magazine for northwest
sporthorse  enthusiasts


Surviving Northwest Winters:
An Interview with Farrier Phil Smith

by Lauren Davis Baker

All photos courtesy of Dale Derry (

Phil Smith is a tall, lean character whose eyes light up when he starts talking horses. Keeping horses sound is one of his passions—serious business that involves a head to tail look at the horse and his environment.

With yet another wet winter just beginning (those of you living on the “dry side” can read this and smirk), we asked Phil for his suggestions on keeping our horses’ feet healthier and happier.

One of the things we often hear is that our Northwest environment is hard on the horse’s hooves. We go from extreme wet to extreme dry. We asked Phil if that, indeed, is true.

“Actually, no,” Phil says, “Our summers are just a break in the wet weather. Not actually long enough to let oversaturated feet dry out. The wet side of the Northwest just isn’t a natural horse environment.”

That being acknowledged, what can we do to help our horses? “Controlling ground water is critical,” Phil says. “You want to avoid having standing water in stalls, paddocks, and pastures, if possible.” Ouch. We all know that’s easier said than done.

Grading pastures and paddocks is time-consuming and expensive. Worse yet, the job isn’t done yet. “To really do it right, you’ll need to put down compacted rock, such as 3/4 minus, which allows water to pass through the rock.” Phil explains that the rock also develops sole density in the horse’s foot, while exfoliating tissue, trimming and shaping the horse’s foot.

What about paddock footings in addition to rock? “I think sand and pea gravel are good solutions,” Phil says. “They’re easier to clean than compacted rock.” As for hogsfuel, a Northwest favorite, Phil gives it a thumbs down. “Hogsfuel is wood, which contains bacteria and fungus,” he says. “It holds moisture and is in a constant state of decomposing. While it’s nice for us (humans) to walk on, it’s hard to clean and soaks up uritic acid.”

While Phil likes pelleted wood beddings for stalls, he notes that they’re a really expensive solution for paddocks. “The wood pellets are made of compressed, dried sawdust,” he notes, “which means they don’t contain moisture and they’ve been sterilized by the pressurizing process. In contrast, it’s hard to find wood shavings that are really dry—which, again, invites bacteria. If you do use shavings, you need to clean stalls every day and end up throwing out a lot of footing. The best come from kiln-dried wood, as from cabinet shops and places that do finished woodwork.”

“When using wood, watch for toxic woods, such as black walnut which makes horses laminitic. Some horses are also allergic to cedar,” Phil notes. “Watch for allergic bumps and respiratory problems. On the other hand, cedar has natural antifungal, antibacterial properties. So, if your horse can tolerate it, cedar footing may be a good choice for him.”

“Of all the available footings, straw is my least favorite,” Phil says. “It’s difficult to clean and doesn’t displace urine. Stalls smell bad and the horses tend to have a higher incidence of hoof fungus. I prefer no bedding to straw.”

If you do stall your horse, Phil recommends that you don’t pick his feet at night. “Leave a dirt pack to protect his feet from urine and feces. Clean the feet in the morning to remove manure and let him get a fresh mud pack,” he suggests.

Common wet-weather hoof problems include: fungal infections and/or bacterial infections that reside in the living tissues of the frog, sole, hoof wall, and laminae. “You’ll find chalky, flaky tissue where it shouldn’t be,” Phil says. “Pockets of infection can work their way deep into the hoof.”

How quickly can infection spread? If my horse’s feet are professionally cared for every six weeks, is that often enough to prevent a minor infection from becoming a major problem? “It depends on the horse,” Phil says. “If you put a shoe over hoof rot it creates an anaerobic environment (one where bacteria grows more quickly). Or, if your horse is improperly trimmed—long in the toe or imbalanced, it also makes his foot more susceptible to infection.”

In addition, the overall condition of the horse is a factor to how susceptible his feet are to problems. A healthy horse with a strong immune system naturally has more resistance to bacteria and fungus in his environment.

