Winter hoof care

Being knee deep in mud and snow can be a challenge to your horse. Here are some tips on proper winter hoof care.

As a barefoot trimmer, I often get asked about fall and winter hoof care. For many, these seasons mean falling leaves and mud, and eventually snow, ice and frozen ground.

The three pillars of strong hooves

All horses benefit from what I call the “three pillars” of a strong hoof: good nutrition, regular farrier care, and regular activity. Take any one of these away and you can have some problems. Horses by nature are roaming and grazing animals. When allowed complete freedom, they will pick and choose their meals, travel long distances on a daily basis, and “self trim” on a variety of ground surfaces. Their hooves will grow in response to their activity. Our domestic horses cannot have complete freedom, but we can try to make sure the three pillars are present – not only in fall and winter, but all year round.

1. Good nutrition

As fall and winter set in, many horses get less forage from pasture. Not only will the pasture grasses change and become less available, but in many cases the horse may actually spend less time in the pasture. If you are fortunate enough to keep your own horses at home, you may be able to control the number of hours they are allowed to eat pasture. But many who rely on boarding barns will start to see their horses being switched over to increased hay rations and less grazing time. In some cases, barns may even restrict pasture so the areas do not get trampled and rutted in wet conditions.

Once hay becomes the dominant source of forage, it is important that it be tested for content and nutritional value. Many might say, “It’s from the same fields where I let my horse graze” or “It looks like good hay to me”. The quality of the hay is not in question. The question is – will the hay you are feeding be a complete source of nutrients for your horse? Do you need to add anything to be sure he is getting what he needs to stay healthy and active, and experience continuous growth of healthy body structures? Hay testing can tell you about quality, but it also tells you what supplements you will need to provide so that your horse has a complete nutrition program.

Grain and/or processed feed are not always necessary or advisable. A healthy horse is neither too thin nor too fat. A horse that is well nourished has all the building blocks for a good coat, healthy body, and solid hooves. A horse must acquire these building blocks from forage, feed or supplements in whatever combination is practical.

Clean, plentiful water is important to all horses – all the time. Without it, not only will the horse’s overall health wane, but he may also develop colic. However, as temperatures dip in fall and winter, we may find ourselves fighting the battle of the frozen bucket! While horses will eat snow and lick ice, it is not a reasonable source of water for them. A safe and grounded bucket heater, insulated bucket, or mechanical waterers are all options.

2. Regular farrier care

In my experience, many people think hoof growth slows in the fall and winter, and trims are not as critical. Some who regularly use shoes elect to let feet “rest” during winter as a cost saving measure. Others, while they keep their horses barefoot, reduce the number of farrier visits because the horses are not being used as much, so “why spend the money”?

Hooves grow at a rate that to some degree reflects the horse’s lifestyle. Generally, decreased activity and a less-than-optimal diet can result in slower hoof growth and decreased overall wellness.

If you are committed to excellence in fall and winter horse care, and you keep your horse active and well fed, you will likely not see the slowing of hoof growth that others may experience.

Regular activity

Turnout 24/7 on several acres of pasture with varying footing and elevation, and a reasonable run-in, is my favorite place for a horse to live! The more land and variety, the better. This type of setting allows the horse to manage his activity and footing. It affords him free movement and choice and can also aid nutritionally as forage is routinely available.

But being a realist, I know many people use boarding barns or have restrictions on available space for winter turnout. But here is one thing I would really like you to consider: horses are not made to live in box stalls. This is just as true for winter as it is for fair weather. A horse that grows his winter coat and is feeling good from eating well and playing well absolutely loves the opportunity to run and play in the snow. If we leave our horses in a small square stall, they have little to stimulate their minds or bodies. Their sunlight is limited and movement restricted. Horses confined in stalls during late fall, winter and early spring lose muscle mass. So if you find your horse confined day after day in his stall, ask for turnout, handwalk him, and make sure you use the indoor arena as often as you can for play and riding. Do whatever you can to resolve the confinement, even if it means moving to another barn. A barefoot trim is not designed for the confined horse.

If you keep your own horses, turn them out 24/7 if you can, but at least daily for as many hours as possible. Remember that your horse’s muscles, hooves, respiratory and digestive systems are responsive to the stimulation of use. If they are not used, they will weaken.

One more note about turnout is that hooves can dry in the winter, so they need daily exposure to water. It is important that hooves receive sufficient exposure to water to retain their natural water content, their elasticity and normal function. Being turned out can provide this required exposure to moisture.

Putting it all together

Fall and winter conditions are not as challenging as you might think if you pay appropriate attention to basic principles of horse keeping. Actually, every season has its challenges. But remembering that horses are quite well adapted to being four season creatures can serve as a guide. They enjoy fall or winter rides. They surely always enjoy your attention. Good nutrition, regular hoof care, and adequate activity are always important.

But in fall and winter, when it is often more comfortable for us to be inside, it is vital to remember that our horses are not humans. Their need to move, dig in the snow for that little nibble of grass, and dive and play in snow banks and mud is part of their nature and survival skill set. They need to be on the move. Because we restrict their movement and diet with barns and fences, we need to feed them well.

Because we stall horses in cold months, we need to be mindful of how often and long they are stalled, and make sure that stalls are clean and safe and without deep bedding that can wick moisture away from hooves.

Many of the health issues our horses face are created as we manipulate their natural tendencies and environment. It is our responsibility to find a balance – where we can give and take and provide a program that works.

Manage challenging conditions

The mud and accumulating leaves of fall pose some issues for horses, especially those that cannot move out of these footing conditions. These softer conditions may lead to thrush. When the ground is soft and wet, not only will the hoof not land heel first, but the actual mechanics of the hoof are altered. Horn production is decreased, and pH guarding sweat glands do not function in the same way. Circulation is not stimulated as much. All of this results in an increased opportunity for bacteria and fungus to take hold and the characteristic drainage and smell of thrush arises.

Inspecting and picking out feet is important because finding and treating thrush early can limit damage. Low-lying areas in paddocks or pastures can also be filled with pea gravel, which is smooth, small, and allows drainage. Pea gravel is very forgiving in size and shape, and horses that walk on it may actually benefit from a healthier frog and sole. Place 3” to 6” of pea gravel over a sandy base; this will allow drainage and minimize mud or standing water. It should be used in limited areas, however, and never as stall footing. The horse needs to be able to move off of the pea gravel if he chooses.

When it comes to snow and ice, it is critical for hooves to be self cleaning and well shaped, which means that trims need to be kept up to date. Snowballs don’t accumulate nearly as frequently or severely in horses that have regular trims in winter. The frog and bulb of a well-shaped barefoot hoof can form a “suction cup” on soft and icy ground. The hoof can grab the soft ground and the bars can promote traction. The horse has a clear awareness of the ground and surface and this means he will be more surefooted.


Sherri Pennanen of Better Be Barefoot is a veteran natural trim farrier serving western New York and southern Ontario. She offers balanced barefoot trims, lameness evaluations, and holistic/rehabilitation services on her farm.