Preventing winter hoof issues

As we move from fall into winter, your horse needs some extra support to weather the transition with healthy feet. Follow these tips to prevent some of the most common winter hoof issues.

Most horses in good health seem to like the cold weather. There are no bugs and an adequate snow pack is beneficial to the moisture content of their hooves. The snow pack also allows for more hoof flexibility, and provides excellent conditions for transitioning horses out of shoes. But despite these great benefits, some horses have a tough time with their feet in the winter. Let’s take a look at the most common winter hoof issues I encounter in my practice, how they may occur, and what we can do to assist our horses.

Environmental changes

As frost begins to cover pastures in the early morning, while the sun is still producing moderate temperatures during the day, the nutritional balance in the forage begins to change. For sensitive horses, seniors, and especially insulin-resistant (IR) and Cushing’s (PPID) horses, this change can lead to laminitis and/or abscesses. This is also the time when all horses experience a seasonal rise in ACTH levels, but for those with IR and Cushing’s, this rise can reach a tipping point for hoof issues. Testing these horses with specific blood panels gives us an idea of what their thresholds may be for what’s ahead. We can begin to transition them gradually from an early fall management situation to the winter without making any abrupt changes. Work with your holistic veterinarian to adjust supplements and medications to achieve the best possible results.

We also need to remember that the Earth has cycles that we don’t see, feel or sometimes even know about, and we all are affected by them. In early April of 2011, I took note that every horse I trimmed, including my own, had a distinct “event” ring growing down from his/her coronary band on all four hooves. None showed any lameness, and the winter – though very snowy and cold – offered no concrete reason for why I saw this in every horse. Shortly following that observation, I read an article that on March 11, the Tohoku Earthquake set off a tsunami that crossed the Pacific Ocean. The effects of the quake were not just limited to Japan. Its energy reached around the world, even altering the pull of the Earth’s gravity field. The subsequent radiation leak from the Fukushima disaster also spread globally. Of course, I cannot prove this was the answer to what I saw in these horses’ hooves, but it offered a plausible cause-and-effect scenario of how our living planet touches all of us.

Feed changes

Seasoned horse owners know that changing feed and forage is successfully done slowly unless there is a serious reaction to a food or inflammatory ingredient in a particular horse. Our sensitive and senior horses are the ones who may show stress and consequently hoof issues. We can help these horses by supporting their immune systems with supplements like forage balancers and immune support formulas. Consider seeking guidance from a holistic or integrative veterinarian on these nutritional matters as the winter season approaches.

Vaccinations and chemical worming

Horse owners are typically encouraged to vaccinate and deworm their horses in the spring and fall. As a matter of convenience, many people administer both around the same time, which is also a time of seasonal change. After years of observation, I have found that many horses react in a negative way to this – whether it’s an event ring on the hooves, laminitis, a recurrence of Lyme symptoms, a fungal infection such as thrush, or what is commonly known as scratches (see sidebar at right). Generally, the immune system can take care of these health issues and others like them, but when it is burdened with too many changes (both physical and seasonal), it loses the battle on some fronts.

I generally advise owners to spread out vaccination and chemical worming so as to not drop a bomb on their horses’ immune systems during a time of seasonal change. You can also reduce the number of vaccines by asking your vet to administer a titer test to determine your horse’s current immunity. Herbal products are another great way to discourage parasites without the use of chemicals. Again, enlist the advice of a holistic veterinarian who will listen to your concerns. Together you can work out a plan that suits your horse as an individual without compromising his health as winter approaches.

Herd changes and dynamics

When the season moves toward winter, some people and their horses travel to a warmer climate. No matter how you look at it, this always creates a stressful situation for horses, as their herd dynamics and location are changed via a very long trip to another part of the earth. More often than not, this relocation happens very quickly, leaving the horses no time for adjustment. Every horse I have seen that made a trip like this had an event ring on his hooves marking the change. These rings signify that something happened that was stressful enough to affect his feet. Even the horses left behind sometimes experience stress, especially when their best herd mates are suddenly gone. These same issues can befall them as well.

In my practice, the horses that do better with stressful changes are the ones who have a truly connected caregiver. They know all the nuances of their horses, and when to give support to help them through changes. These forms of support include essential oils, immune-supporting supplements and calming herbs. The most important of all is a calm and supportive human who can leave worried thoughts behind.

My take-home message is to look at your calendar a year ahead and make plans to assist your horse through all the seasonal changes he might face. You’re his biggest form of defense against stress and winter hoof issues!