This month, winter officially arrives! That may be a scary thought for some, and a happy one for others. Most equestrians, however, don’t enjoy the temperature drops, shorter days, and the thought of snow. Winter brings the possibility of issues like thrush, abscesses, hoof bruises and snowballs, and questions about whether to leave shoes on your horses or let them go barefoot. Here are five things to watch for in your horse's hooves this winter.
Thrush is a bacterial infection that causes degeneration around the frog. Thrush can usually be detected by the odor and noticeable infection around the frog. The term, “around the frog,” refers to the central and collateral sulci of the hoof. The central sulcus is the center groove of the frog and tends to get infected more easily if a horse has heel issues. The collateral sulci are the lateral grooves on the outside of your horse's frog, and are the areas most susceptible to thrush.
Many people automatically associate thrush with a wet environment, and it's true that horses that have been diagnosed with thrush or are prone to the condition should avoid damp environments. Many other non-environmental factors can play a major role in the development of thrush, however, and are often overlooked by horse owners. Poor hoof conformation or hoof care, inadequate nutrition, or even a lack of exercise can contribute to this condition.
Treating thrush requires help from both your veterinarian and your farrier. Full debridement of your horse's damaged tissue will have to take place; then he should be kept in a dry, clean area. Copper solutions are sometimes applied with daily cleanings, but only if sensitive tissues are not visible. Your farrier will be essential in follow-up care and thrush prevention. He will help balance the foot to ensure that it is less likely to be exposed to more bouts of thrush.
Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine states,
“Equine hoof abscesses are a common cause of sudden, severe lameness.”
They can occur seemingly out of nowhere and can happen overnight. Abscesses happen when bacteria enters the hoof capsule. Since abscesses occur inside the hoof capsule where it is difficult for them to make their way out, pressure builds which subsequently causes pain in the hoof.
Bacteria has multiple points of entry that can lead to abscesses. For example, the expansion and contraction of the hoof wall due to temperature and moisture changes in the winter season can create an easy point of entry. Other things like white line disease and puncture wounds also provide ample opportunity for bacteria to enter the hoof capsule.
The sudden lameness associated with an abscess often has owners contacting their vets at first sight. Abscesses are generally diagnosed by either a vet or farrier using hoof testers; they look for reactions to pressure on the sole to find the abscess tract. A steadfast method of treatment is soaking the hoof in warm water with Epsom salt to help draw out the infection and increase drainage. It can be incredible how such a simple remedy can be so helpful in bringing relief! Wrapping the hoof is also vital, as it keeps dirt and debris from entering the abscess tract, which can lead to infection.
Hoof bruises take place on the solar surface of the hoof, and just like bruises in humans, they can cause a great deal of discomfort. There are often no outward signs of a bruise until your horse is already moving sore or even lame.
With winter setting in, the frozen, hard ground can be one cause of hoof bruises. Poorly fitting shoes and even genetic issues like dropped soles can make a horse more susceptible to bruising. Hoof bruises may be hard to diagnose depending on their severity. With an acute hoof bruise, your horse may show more outward signs like misstepping or even slight lameness. When picking out hooves, a dark bruise may appear on the sole. Once a bruise is detected, it’s best to contact your vet. He’ll work to pinpoint the area and reduce sole pressure around the bruise. You should also include your farrier, who may assist in relieving pressure and preventing further bruising.
Snowballs are an accumulation of ice and snow clumps that compact and create hard balls under the hoof. These can cause significant problems for a horse, making it harder for him to walk and grip the ground the way his hooves were intended. Snowballs can also increase stress on your horse's joints and tendons.
Snowballs are simple to prevent by picking your horse's hooves on a daily (or as-needed) basis. This constant attention may not be an option for some horse owners, so there are other things you can try to thwart snowballs. An old home remedy is to spray your horse's soles with non-stick cooking spray. Anti-snowball pads are also an option that you can discuss with your farrier.
Barefoot vs. Shoes
This can be a difficult choice for many horse owners. If your horse is going to have a lighter workload in the winter or take significant time off, he may not need shoes. Horses without shoes have better traction on snow and ice than those that are shod. If horses stay shod throughout winter, it’s best to make sure that their hooves are picked out daily.
During winter months, hoof growth slows down, meaning that it takes longer for any cracks or defects to grow out. The daily addition of supplements like Formula 707 Hoof Health into your horse's diet can provide the nutrients necessary to support hoof growth and improve overall hoof quality. Keep in mind that even when hoof growth slows, it’s best to stick within the recommended time frames for your farrier visits. Seek advice from your farrier to prepare your horse for any shoeing changes.
While we all have our opinions on winter, none of them change the fact that it’s arriving soon! There are things we can do, and things to watch for to make sure that our equine friends are not as susceptible to these winter woes. Each horse is unique and requires his own winter care routine, but owners and caretakers should be prepared for the seasonal challenges. If you have other questions about your horse's hooves this winter, feel free to contact us!
About the Author
Sara Gannon grew up around the equine industry. Locally raised in Douglas County and currently based in northern Colorado, Sara participated in 4-H and has competed in multiple Colorado barrel racing associations. She has run in various slot races and traveled to surrounding states for bigger races such as BBR Finals and Bonus Race Finals. She’s worked in different positions with large and small animals for more than 5 years. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.