If the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service are to be believed, much of the United States can expect a wet winter with above-normal temperatures. 

Depending on where you live, that could mean more snow or rain. Bear in mind that these early forecasts were made in August and their accuracy can be tenuous at best. 

Preparing for a Cold Day

What is certain is the warm blue skies of early September will be turning cold and gray before you know it. Farriers who typically work in frigid parts of the world often set temperature thresholds.

“Unless you’re in a heated barn, my biggest suggestion is don’t shoe in the cold if you can get away with it,” says Ray Steele, a Gill, Mass., farrier. “I have a rule that if the thermometer is below 18 degrees, I call everybody up and cancel the day.”

It’s a question of comfort and quality of work.

“What I’ve always told my customers is, if I’m really cold, all I’m doing is trying to get the job done so I can get out of there,” says the owner of Horseshoes Unlimited farrier supply shop. “I’m not really concentrating on doing a good job. I’m concentrating on just getting it done. If it’s windy, I do the same thing.”

Steele’s neck of the woods averages 53 inches of snow a year. When your area doubles the average annual snowfall of the entire country, there’s going to be a snow day or two.

“For years, I never had a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” he says. “It’s not just the cold, it’s the roads too. I’ve come to the realization that if I can’t get to my clients in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, maybe I shouldn’t be going.”

Steele would fill the economic gap by restoring carriages and repairing broken carriage wheels. He also performed odd jobs such as loading potato trucks.

“You did what you have to do,” Steele says. “You also have to set up some sort of savings account to prepare for slow periods or an injury.”

Steele certainly isn’t alone on that score. Jennifer Horn shoes out of Sault Ste. Marie in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where the average high temperature in January and February is 24 degrees and there’s an average annual snowfall of 124 inches —102 inches more than the United States average.

“Even just trimming the horse’s feet, you can just hear the hoof wall snapping underneath the nippers,” she says. “I thought, well, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. It wasn’t real fun for me and maybe it wasn’t so good for the horse. The owners are always ready to go to the house. So when I work, I like it to be closer to 20 degrees or warmer.”

Steele, who has been shoeing for the better part of 4 decades, is confident that if he’s not happy, the horses certainly aren’t either.

“The horses have never told me anything, but the way that they act and everything,” he says, “I don’t think they like it when it’s real cold and you’re pounding on their feet.”

On those numbingly cold days, Horn accommodates the horse the best she can.

“If I do have to shoe, I’m not opposed to using the old nail holes so I’m not driving and splitting the nails into a foot that’s frozen and cold,” she says. “I encourage clients to get them to stand in some bedding and get their feet a little thawed out before I get there. It doesn’t always happen. Not everybody has the environment to allow that. Staying out of the wind is for sure a big deal.”


Using a torch will soften a hardened foot in the summer or winter.

When encountering particularly hard feet, Steele will utilize a handheld torch to soften them up.

“I let the flame hit the foot and just roll it, moving it all around for maybe 10 seconds,” he says. “If it’s still hard, I’ll go back and do it again.”

It’s important to make sure that your portable workstation is fully stocked for the day — tools, studs, pads and … soapstone?

“I used to keep a piece of soapstone and throw it into my forge to warm it up,” Steele explains. “I didn’t try to make it red hot. Just warm it and set my tools on it. When I picked them up, my tools were warm. I just wanted to have some warmth coming to me. The soapstone would work.”

After the tools are warmed up, he would share the warmth with his client.

“I’d put it in a sock and hand it to the customer sometimes because they have it even worse than I do,” Steele says. “I’m getting warmed up by moving around and shoeing. They’re standing there holding a horse — inside or out — for 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, depending on what I’m doing.”

Not Much Difference

In the grand scheme of things, Steele doesn’t view or perform hoof care much differently during the winter.

“If you’re going to put something hard on the horses’ feet, you have to add traction,” he says. “You have to keep the snow from balling up under their feet. Aside from that, there’s not much difference between shoeing in the winter and 90-degree weather — except for the discomfort.”

When the ground is already frozen when he pulls the shoes, Steele is extra careful with his trim.

“If I’m taking shoes off, I’ll leave a little bit of extra foot,” he says. “When the ground freezes, it’s very abrasive. I don’t take a huge amount out of the soles anyway.”

However, he covers his bases just in case.

“If it’s January and the ground is already frozen, I’ll let the customer know that the horse might be a little bit ouchy when I trim the foot,” Steele says. “Whether I leave the horse extra foot or not, I’ve just made it that much closer to the ground.”

When explaining it to a client, he utilizes a rock.

“When a barefoot horse steps on a half-inch rock, they get the whole feeling of that half-inch rock,” Steele says. “If you put a 5/16-inch thick shoe on, when the horse steps on that same exact rock, it only feels 3/16 of it because the horse has been lifted. The same thing goes when you trim. When you take any foot or wall off, the horse is getting closer to the ground. If it’s always walking on hard stuff, the horse is going to feel that some more.”

Both Steele and Horn consider the winter a good opportunity to pull shoes for the season.

“It depends on the snow because there are different kinds of snow,” Horn says. “If we have a lot of nice light, fluffy snow that piles up real deep, what a great footing for the horses as far as the formable material. If it’s real hard packed, frozen cold, then their feet are more vulnerable for busting, chipping and things like that. Then I’d rather have some shoes on.”

