Turning Your Horse Out in the Winter

Written By: Howard Ketover, DVM

Written By: Howard Ketover, DVM

Preparing our horses and our pastures for winter turnout brings a new set of challenges to horse owners. We need to consider the basics of keeping our horses warm (read Dr. Lisa Nesson’s article on Blanketing your Horse) and keeping happy herd dynamics, as well as the more complex issues such as what our horses should have on their feet in the winter, and what secondary trauma we need to think about. Watch Dr. Ketover explain, or read on below!

First and foremost, you should think about water and forage. Not only does the water need to be accessible (not frozen), we need to make sure the horses will approach it. If the water bucket has overflowed and formed a patch of ice around the water bucket, the horses might not be able to gain access to the water. The same goes with forage – are your horses able to get to the hay? Herd dynamics play into this piece pretty significantly, and we’ll jump into that a bit later.

The next thing to think about is what your horses have on their feet. There are many different ways to go about this. Some people swear by shoes with pads. If you do choose to use pads, we recommend using snow pads in these northern climates. Sometimes traction becomes an issue with regular horseshoes on the ice. To mitigate this, owners will often use shoes with studs or with borium to provide additional traction. While these can be great tools, be wary of this additional traction on your horse if she has underlying arthritis or performance issues. That additional traction may exacerbate problems by preventing the foot from sliding when it hits the ground. Working with your farrier and veterinarian together is a great way to determine what will work best for your horse and climate.

If you do choose to leave your horse barefoot, she’ll be at risk for snowballs. A snowball is just where excess snow and ice packs in the bottom of the foot, leading to a rounded or uneven surface of the hoof. This isn’t usually a significant problem for horses, though it can lead to minor injuries such as bruises. There are a few different ways to try to fix this, but nothing is a cure-all. Some owners use cooking spray to prevent the snow balls – this may work for some. The best bet is to remove that snow and ice intermittently with a hoof pick.

Once your horse is out on the ice, you’ll need to think about the uneven footing that can develop from the snow and ice. Secondary trauma or injury may occur, including bruising into the hoof capsule, the formation of abscesses, and occasionally we’ll see fractures into the coffin bone. Unfortunately it’s difficult to differentiate between the three issues – if you see acute lameness in  the horse, make sure to call your veterinarian. Usually it’s just a bruise that will resolve without intervention, but it’s important to check that before the injury becomes worse.

Finally, you’ll want to think about the herd dynamics. Are your horses being forced to push or run around on uneven or icy ground? This could make their time in the pasture more treacherous, leading to injury. If you change your herd dynamics in the winter, do so cautiously, and make sure you’re around to interfere with any issues.