Hoof care: Cold Weather Concerns
By BRYAN FARCUS MA,CJF
©2014-2017 “Farrier-Friendly”Ô series
Wow, it feels cold out there…
Most of us can notice within minutes when the cold weather is too much to bear and it doesn’t take long to add a layer or two. However, when it comes to our horses it is not as simple. Determining your horse’s cold weather tolerance can be a challenge. Depending on the overall health and current living conditions, recognizing that critical low body temperature for your horse(s) can be tricky.
Unfortunately, invoking the “survival-mode” rule will not be good enough for horses that are currently in a poor body condition or maintained in a climate that is more extreme. In fact, several studies reveal that the cold weather tolerance for each horse is often not the same. From one horse to another, there could be as much as a 30 degree (Fahrenheit) difference in critical body temperature. Metabolism, diet and hair coat adaptation all play a role in how comfortable your horse may actually feel. A previous study reported by Kathy Anderson, an Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Nebraska, reveals some interesting information about cold weather tolerance for horses and the effect it has on energy requirements needed to survive the bitter cold. It appears that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that certain horses may need help coping with severe cold. In short, this study can be helpful when attempting to determine the appropriate amount of “digestible fuel” (various combinations of fibrous foods necessary to produce a sufficient amount of energy for heat) required to keep your horse’s body temperature at a comfortable level during the winter months. Subsequently, it is also that balance of “fuel” and heat produced that will help a horse maintain the healthiest feet possible to survive such extremes. As a general rule, if your horse appears uncomfortable during a cold snap, increasing his fiber/roughage is more helpful than an increase of grain.
Avoiding frozen toes?…
During the winter months, one of the most commonly asked questions that I address is… “Can my horse experience frostbite in his feet?” Fortunately, horses are one of the most adaptable creatures known to man and with an appropriate level of care their transition to winter is normally effortless. Seasonal change tends to be gradual, which allows our horses time to adjust. Your horse’s coat and his hooves are a prime example. Hooves, in particular, are designed to withstand an amazing variety of extremes. 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. For instance, 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 and this is where your farrier comes in. Routine trimming to rebalance your horse’s feet can help them function at their best and remain resilient. In many situations, I recommend a break from horse shoes, whenever possible. However, in cases where shoes are being applied for therapeutic reasons, it’s important to avoid any possible injury to the horse by keeping snow from freezing to the inner edge of the metal shoe. This snowballing condition can create dangerous footing. The addition of special anti-snowballing pads and/or applying non-stick, oily solutions (such as, Vaseline, cooking spray or WD-40), directly to the bottom of a metal shoe can be very helpful. Also, during any wet, “packing” type snowfalls, daily hoof picking is highly recommended.
It’s off-season, still not a good enough reason…
Contrary to common belief, most horses that are in the “off-season” from their working routine, will still need routine farrier visits to maintain healthy hooves. Taking a break from riding during cold weather is reasonable but that shouldn’t include taking a break from routine hoof care. During the coldest months of the year, your horse may be at his highest risk for certain hoof problems. Hoof /sole bruising, frog thrush, hoof wall cracking, and white-line distortion (an early indicator for certain types of Laminitis), are among the most common. The good news is that all of these issues can be avoided or easily treated, if discovered early. It will most likely be your farrier who spots a particular condition, simply due to the fact that he/she will be able to more effectively and efficiently remove any unnecessary superficial tissue (exfoliation) that can hide certain visual signs.
By most accounts, the best advice for preventing any cold weather complication is to make sure he has access to enough drinkable water (contrary to popular belief, eating snow is not enough), keep him in an area that allows him to move around freely, offer an adequate amount of forage, and provide a shelter for a windbreak.
As a general rule, the best advice for wintertime hoof care is that it should be a focus for horse owners, year around. Don’t wait until you notice the first signs of frost on that pumpkin. Be thinking about how healthy you can get your horse’s feet before the coldest temperatures hit—that way, you can sit back, relax and let it snow!
References & Recommended Reading:
msue.anr.msu.edu/topic/info/horses, Michigan State University Extension
cvm.msu.edu, Robert Bowker VMD, PhD
www.extension.org/pages/25673/winter-care, Kathy Anderson PhD