Often, the client does not take the horse into consideration when trimming and shoeing decisions are made.

“It’s hard for me to convince some clients that the shoes are for the horse, not the rider,” she says. “If they’re not riding, they don’t see any reason for shoes. If a horse benefits from a shoe because of balance issues or conformation, I try to educate them so that they understand that they should do it so the horse is more comfortable.”

Some of Steele’s clients intend to ride but underestimate how busy they might become during the holidays. After insisting that their five horses be shod, Steele would return after the holidays with a question.

“How much did you ride?” he asks. “They’d say, ‘Well, gee, we did this and this and that and didn’t have time.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I had a great Christmas. Thanks for the money.’”

If Horn shoes the horse, she primarily uses rim or snowball pads and applies drive-in stud pins.

“Sometimes I’ll put them in the toe, too, if they’re going to be doing a lot of work or if the conditions get to where it’s icy enough that I want them to have some sort of traction at the breakover,” she says. “If the shoes are just because of balance issues and all they’re doing is traveling in and out of the barn, I’ll just use the pins in the heels so they’re not sliding when they land.”

As Horn alluded to, it’s important to keep the climate in mind when deciding between a bubble pad and a rim pad. Warm days often thaw the ground enough to create a muddy mess. However, trouble could occur when the temperatures dip overnight.

“A client was bound and determined that they were going to have rim pads on her stud,” Steele says. “When the paddock got muddy, the horse steps down and slams into the mud. It pushes up around the foot. Overnight, the paddock freezes into very ruddy, sometimes spiky, frozen shards of dirt. Three days later, I get called back because the horse tore out of the stall door and pushed one of those mud spikes right up inside his bars. It came out of the back of his foot just above the hairline.”

The decision between a rim and bubble pad comes down to what you feel most comfortable with, Steele says.

“When the horse steps down on the rim or bubble pad, even if it packs it down with snow, it compresses the pad,” he explains. “When the horse takes its weight off, there’s a sudden push back to just loosen up. That’s how they work.”

Of course, it’s important to pack the feet when using a full pad. Steele uses a packing material that he makes — a mixture of Venice turpentine and leather dust, along with liquefied copper to provide an anti-fungal effect.

“Leather dust is a nice, smooth base,” he says, noting there are few packing products made with leather dust. “You don’t have to worry about hard bunches that you get from other packing. It’s important to use veg-tanned leather. It has the materials in it that help fight bacteria and fungus. Chromium-tanned leather is not good for you.”

Slowing Growth, Slowing Business

As the summer winds down, Steele says he starts seeing a change in the horses he services. The coat starts to thicken a bit. By October, the hoof growth starts to pick up but the coat growth seems to stall.

“I figure that’s when the horse is adjusting, trying to figure out what the temperature’s going to be,” he says. “Then come November, those feet will grow like crazy for 2 or 3 weeks. All I can give to it is what I’ve always been taught, that the coat and the hoof wall are the same material. I figure that they are growing hair to create warmth, and that’s why hoof wall growth slows.

“It’s the same with people. I shave every morning, but I have a heavier beard at 5 o’clock in January than I do in warmer weather.”

In the more extreme winter climate of the eastern Upper Peninsula, Horn has to make some serious adjustments. Approximately 20% of her clients are seasonal and move to other parts of the country during the winter. Those that remain move from a 5- or 6-week schedule to a 10- or 12-week schedule.

“I had to become really conscientious about my budget,” she says. “When I’m booming in the summer, I pack away a nest egg so that I have something to live off through the winter. That’s just a business problem.”

Horn takes advantage of the busy months by shoeing as much as possible to pay off annual bills, such as insurances, association memberships and home heating.

“It’s really important that I’m conscientious about those things,” she says. “The only thing I’m paying during the wintertime is just my electric, phone bill, house payment and some groceries.”

When Horn was starting out as a farrier, she had to juggle two other jobs to make ends meet for her young family. Now that her children have grown, her expenses aren’t as high. She also has the opportunity to do what she loves — ornamental blacksmithing.

“I do most of my blacksmithing in the winter,” Horn says. “What a great thing because I have a nice little shop with a wood stove and I finally have my happy place there. I spend a lot of time just making blacksmithing inventory or filling orders in the winter.”

While her blacksmithing business is growing, it’s not enough to supplement Horn’s hoof-care income. However, it’s making her a better farrier.

“Everything you do while horse­shoeing, you do ornamentally, too,” Horn says. “What I was finding a lot with shoe building is that I would get frustrated when I wasn’t achieving what I was trying to achieve. Then, you have a useless horseshoe. Well, when you make a candleholder, all it has to do is be attractive to somebody’s eye.”

As she continued exploring ornamental blacksmithing, she was applying it to horseshoeing.

“If I’m shearing a piece of material down the side of the anvil, in my mind, I‘m thinking, what if a horse was having impact on its foot that was unsupported in some way,” Horn says. “What might happen? Would the heel shear? There’s more to it than the material stuff. I think about the horse and how it can change under different impacts and whatnot. It’s helped me all around.”