Winter hoof care: treading water

Proper management can help alleviate some of the most common hoof issues that can happen to our horses over winter

Hooves don’t grow as quickly over winter, but it is still important to get regular trims. The hoof wall is prone to cracking if it grows too long and this is a perfect entry point for the bacteria which cause hoof abscesses. 

The continual changing of the environment in the winter from wet and warmish to cold and frosty also causes changes in the sole, with small gaps forming which allow bacteria entry to the sole. The bacteria can then form abscesses which we see as a horse suddenly becoming very lame with a hot hoof. 

They can be difficult to prevent but regular foot care, good nutrition and getting an abscess treated as soon as possible will help prevent problems or prevent them lasting too long if they do occur.

In a perfect world, your horse’s hoof would have the optimal balance of water content. Moisture is an important component of every bodily system, and the hooves are no different.

The problem is that in many parts of New Zealand, we have very wet winters, combined with heavy (clay) soils. This means that some horses are literally standing in water for weeks or even months on end, meaning their feet become saturated.

There has been little published research on hydration in horses’ hooves, but one article from 2012 found that flooded pasture had a particular impact on the sole of the hoof, and so it’s not surprising that most problems seen in wet conditions involve the sole.

Some of the hoof conditions that are exacerbated by wet ground include:

  • Abscesses. A soft sole, combined with a small wound or white line separation, allows bacteria to enter the hoof, setting up the perfect recipe for an infection.
  • Thrush. Fungal or bacterial infections of the clefts of the frog, unmistakable by their awful smell.
  • Fungal infections. Especially common in the northern parts of the country, where the winters are humid as well as damp.
  • White line disease. When the hoof wall partially separates from the internal structures, seen as a gap in the white line, it’s an ideal entry point for microscopic organisms.
  • Canker. Thankfully it’s only rarely seen, but was once common in draught horses working in wet fields. The frog and surrounding soft tissue becomes infected and dies off. Can be managed if it’s caught early. 
  • Bruising. Soft, pliable soles are the result of standing in wet conditions, particularly if the horse has flat feet.
Standing in water constantly causes soles to become soft and easily bruised

No foot, no horse

Prevention is better than cure. Keep your horse’s hooves healthy over winter with some easy preventative measures. 

  • Pick out feet daily, and scrub the sole with a wire brush (available from hardware stores)
  • Bring your horses in from the muddy paddocks for several hours a day to stand in a yard, stable, dry lot or even an arena, so their feet get a chance to dry out.
  • Regular trims are vital, whether or not your horse is shod. An unbalanced, overgrown hoof is prone to uneven stresses and strains, cracks can develop and allow bacteria and fungi to invade the internal structures
  • Using a wet poultice to burst out a foot abscess is a long-standing technique, but don’t leave the poultice on for too long. Packing the foot with a mixture of sugar and iodine, or copper sulphate and vaseline, is a good way to help dry out the sole and kill off any bugs. 
This article was first published in the June-July 2018 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. Latest issue out now where all great magazines are sold.