Winter Mud and Horse Health

— Written By and last updated by Elisabeth Purser
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Winter brings lots of rain and snow to North Carolina. While the snow can be beautiful what it leaves behind is less so. The increased winter precipitation creates many issues with mud on our farms. When managing horses in muddy conditions, there are several considerations to keep in mind.

Horse in Mud, Mud, Horses, Winter Mud, Hooves, Union County, North CarolinaExcess moisture from saturated ground creates the perfect environment for hoof conditions like thrush. Thrush is an infection in the frog of the hoof and is characterized by a foul odor and a black discharge coming from around the frog. If left untreated, the infection can eat away at the frog, exposing more sensitive tissue below. Prevention is the best approach for thrush. Cleaning out hooves regularly and providing areas with dry footing are ways to avoid this issue. If you do notice signs of thrush, move the animal to a dry and clean location. There are treatments available that will kill off the bacteria and fungi that cause the infection. It can take several days of treatment for the infection to die off and even longer for the frog to recover.

When constantly exposed to moisture, wet hooves usually become softer hooves. When horses’ feet get softer, they don’t hold on to shoes as well. Combined with the suction power of mud, lost shoes are a common issue in these conditions. Additionally, wet feet are more prone to issues with abscesses and bruises. All of these can result in lame horses. 

Winter moisture doesn’t just impact hooves. The mud can cause a problem with the skin, called “scratches” or “mud fever”. This bacterial and/or fungal infection is caused by excess moisture especially on the pasterns, fetlock and even up the canon bone. Any horse can get it, but horses with white feet or heavy feathering are more prone to getting scratches. Keeping the horse clean and dry helps avoid this issue. Early detection is important for treatment. Check your horses legs regularly when in wet and muddy conditions. Horses with heavy feathering may benefit from having their legs clipped to avoid trapping the moisture around the skin. If your horse does develop these scabs, then make sure to avoid picking off the scabs. Gently bathe the area with an anti-bacterial or anti-fungal shampoo. Topical treatments prescribed by your veterinarian can be applied to dry, clean skin. In extreme cases, a vet may prescribe antibiotics or steroids to help eliminate the infection.

Beyond the increase in conditions like thrush and scratches, mud can create hazardous footing. Horses can easily slip in the mud, causing injury. When frozen, mud can be just as dangerous, as the uneven ground can cause bruising to the hoof sole and be a tripping hazard. 

As with any time of year, always monitor your horse to catch any injuries or diseases before they become a more serious issue. Prevention is always the preferred approach. Keeping horses as clean and dry as possible will help prevent many mud-related issues this winter.