“This is controversial,” Phil says, “but I’ve seen evidence that over-worming and over-vaccinating hurt foot health. This isn’t true with all horses, but some horses simply can’t tolerate as much worming and vaccinating as others. In some horses, these treatments actually lower the immune system—moving toxins out of the body via the foot.”

“We had a Thoroughbred who abscessed frequently until we stopped using a chemical wormer and began using an herbal wormer,” Phil says. “Some horses are just more sensitive than others.”

Phil also recommends pulling shoes in winter when possible. Again, shoes trap moisture in the foot, creating an anaerobic environment. “The majority of horses do better without shoes,” Phil says. “It allows the foot to function correctly. No matter how well we apply a shoe, it still impedes the normal function of the foot.” Phil is quick to point out that in cases of therapeutic shoeing, some horses do benefit from year-round shoeing.

What about those topical hoof treatments? “Avoid products like Rainmaker,” Phil says. “We just don’t need it here.” Phil does like Kopertox (and similar products) for preventive maintenance. “It doesn’t kill thrush,” he says, “but it will prevent it if applied twice a day to healthy feet.” If your horse is already infected with thrush, use Iodine or ThrushX-like fungicides twice a week as needed, as long as there’s standing water on the ground.

Another solution Phil uses to dry feet combines equal parts of Turpentine (not the synthetic substitutes); Acetone; and Iodine. “This helps dry a supersaturated foot,” Phil says. “Use it twice a day if your horse has become hypersensitive; use it once to twice a week if conditions are very wet but your horse doesn’t show sensitivity.”

An alternative is a mix of equal parts sugar and 7% Tincture of Iodine. “Mix it until it’s like paste, put it on the foot, and then wrap it,” Phil says. “It’s great for hoof rot if you leave it in place for about a week.”

Contrary to popular belief, mud doesn’t cause abscesses. Phil attributes abscesses to the following causes: improper balance in the foot; internal toxins; injuries; drastically reshaping the foot; and internal changes such as founder. “Mud does compromise the foot,” Phil says, “making it more susceptible to injuries and abscesses—but it doesn’t actually cause an abscess.”

One of the more common problems Phil sees as a direct result of wet feet is hypersensitivity due to over hydrating. Sensitivity can vary from mild to severe. “The horse will be sore in his entire foot,” Phil says. “The foot is often soft, like a sponge. Some horses won’t want to move; in the worst cases, they don’t want to stand.” This is an emergency situation, as it can cause stress founder. Phil recommends using the sugar pack or iodine treatment and putting your horse in the driest stall possible. “We see these conditions a lot in places that have too many horses in too small of a space,” Phil notes. “Fortunately, horses’ feet adapt reasonably well and respond quickly to changes in environment.”

Phil emphasizes that movement is critical to create a healthy foot. “The more movement, the more blood and nutrients move through the foot,” he explains. “A healthy foot is less susceptible to bacteria and fungus. Once tissue starts to die, a cycle of deterioration starts.” For this reason, Phil prefers not to see horses stalled around the clock. “Yes, if you stall your horse he’ll have drier feet, but he’ll be more prone to fungus, thrush, and hoof rot from the standing urine in his stall. In my experience, stalled horses are the most susceptible to having hoof problems.”

Nearly as problematic are horses who are in mud constantly. “These horses are also high risk,” Phil says. “What’s best is a balance—a place for horses to be horses and get their exercise and a place for them to come in and dry out. The movement is critical to keeping their feet healthy—as is maintaining their overall health through balanced nutrition, proper foot care, and an environment where they can dry out at least some of the time.” So, while it’s not easy to maintain healthy hooves throughout our winters, a balanced approach to foot care will give your horse his best shot at remaining sound—and happy—through the season.

Phil Smith, Sport Horse Shoeing, is a 1999 graduate of Mission Farrier School, the first formal education program in the world to incorporate Natural Balance principles into its curriculum. After graduation he spent six months apprenticing with a local Vet/Farrier. Phil is an avid horseman who has competed in Eventing, A Circuit Jumpers and Dressage. He lives in the Oregon City area with his wife and six horses. Phil can be reached at (503) 380-0217 or

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