Slip Sliding Away

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As the temperature dips and horses’ coats grow long, water around the farm begins to freeze. In many spots, that frozen water can become treacherous, for both human and horse. What are some ways to deal with the potential hazard?

Prevention is Key

The best way to deal with ice, explains Sandy Gagnon, Equine Extension Specialist at Montana State University, is to keep it from ever forming. “You need to minimize the problem by preventing ice build-up, and there are a few things you can do to help. First, for all structures that have metal roofs, be sure that they have ‘snow slides’ [editor ’s note: also known as snow guards] on them. These slides prevent snow from shooting off and piling up in front of doorways, where it thaws, then freezes and creates a lot of ice. With snow slides, the snow melts on the roof and goes down the gutters.

“The second thing you should do,” continues Gagnon, “is to make sure the land is graded away from your buildings and away from your outdoor waterers. This will prevent a lot of ice build-up, as the water and snow—as they melt and refreeze—will flow away from areas where humans and equines travel.”

Salt and Other Deicers

Even with the best preventative measures, you may still have icy spots around the farm. In certain regions of the country, ice storms are not uncommon. Other problems are caused by snow blowing into doorways, melting and then freezing before it can be removed. Outdoors, a small paddock that is muddy and rutted during the late fall can suddenly turn to a block of ice overnight. What can you do?

In the past, salt, or a mixture of sand and salt, has been the most popular choice for melting ice and adding traction. Sprinkling salt on cement walkways, doorways, arena entrys and in problem spots in paddocks has been the solution. Ice is melted quickly as the salt lowers the freezing point of water, working in temperatures down to approximately 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Rock salt, or sodium chloride, is probably the most popular and cost-effective choice.

Salt, however, has come under attack in recent years for several reasons, the foremost being salt’s effect on the environment. “Sodium chloride and calcium chloride can cause severe problems with a plant’s physiology,” says Dr. William Hutchinson, past dean of science and engineering at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Mass. “It can also impede the osmotic movement of water into plants, particularly evergreen plants, causing desiccation and death. Such salt build-up will impact forage plants and allow for a variety of ‘poverty grasses’ to invade the area.”

Salt can also damage concrete as the freeze-thaw cycle it causes creates cracks or increases the size of existing damage, as well as discoloring the cement. Note, too, that most deicers should never be used on new concrete that has cured less than a year.

Magnesium chloride, another salt variant, is corrosive, so use caution around metal gates and fences. Hutchinson adds that, “Salt, when used on a concrete surface, can cause spalling (flaking and chipping) and shorten the life of the cement.”

It’s commonly stated that salt is bad for horses’ hooves. Is it really? “I do not know of any scientific evidence that salt is bad for feet,” notes Dr. Tracy Turner of Anoka Equine Veterinary Services in Elk River, Minn. With expertise in equine lameness, navicular disease, orthopedics, podiatry, and back issues, Dr. Turner has studied the hoof extensively and he has found no reason for concern. “We certainly use salt solutions to soak feet for abscesses, usually MgSO4 salt, without problems. I could see where people might believe it would excessively dry the foot, but practically and under winter conditions of ice and snow, drying the foot is usually not a problem.”

If you don’t want to use salt, “alternatives are available which minimize the environmental impact or eliminate them entirely,” says Hutchinson. “Look for deicing products composed of urea, potassium chloride, magnesium, and calcium carbonate. These are all compounds which are common fertilizer compounds and which act like a weak fertilizer. This mixture has the same ability to lower the freezing point of water, allowing for continuing flow away from the building and walkways. These products are in low concentrations so ‘plant burn’ should not be a problem. Still,” Hutchinson advises, “you should not exceed the recommended application dosage. A newer method is to apply a liquid mix of a molasses product prior to a storm to prevent ice build-up but this requires application equipment.”

There are also several non-toxic, environmentally friendly and effective products available, says Ken Jokisch of Interstate Products, Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. “When purchasing these products,” explains Jokisch, “you should look for several things. There should be nothing hazardous, or toxic, in the product. That means no alcohol, salt, brine [salt mixed with water], chlorides or magnesium. Look for a neutral pH, and also a product that is non-corrosive, which means your metal gates won’t be affected.”

A Cover-Up

A common practice when dealing with ice is to add traction to the trouble spots by adding other material on top of the ice. Bedding—sawdust or shavings, sand, straw, and even cat litter—is used with varying degrees of effectiveness. Cat litter will add some traction, although it does little to melt the ice and it is expensive. Sand is less costly and more effective. Avoid using wood planks to make a quick bridge, as the wood can quickly become quite slippery. Used bedding materials may allow horses to pass safely, while rubber mats are effective until they’ve been out in a storm and they, too, become slippery.

But used bedding creates other issues. Notes Gagnon, “if you’re putting old bedding over ice, that bedding becomes an insulator and keeps the area under the bedding cooler. So the ice will stay there much longer than in surrounding areas. Also, in the spring, when you go to move the old bedding out, there will still be ice underneath and the whole area can become a real mess. You’re better off if you keep your paddocks clean than to put old bedding in them.”

There is no one, easy solution to rid your barn of ice. The best option is to minimize the problem before it starts by preventing water build-up with proper drainage, and then to judiciously use environmental- and horse-friendly deicers for the remaining problem spots.