From a farrier’s perspective, winter is an interesting time of year. If living in a severe climate and turning horses out in pastures filled with snow and ice, care and concern must be shown for the entire horse. It goes without saying that the horse should be familiar with this kind of terrain, the horse should be blanketed for skin protection and the hoofs must meet the needs of both the horse and terrain. Horse owners are ultimately responsible for maintaining the condition of their horse’s hoofs by cleaning out any debris, ice or packed snow that accumulates immediately after bringing their horses into the barn or at least once a day if field kept in winter weather.
As to advising a horse owner to let their horse go barefoot in a pasture in winter, it depends. The factors that must be considered to make a recommendation are: the horse and their personality, the condition of that horse’s hoofs, and the condition of the pasture (grassy, rocky, sandy, etc.). At very least letting a horse go barefoot is running the risk of bruising a frog or chipping /cracking the outer wall. Once damage is done to hoof walls it is sometimes difficult to correct easily. It is often cheaper to pay for protective pads and metal shoes than to spend months trying to pull a cracked hoof together and applying vitamin ointments twice every day (which by-the-way does work).
I also highly recommend Sorbothane shock absorbent pads made for horses that bruise easy. These are also sandwiched between the metal horse shoe and the horse’s hoof. If you are riding on rocky or hard terrain and your horse tends to come up lame or limping often you might give these a try. I know they worked wonders for the three horses we took to a 50 mile endurance ride in Tennessee many years ago.
As for sets of borium studs, I have yet to see them help except by providing a horse owner with reassurance that they have done something for their horse. Most of the time borium studs are 1/3 of an inch high and put on sets of pre-manufactured stock shoes (these stock shoes are totally flat across the whole face of the shoe that comes in contact with the ground). Picture the equivalent with a human shoe: beach flip-flops with two 1/3 inch high small round half pebbles glued to the bottom of the shoe 3 inches back from front outside edge. That’s all these borium studs do. I personally feel that better winter shoes are hot forged to fit a horse exactly and have hot forged pulled heel calks which work much better to provide some grip and traction on winter terrain. Over a period of many years in snowy and rocky terrain in the mountains (Blue Ridge Parkway off- trail winter both Virginia and North Carolina) I used eighth inch thick flexible rubber pads sandwiched between hot forged shoes and the horse’s hoof. I squirted silicone gel into the gap totally filling the gap between the frog and the rubber pad to make for a watertight barrier that kept the frog clean till the next round of shoeing. If you try this, make absolutely certain the gel stays sealed in completely or pull out the old gel pieces, inspect the frog for cleanliness and dryness and then fill the gap back in and wait till dry.
Many horse owners are lacking in the knowledge about the anatomy of a horse’s leg and the support structure of the hoof. While there have been many analogies that a horse’s hoof is like a human’s fingernail it does not do justice to the actual structure as a horse’s hoof is designed to support somewhere in excess of 1200 pounds of weight on the four legs and the average hoof is five or 6 inches long four 1/2 inches high and can be prone to vertical cracking from stress (weight bearing, impact or torsion from poorly designed horseshoes and pressure from their nails) and horizontal cracking from dryness or variations in the blood supply producing a minor horizontal ripple effect on the exterior horn of the hoof. On the hoof exterior is a hard yet flexible horn growth wall that takes the majority of the load bearing. On average measured in the front and vertically issued the 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches high, trimming it too short or letting it grow too long exerts abnormal pressures on both the hoof and the leg. The under tissue which is pared down is called the “frog”. This “frog” area is often trimmed back to not support the horse’s weight. This area is also where horses pick up ice and snow accumulation and despite the old wives tales does not accumulate as a ball of slush faster or slower with or without metal horse shoes on the horse.
Sometime pasture lameness from hard ground is actually frog rot which can cripple a horse. If the frog area is getting tender it could be because it was paired away trimmed too much by the farrier or was bruised by rocks or is getting soft and infected or nobody is clean the feet out regularly. Frog rot is not a good thing and can happen when the frog is not kept flexible, clean and dry (cleanliness is the important factor for hoof health as debris from stall floors (manure) or material from the ground while being turned out (stuff like rocks, twigs, snow, mud, etc ) gets back into the crevices and V area of the frog.
Know your horse and his anatomy, know how your horse moves (did you know that often horses just like humans can be ducked footed or pigeon toed (that is when you look at them straight on from the front and look down the leg there is a slight turning towards the inside or outside in their natural standing position). And this is where a good farrier can really help as they can trim sideways the hoof wall (to the left and right) correcting for the physical defect that was making your horse hit one leg or hoof against another or misstep or sometimes drop out of a canter (your horse may have simply been reacting to the fact that one of his legs was hitting another). This slight sideways angling to correct rotational movement fixed a long term problem on a horse I purchased that helped me win a blue ribbon in speed racking.
My background: Over a period of 30 + years, I ran and owned a number of commercial barns and AI horse breeding facilities in three different states (Florida, Virginia and North Carolina). After the first two years of owning horses my curiosity made me attend a Farrier school in North Carolina. I became certified in 1977. As a farrier and horse owner, I spent many years afterward trying to keep my own and my client’s horses healthy and functional. I had occasion to shoe a variety of horses with special needs: thoroughbred racehorses, gaited show horses, distance competitors, packed-up racking and walking horses, backyard pleasure horses, rodeo horses and hunter/jumpers. Climate changes, traction requirements and often specific unique individual needs (anatomy or gait patterns) made for alterations in shoeing techniques for these horses.