The Natural Barefooted Horse in Winter

 A number of inquires have come across my scroll or in my email lately. Here in the USA it's almost winter. People are concerned about blanketing their horses, leaving them out 24/7 or stalling them for hours on end; whether they should put shoe with studs on them so they can continue to ride in snow and on frozen ground; what should they feed their horses? How to keep their barefooted horses rideable during the winter time, etc. 

I defer them back to the Natural BAREFOOTED Horse ... the ferals. 

I'm not going to go into a whole, long discourse on this. I simply want to reassure people that ... well, horses are horses! Our domestics aren't TOO far away, naturally, from their wild ancestors. 

Horses are ... horses. 

They are not indoor pets to be coddled and given a bed next to the fireplace to keep warm. They have an amazing thermoregulatory system that will work 365 days a year, 24/7 to keep them warm or cool as the environmental elements require. 

The photo you see as the featured photo is one of my Mustang, Cheyenne. She had full access to the barn with her choice of 4 stalls, bedded, out of the weather and to share with others. (I've posted right below, too) 


Where do you see her in the photo?  Standing out in the middle of a blizzard, snow encrusted on her tail, her whiskers, her eyelashes, her feathers ... the snow is beginning to pile up on her back. AND .. though you can't see her hooves, they are barefoot - no metal or even plastic shoes on her hooves. 

Not only do horses have an amazing thermoregulatory system, their hooves are amazingly adaptable to various grounds, temperatures, elements - wet, dry, soggy, flooded. BUT - that being said there are a few other points that go along with all this. 

You see, we don't feed bagged feed to the horses unless we have a 'special needs' horse and even then, I will do what I can to find an alternative that will keep that special needs horse comfortable, well fed and warm with forages. We feed forages. We offer good quality, grass hay 24/7, rain, sleet, snow, ice, or in the heat of the summer days. In the winter we offer as much as they need. If I find a horse who is shivering then they get extra hay. IF they don't stop shivering in 10 mins of eating more hay then I know we've got a bit of a problem. Shivering isn't all bad - horses shiver to get warm, to keep warm. But if their forage/hay that is being digested in the big vat of their bellies isn't stokin' up their body temps then there is something going on that needs to be examined. 

That last paragraph seemingly went off script from hooves in the paragraph before ... as being amazing parts of their bodies but I did that specifically as diet is as important for hooves turned out 24/7 as good form and function. As I’ve said time and time again, what goes in, grows out – in the hooves. Diet will either feed the immune system to keep the body balanced or it stresses the immune system, thus weakening it and, of course, that all lands in the hooves. 

What about freezing temperatures and ground.

Don't hooves freeze? Can hooves get frost bitten?  Well, again -- they're pretty amazingly adaptable with shunts in the hooves' circulatory system that will carry the blood around inside the foot and away from the frozen ground. Think of the wild horses-the ferals. They survive in the harshest of harsh weather in the mountains and plains where the snow begins to fall in September (August?) and doesn't end until June. But they thrive. They MOVE ... ALOT ... to get to water, to forage, to shelter. They need movement. This, too, helps to keep them warm. So, horses need movement. And, lots of it.

People ask about blanketing their horses. Remember I said they have amazing thermoregulatory systems? Part of that system are nerves under each hair that will tell it to stand up against the weather and temperature or lie down flat on the body. A blanket will force the hair to remain flat and then it is not able to catch the body heat of the horse. Most times, with blanketing, we cause the horse to be COLDER than it would be if left a full winter coat and unblanketed. Now, if one clips the horse's coat then that horse will need intervention to keep warm in sub-freezing temperatures.  And ... if a horse that lives outside 24/7 (with shelter available) is groomed daily then it won't have the oils and dirt to protect the coat, skin and body as they do. When kept in a herd situation horses are able to ‘groom’ each other and this not only affords adequate stimulation of the skin for a healthy coat but also emotional stability, as well. Horses are herd animals and are most comfortable in groups of others.

Of course, if you are in a stable and riding or competing your horse regularly then it’s probably preferable to clip the coat and keep him blanketed to help balance their body temperature and you may have to feed processed, bagged feeds.  But its important to know about the ‘natural horse’ and how nature takes good care of its own nicely.

Walking the stabled or inactive horse daily, barefoot, on tarred roads when possible, is one of the best conditioners there is for hooves. That allows the soles to thicken (be sure they aren’t trimmed away every 6 weeks!), the circulation to freely feed the foot and help develop strong, healthy new horn. The horse’s natural hoof, if healthy and in good function, will expand and contract with each step. This produces secure footing on pretty much any ground – even frozen. Although I’ve observed that, given a choice, horses will not readily choose to walk on ice. They would prefer safer ground. My guys used to purposely watch for frozen manure piles and step on those with each step rather than on ice. But even when they did step on ice they were pretty secure and sure-footed.

Now if they had steel shoes on their hooves it would have been an entirely different situation – I don’t believe horses do well at ice skating and steel shoes on ice act just like skates. Therefore ‘studs’ are generally applied to the bottom of shoes to dig into the ice for traction. But barefooted horses don’t need that extra ... the suction of the hoof along with the texture of the healthy frog help them navigate even the most slippery of ground.

So, you see, in this short post about the natural barefoot horse in winter we see how ‘nature’ has really provided a few ways for the horse to survive and thrive during winter months. Again, I realize not everyone is afforded the choice to have their horses out 24/7 with shelter, or to feed free choice hay or anything but bagged feeds. I guess, then, one has to make a choice, too, between a stable that keeps the horses stalled during inclement weather or only allows them out to individual paddocks for an hour or so a day or finding a place where the horse can be and live more like a horse. When that is afforded then the hooves CAN be in optimal health, along with the rest of the horse with minimal intervention from humans.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published