A Manual for Wet Weather Hoof Care

Mud! The bane of farriers everywhere. Photo by Holly Covey.

My farrier told a story of shoeing at a stable this year where a teenager’s horse continually lost shoes. After the umpteenth time replacing a lost shoe, he asked the rider what she was doing to prevent it. She replied, “Nothing. That’s your job.”

I was aghast when I heard this – because it most certainly IS our job as horse owners and managers to keep our horse’s hooves in the best possible condition, and that means keeping the shoes on for the horse’s benefit. Not only that, but shoeing is one of the highest costs of horsekeeping – it behooves you as a horse owner to protect that investment!

The hooves are part and parcel of keeping the horse’s whole body well and require good nutrition and proper environment to be at their healthiest. The “proper environment” part is where the young teenager lost the meaning of horsemanship.

In times when there is a lot of moisture on and in the ground – such as this year in the east – it’s on us as horsemen to keep our horses’ hooves healthy by being careful about turnout in muddy and wet conditions.

Why Wet Weather Wreaks Havoc on Hooves

The horse’s hoof tends to be hard in arid conditions and soft in wet conditions. Moisture makes the hoof more “deformable.” Remember, a horse is ALWAYS on his feet, so the hard tissues (the horn and outer hoof wall structures) are subject to continual stress. When these soften, the interior structures of the hoof bear even more pressure, which tends to soften the entire hoof, and leads to a pancaking — a flatter hoof shape because the structures soften and spread.

Soft walls don’t hold nails well, and shoes loosen and are subject to loss. A soft hoof has even more difficulties with things such as white line disease, thrush and pathogens that can be absorbed into soft, mushy tissues, leading to abscesses, etc.

Mitigation Strategies

Preemptive avoidance: Persistently wet conditions can reshape a hoof, so to manage the moisture, performance horses who are turned out do need to be given a drier place to stand at least a few hours during the day or night. This allows the hoof to not be subject to continual moisture and gives it time to keep the moisture at bay. It doesn’t always work, but it helps to keep the horn tougher when a horse is stabled at least part of the day.

The easiest way to keep a horse out of the mud and water is to put them in a dry stall, of course, but that’s not always possible depending upon the stable schedule and setup. For most event horses, turnout is crucial, so good stable managers keep an eye out for the footing but turn out when the conditions seem the best – in terms of not just ground moisture, but also temperature, flies, heat, work schedule and feeding schedules.

Shavings, sawdust, straw or any other dry bedding will help to pull moisture out of the hoof as the horse stands and walks in it; regular hours of dry surface will help if a horse has no dry footing in turnout. These are used in stalls, of course, but some managers also bed their turnout sheds in order to keep moisture at bay.

In order to pay attention to the moisture level the hooves are subjected to, we look for dry paddocks, take steps to remove muddy conditions from walkways and gate areas (where horses tend to stand), and try to mitigate the time a horse has to spend in the wet and mud by turning out after the dew is off the grass, for instance.

There are products that can be used at gates and entrances that create a “mat” and moisture barrier to prevent mud, as well as using gravel, wood products, sand, etc. Soil conditions will dictate what you can use in your area of the country, what is economical, will last in all weather, and have the features your setup needs. Not everyone will be able to use sand or a commercial barrier product in outdoor conditions, but if you have a persistent problem, it’s a place to start.

Sometimes the water in your congregation areas comes from a source, such as a barn roof, or low lying area. If that’s the case, look into how you can divert the water through gutters, drainage systems, or filling in puddles that just won’t dry up. The best place to go for information on how to do that is your local county extension or soil conservation agency – they usually have free information, and are tasked with helping farm and stable owners fix and mitigate soil problems like drainage. In most cases, you’ll probably want to get a soil test before starting work so you know what kind of soil you’re working with in the area you want to fix. Changing the ground conditions can run into a lot of money, so an inexpensive soil test along with some consultation with experts would be a good first step to changing a drainage problem.

Other ways to directly affect the horse without a major construction project:

Hoof care products: There are commercial products that can be applied to the hoof wall for a moisture barrier, but the bottom of the hoof is still subject to ground moisture absorption, even with shoes and pads to protect it and a commercial product applied. There are thrush medicines that do an effective job of preventing and attacking the thrush bacteria, and other products that help to keep bacteria and pathogens at bay. Sometimes the simplest things work just as well – a weak bleach solution, for instance, in a squirt bottle to tighten and kill bacteria on the sole and frog.

Nutrition: Nutrition of the whole horse has a lot to do with hoof and horn quality, also, and that’s a whole blog in itself. Do you know what your horse is fed, and if the ingredients are helping his hooves? Check the bag labels, go online, do your research, ask an equine nutrition expert and see if you might be able to tweak your feeding program to get your horse’s hooves in better shape, too.

Awareness: If you have to turnout consistently in wet conditions, it’s good to check the clinches every day to insure the shoe is staying tight, and re-clinch if necessary; that’s something you can do with a hammer yourself, have your farrier show you how. And for sure talk with your farrier if you have a consistent shoe-blowing problem. There a lot of things he can do, and perhaps some tricks he can show you that will help.

In short, don’t leave it up to someone else. He’s dealing with your horses’ hooves for an hour or so every four to six weeks. All those other hours, it’s your responsibility! Mud is certainly one of the foremost frustrations of a farrier, too, as well as a horse manager. But it’s your job as caretaker to keep the hooves as carefully as you are keeping the rest of your horse and make the nightmare of lost shoes a little less scary.