As the snow and ice begin to melt, pastures and paddocks are bound to become heavily saturated and very muddy. During this seasonal transition, horse owners in Canada and the US, especially in the West, can expect very wet, outdoor living conditions for their animals. Although horse hooves are particularly resilient, prolonged exposure to moisture and wetness may damage your horse’s hooves. If the horse is left to stand in pools of water, thawing ice, or muddy paddocks and pastures, it can severely damage a horse’s feet.
A good example of close-to-abuse conditions in a paddock. Also, feeding an animal in these conditions will result in your horse ingesting harmful bacteria and parasites will result in very expensive vet bills, or sickness and death if left untreated.
Hoof walls that are continuously wet become porous, allowing bacteria to enter into the internal structures. The healthy sole (which functions as a shock absorber) is the most porous structure of the horse's hoof, and is therefore at an increased risk for bacterial infection and disease when exposed to prolonged moisture. From the exterior, it can be difficult to recognize the early signs of water damage, as overly wet hooves will generally swell, appearing shiny and healthy. As hooves dry from this oversaturated state, cracks in the hoof wall and sole begin to appear. It is a common misconception that applying hoof moisturizers or oils will solve this problem. In fact, adding hoof treatments will often not improve the condition of the hooves, and many times the oil or moisturizer will actually increase the risk of bacteria entering the cracks, particularly in the sole area.
Wet environments and poor hoof management (i.e. lack of hoof trimming, unhygienic conditions) can lead to bacterial growth and infection within the frog called Thrush. Thrush will appear as blackened, decaying material oozing from the frog and will have a foul smell. If the infection penetrates into the internal layers of the hoof the horse may become ‘lame’; unable to travel in a regular or sound manner and may be observed limping or hobbling.
Essentially, prolonged wet living conditions may severely damage the many different structures of the horse’s hoof. It is therefore important to recognize what issues affect hooves and to recognize how often your horse’s feet are exposed to excessive moisture.
It is extremely important to always have a source of fresh water in the spring. A horse with no water source will eventually drink from contaminated, standing water pools if they are desperate. Again, you're asking for problems if they are allowed to do this.
In an added note, wet muddy conditions will hide and eventually infect any minor scratches on legs, because bacteria will get in and make these minor scratches into something major, and very hard to treat.
Depending on the severity of the water damage, there are different procedures for treatment of saturated hooves and legs. Of primary importance is establishing a clean and dry housing environment for your horse, which includes implementing frequent changes of bedding and the removal of manure and urine. It is important to establish a working relationship with a knowledgeable farrier or hoof care practitioner, in particular one who has experience treating horses with oversaturated hooves, or hoof damage due to moisture.
Normal melt conditions. Most horse don't mind mud, and it won't do them any harm as long as they're not standing in it days at a time. Notice the higher ground behind where they can escape the mud?
Unfortunately, you would have to wait for summer to make any improvements to the paddock area, because conditions need to be dry for most improvements. However, at least providing a dry stable or lean-to area for your horse, within the paddock or pasture, will allow it to escape the mud when it needs. More on that in a later article.
Ideal slope for a pasture or paddock, backfilled to allow drainage for spring melt off or heavy rain. Notice the drain ditch running along the side?