner Yvonne Welz. “However, barefoot horses can have problems in winter too, specially in extremes of wet or dry weather. Some barefoot advocates don’t like to use hoof preparations, but we believe in using what you need to have healthier feet.”
Pulling shoes in the winter is a sound idea, agrees KC La Pierre, RJF, MEP, PhD, co-founder of the Institute of Applied Equine Podiatry, Inc. “From the perspective of allowing the frog and other cartilage structures to function with optimal pressure, and to eliminate snow and ice balls forming inside shoes, winter is an ideal time for a hors to go shoeless,” he says.
THINKING INSIDE THE BOXSTALL
If your horse lives in a stall during the winter, what he’s standing on will have a direct impact on the health of his hoof.
“Good stall footing should be absorbent, capturing as much moisture as possible,” says Moyer. “If your horse is primarily an ‘apartment dweller,’ living in a 12x12 box, you’ve got to provide fresh bedding on a regular basis, and keep the stall clean.”
Adequate shock absorption is another factor; improve comfort and reduce fatigue via rubber mats or other cushioned surfaces. Welz says, “You need to have something that supports the sole. It’s not ideal to stall horses all the time, but when you do, using shavings on rubber mats is an acceptable footing. I’ve also seen studies that show the more giving the mat, the better the hoof health.”
But what about horses standing outside in the freeze-and-thaw cycle of muddy pastures? “Dr. Robert Bowker from the University of Michigan recommends putting down 3-6 inches of pea gravel on top of a sand base in loafing areas or where it might get muddy,” says Welz. “He’s measured the effects of horses standing on pea gravel and found it enhances blood flow throughout hoof tissues, massages the sole, and helps to wear off excess hoof on barefoot horses.” But Welz cautions, don’t use pea gravel as stall footing, nor let your horse stand on it 24/7. “The horse has to be able to get off the pea gravel if he chooses. Be sure you’re using only smooth, rounded pea gravel, not gravel with sharp edges. And check shod horses frequently for stuck stones.”
EAT, DRINK, AND BE HEALTHY
Hoof condition is an indicator of each horse’s individual responses to his genetics, environment, and activity. Some factors to discuss with your farrier include seasonal and regional climate variations, hoof growth rate, ground surfaces, activity types and amounts, nutrition, and the size and conformation of the horse at hand.
Another critical winter issue is hydration, or adequate water intake. La Pierre has a suggestion for early dehydration detection: “Most people check for dehydration by pinching the hide; that’s way too late. Instead, grab the upper lib, rub it back and forth and lift it. There should be froth underneath the lip. If not, your horse has dry mouth, an early sign of poor hydration,” he says. Trough heaters and heated water buckets with chew-proof, conduit-covered electrical cords are now widely available for keeping water drinkable; for safety, be sure heaters are plugged into a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet, and secure any loose cords.
IT’S NOT ‘MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY’
Talk with a dozen horse owners, and you’re likely to find as many different approaches to hoof care. Who’s right?
“The only absolute in the horse industry is that there isn’t one,” says Taimuty. “There are countless theories, products, services, many of which are safe and effective. Owners must educate themselves across a broad knowledge base, and analyze each horse’s individual circumstances to determine the best course of action.” In other words, get to know your horse and his hooves, look at them daily, watch for small changes that might be a precursor to bigger problems. Whether your horse wears shoes year-round or not, make the hoof care decisions that are right for him as an individual.
Lisa Kemp helps equine business owners reach their ideal clients through improved communication efforts. An award-winning writer and marketing strategist, Lisa’s writings have appeared in both print and online equestrian media; she blogs at www.nobizlikehorsebiz.com