Even though Australian winters are relatively mild compared to the snow and ice winters of for example Europe, we still get definite changes in seasons – and boy does it get cold at night! Even in beautiful Queensland!
Due to their large heat generating muscle mass and sophisticated thermoregulatory system, horses usually have more problems to dispose of heat than generate it.
But I will not start a rugging or not rugging debate (and yes I do rug my horses when we get the nasty cold stormy-wet winter days when the wind-chill factor is high – the days when even my dog refuses to leave her place in front of the heater….)
Well- we better talk “hoof” .
Of course, it’s not the cold weather that causes problems – the hoofcapsule, providing it is intact, provides a perfect insulation-boot for the sensitive inside. It is a much more effective thermal protection than any of our Blundstones and woolen socks could ever be!
Also: A functioning hoofcapsule has its own heater: Due to what we call “hoofmechanism”! (Hoofmechanism is the reversible deformation of the hoofcapsule – namely the expansion and contraction of the hoof wall with the simultaneous drop and rise of the solar vault, respectively).
The healthy hoofcapsule, when the horse is in motion, dispenses a certain amount of friction heat which will help maintain a homeostatic temperature within the hoofcapsule.
If you ever had really cold feet, you probably started to hop from one leg to the other to increase circulation – which brought more body warm blood flow to your cold toes and made them more comfortable.
The horse has no muscles in the lower leg, so if the horse has got cold feet and lower legs, it will do as we would – it would start moving to get more comfortable. Increased blood flow and the motion energy of the expanding/contracting hoofcapsules will restore homeostatic temperature.
So – no cold feet for the horse in winter.
Have a look at these fellows: They live unrugged and barefoot in the Siberia Taiga
is achieved by its fantastic insulation properties
(layers of tubular horn, inter-tubular horn and its compact conical shape with vaulted sole for function) as well as the highly vascular corium with active cell metabolism.
If the integrity of this insulation is disturbed by nails (to attach a metal shoe for example), the thermo conducting properties of metal, may cause changes in the homeostatic temperature of the horn structure close to the living tissue:
This may explain why some horses don’t want to go into water: Perhaps what they feel could be compared to the sensation that someone has with sensitive teeth - when (s)he is drinking something hot or cold! Ouch!
But let’s talk about typical winter hoof problems – problems like
abscesses, thrush,mud fever,greasy heel and seedy toe (or white line disease).
All of these can occur at any time, but they seem to be more common in winter, when it is WET and the ground is soft…………
(not providing the needed ground stimulation for healthy hoofmechanism)
Wet weather and winter is often blamed for abscessing......
A simple definition of an abscess is:
”An abscess is a localized collection of pus in a cavity formed by disintegration of tissues”.
In a horse’s hoof it can form for a number of reasons:
1.There is damaged or necrotic tissue through trauma/pressure (also known as "sterile abscessing" )
(any event that causes injury to the living tissue without penetration from outside the hoofcapsule belongs into this category:
e.g. stone bruises, contractions, underslung heels, rotation of P3 onto the sole, weightbearing sole, laminitic/inflammatory
residue, bone chips….)
2.There is a breach in the hoofcapsule that allowed microorganisms to enter and infect healthy tissue
(any event that causes injury to the living tissue due to an opening, connecting the external with the internal: e.g. a nail-prick,
a severe horn crack, an injury, a foreign body, a cut (including “digging efforts” to find an abscess before it has encapsulated!)
An abscess is generally a cleaning effort of the body. Anything that was too big to be removed through the bloodstream (tissue debris, bacteria etc) will be encapsulated locally. Once the pressure is big enough, the pus (fluid composed of leukocytes, and cellular debris, and in case of infection, bacteria as well) will burst through its nearest possible, most convenient exit.
In the hoof it is usually where two horn-types meet (e.g. bar and sole horn – “the seat of corn”, sole and frog horn, coronet…..).
The time just before the eruption, when the pressure in the hoofcapsule is greatest, the horse may be extremely lame (3 legged lame/fracture lame)
You can speed up the “ripening” process by poulticing (animal lintex, clay, bran, potato- or linseed packs) and/or soaking (hand-warm water and ACV or Epsom salts).
Usually the relief is instant as soon as the abscess has burst and started to drain.
(Your hoofcare provider or veterinarian should only “help” if (s)he knows exactly where the abscess cavity is located! “Digging” for an abscess is an invasive procedure and can cause secondary infections or even corium prolapse!
NOTE: Antibiotics should never be given to suppress an abscess initially – but consult your veterinarian if there is repeated abscessing at the same location!
Is abscessing a good thing? Yes and No.
