Cracking, Chipping and Sensitivity.
First off, horses tend to have more problems with their hooves in the winter because the cold makes them brittle and can sometimes penetrate through the outer shell of the hoof and into the sensitive nerves inside. This can cause limping, sensitivity and even cracking of the hoof so it is best to take preventive measures beforehand.
I would advise that you clip the hooves before the first frost sets in. If you have not done this and it has already frozen please clip them as soon as possible. If the hooves are to hard due to the frost try spraying the hooves down with warm water about 15 minutes before clipping. Be sure not to get the hocks wet or make sure you dry them immediately as ice forming on the hocks can cause numbness and frostbite in the lower leg.
Furthermore the hooves should be clipped for winter rather than the normal cutting. Do not remove any of the sole and leave more of the hoof wall than usual so that the hoof is rounded. Rasp it smooth by starting outside of the white line. This causes the hoof to be more solid and less likely to chip or crack.
To Shoe or Not To Shoe
Whether or not to leave shoes on a horse during the winter depends on what you are planning on doing with the horse. If you intend for heavy riding or riding a great deal on roads or on the show ground you definitely want shoes. Otherwise it is more healthy for the horse and cheaper for you to take them off for the winter.
You will have to change the regular shoes to a type more suited to winter ground. Personally i prefer either aluminum racing plates with toe grabs or aluminum rim shoes. Rim shoes are best for regular riding in soft ground such as snow. The racing plates are better for light to mild work such as in the show pen or racing. Aluminum is the best metal because it is a softer metal so it gets better traction. It is not used for regular shoes because its softness causes a decrease in durability. This is OK for winter shoes as you will be changing them in a few months. If you are planning on riding over a great deal of ice i would definitely recommend using Borium. This is a hardening metal that can be applied to the heels and toes of the shoe in small spikes or smears. Be careful not to apply over the whole shoe and not to apply more than a 1/4 of the thickness of the shoe as this will stress the horses hoof unnecessarily. If you do not want to apply this yourself you can choose to buy steel keg shoes which have the spikes already forged into the shoe. This provides better traction in soft ice, snow and frozen ground.
Snowballing is the term used for ice and snow building up in the horses hoof. There are two different methods of preventing this depending on whether or not your horse is shoed for the winter.
1. Your horse is not shoed. Try coating the bottom of each hoof with petroleum jelly or vaseline before each ride. This will cause less snow to stick to the hoof which in turn creates less build up.
2. If you are shoeing your horse and are worried about snowballing try using winter padded shoes. Normally i would choose placing the padding under the shoe rather than over but both methods work.
Whether you choose to shoe or let your horse go barefoot please remember to be sure the horses stall is warm and dry. Change the bedding out daily and clean the hooves out before and after each ride.