Yes, because “old” and damaged cells must be cleared away before any healing can take place – so, one could argue that abscessing is indeed the first step to recovery……
BUT on the other hand, we clearly have to say No!, simply because there was damage or trauma that required a healing process. That in itself is always a negative!
BUT….. what has all this to do with winter????
Well: In winter when we have more rain and the hooves are well hydrated and elastic, “things” are starting to move…..
In addition to the improved elasticity of the hoofcapsule, many horses are having a barefoot break from shoeing as well – and that’s when things really get moving!
The body goes into cleaning mode.
So – even though abscessing can be painful for your horse for a few days, it is an effective way of getting rid of damaged tissue – and preparing for healing.
Generally, thrush is a fungal infection of the frog. It is caused by an anaerobic organism that decomposes the tissue of the frog and leaves a foul, blackish discharge.
It usually occurs in horses that either have an unnatural lifestyle (being stabled, standing in unhygienic bedding – which is any bedding that absorbs moisture from excrements) or on excessively contaminated footing that does not provide for any hoofmechanism because it is too soft.
In winter we easily come across both scenarios:
Many horse owners stable their horses over winter, because they think their horses like to curl up in a warm corner like their dogs or cats (they don’t, of course – they are prey animals and grazers) or
we have the typical muddy yard situation, where all of the dirt surface has turned into bottom-less mud.
Both scenarios are common in winter and thrush is just as common!
Thrush on a stabled, barefoot horse)
What we can do:
1. Get a good trimmer who knows to trim “physiologically correct”
so the hooves have as much hoofmechanism as possible -
for good circulation and optimal production.
2. To provide a natural lifestyle with lots of movement on
“breed appropriate terrain” – but if this is impossible, provide
at least some exposure to footing that provides some antagonism,
so hoofmechanism can work.
**….the aim is
to make renewal (growth) faster than
If it’s too late for this winter, you could change the groundconditions and footing for your horse by preparing for next winter: Get some gravel or road base and strategically place and compact it during summer where his favourite standing spot is, or in and around his shelter or feed bin), You will see a change to the better if he has “something to stand on” next winter….
However, if you can’t do that (because you agist or have a low budget), go for walks or rides on firm surfaces once a day as soon as the ground in the yard becomes too boggy.
Thrush does not like movement and firm ground.
Movement and firm ground are more effective against thrush than any chemical you can paint on your horse’s feet!
However, a hoofbath with Apple Cider Vinegar helps to restore the pH balance (slightly acidic) and therefore discourages microbic re-infection.
Btw.: The sweat glands around the frog produce a slightly acidic environment, however if there is not enough hoofmechanism, the glandular function is also impaired…..
Mud Fever and Greasy Heel
Both of these microbic infections can be extremely painful for your horse.
Once the infection has taken hold, it is extremely difficult to get rid of it.
It is however important to become aware what may have allowed the infection in the first place, as some horses are more susceptible to it than others in the same environment.
Since it is the skin that is affected, we can conclude that the natural barrier of the skin that protects it from infection has broken down for some reason: It could have been a trauma (a scratch or any other wound, sunburn (photosensitivity), prolonged exposure to water or - holistically seen – it could have been broken down because of a lack of healthy circulation.
If the skin has inadequate nourishment (due to lack of circulation) it will be “weak” and microorganisms will be able to break the natural barrier.
Circulatory health in the lower leg of the horse is greatly dependent on the healthy function of the hoof and that in turn is dependant on healthy form and stimulating ground!
To get on top of mud fever and greasy heal, it is critical that the hooves are functioning – for circulatory health of the skin in the lower leg of the horse (where there are no muscles!)
Again – providing firm ground conditions and well trimmed hooves are prerequisites.
Since the skin is the largest metabolic organ (and an organ of elimination), supporting metabolic functions with herbal or homeopathic remedies may be beneficial in the fight against mud fever and greasy heel!
Wet weather and mud is not the reason for either of these skin problems. It is the compromised resistance of the skin that is the problem.
Look at hoof function – or lack thereof first.
Then find out if it is the hoof shape or the ground that is the reason for lack of hoofmechanism……
Seedy toe or White Line Disease
As all previous problems, it’s not the weather, the season, mud or water that causes seedy toe /WLD.
It is again the fact that decay of horn is faster than renewal/growth – and that decomposing micro organisms (they are anywhere, anyway) had a chance breach the integrity of the hoofcapsule: A crack or a nail hole or a flare with a stretched white line, just to name a few common “entry ways”.
Since seedy toe/WLD requires me to elaborate a little more on the treatment - but this will have to be a separate article!
For now: Enjoy winter and remember all the good things when you feel miserable when it’s dark, cold and grey out there:
It's the season .......
2.quality in-door time to brush up on theory (riding, hoofcare… whatever…)