At first sight, hoof abscesses can be scary to see. Fortunately, they are seldom serious and are relatively easy to treat. Read on to learn more about this common condition.

The first time you see a horse with a hoof abscess is an experience you will likely never forget. A familiar scenario is a horse who is perfectly sound at the morning check but dead lame in the afternoon, the pain from the abscess so severe as to sometimes make the horse almost non-weight bearing on an individual hoof. That first sight is so gut-wrenching that your first thoughts automatically flirt with a career-ending injury. The relief you feel when your veterinarian or farrier detects an abscess is so great that you remember to breathe for the first time since you spotted it.

Of course, after that first time, you become a bit more knowledgeable about detecting an abscess. For the most part, you know what to expect about the treatment protocol and recovery ahead and that the likelihood of a successful outcome is a good one. Your fear is not as great as that of the first time. But if the sight of a potential abscess still makes you grimace, read on to learn more about this common equine ailment.

Signs of a hoof abscess

According to Dr. Lois Lassiter, DVM of Budget Vet in Conyers, Georgia, while hoof abscesses can cause subtle lameness if they are still developing, usually they are more acute.

The old saying ‘no hoof, no horse’ has never been truer than when your horse has a hoof abscess. Photo from Pexels.

“The pain is caused by a buildup of fluid in the hoof capsule, which causes pressure,” Lassiter says. “It depends on the cause of the abscess, but it has probably been going on for longer than we realize.”

Lassiter says that if the abscess is caused by a puncture wound, pain expressed as lameness was likely present from the beginning. But if the abscess was the result of a bruise, then it may have first shown as a slight lameness.

“When the abscess organizes and starts to build up fluid, it becomes painful,” Lassiter says.

She explains that, in these instances, the process might take longer, and the abscess might not initially be noticed.

Causes

Abscesses, as previously mentioned, can have a variety of causes. Puncture wounds, sole bruises — particularly common in thin-soled horses — seasonal changes that can cause hooves to expand and contract, allowing bacteria entry through tiny cracks, and improper hoof care are among the most common.

Lassiter explains that some hoof abscesses are sterile, meaning they do not have a bacterial component.

“A sterile abscess is when you get an accumulation of white blood cells, which is pus, but you do not have a bacterial component,” Lassiter says.

She elaborates that this is a common occurrence with sole bruising.

“You get a defect or injury to the sole, and it causes an accumulation of fluid, [then] the white blood cells come to clean it up. It is still an abscess, and though it can be just as painful, it is not bacterial in origin.”

She explains that the best-case scenario for these types of abscesses is for them to come out the bottom of the hoof, often via a drainage tract carved out by a veterinarian or farrier. But sometimes, she says, they erupt through the coronary band — a process that not only takes longer but extends the length of time that the horse is in pain.

Diagnosing an abscess

Lassiter says that, in most cases, veterinarians and farriers are equally capable of diagnosing and treating hoof abscesses. In many cases, she says that abscesses can be diagnosed and treated by the owner. Hoof testers are a common and readily available diagnostic tool that can often allow the user to pinpoint the site of the pain.

Once your horse has experienced an abscess you may find yourself asking if he’s resting a hoof or if it is something more. Photo from Pexels

Of course, other conditions can cause hoof pain that mimics an abscess.

“You should not be able to feel a pulse in your horse’s foot,” Lassiter says. “If you can feel a pulse, then you have got inflammation. Hopefully, it is not laminitis. If you have swelling in the leg, then it is not a regular abscess.”

Lassiter explains that true bacterial abscesses can get into the tendon and progressively go up the leg, which will cause swelling in the leg and does indicate veterinarian involvement. Because these types of abscesses cannot be drained, antibiotics are prescribed in these cases. It is always recommended to call your veterinarian for further direction anytime you are uncertain of the cause of the pain.

While veterinarians can write prescriptions, she says that antibiotics, in the usual sense, are typically frowned upon.

“[If the abscess is not opened and drained], sometimes antibiotics mask them,” Lassiter says. “They make the horse feel better, but the abscess is still there.”

She explains that if there is a bacterial component to the abscess, the antibiotic may tamp it down for a while, but as soon as the drug is stopped, it returns.

Treatment

General treatment for hoof abscesses, Lassiter says, involves opening and draining them, but how this is accomplished varies. While opening and draining can be accomplished quickly with a hoof knife, though the process takes longer, it can also be done by frequently soaking the hoof in a warm Epsom salt bath and afterward wrapping the hoof or booting it with a drawing poultice until the abscess erupts. Regardless of the chosen method, Lassiter says that once the pressure is relieved, the horse often feels fine. After that, the hoof need only be kept clean and protected until the wound heals.

Seasonal changes in the weather can cause hooves to expand and contract allowing bacteria entry through tiny cracks. Photo from Pexels

Lassiter says that, occasionally, the drainage tract may seal over, and the horse will become lame again. She explains that this is easily remedied by re-opening it. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs may be required if pain relief cannot immediately be accomplished through draining.

Recovery

Lassiter says that if the horse is not in pain, it can be ridden during the recovery period as long as the drainage area, particularly if located on the sole of the hoof, can be protected. The movement from exercise, she says, will accelerate healing. She explains that complete recovery time will vary by horse, but if the horse is not in pain and the site is healing, there is no need to worry.

A sign of trouble

While it can be common for hoof abscesses to develop, unless there is a known underlying condition, such as the hoof is recovering from the trauma of laminitis, it is not common for abscesses to be frequent. White line disease, a nutritional deficiency, and improper hoof care are some of the reasons that frequent hoof abscesses can occur and require further investigation. Lassiter says that horses allowed frequent access to pasture are among the healthiest because the constant movement associated with grazing helps to keep hooves healthy.

Prevention

Finally, while it is not possible to completely prevent abscesses, Lassiter says that providing hoof protection for thin-soled horses when riding in rocky areas, good nutrition, staying on top of farrier care and paying attention to all areas of your horse’s health care needs can work in your and your horse’s favor.

While diagnosing and treating your first hoof abscess may be a memorable experience, it will allow you to gain the necessary confidence to treat the next one like a pro.

Author

Hope Ellis-Ashburn writes and teaches about agriculture. While her writing has been featured in more than a dozen agricultural and equine publications, she is also the author of three books. Her latest release is a riding diary, New Horse Journal. In addition to her writing and teaching, Hope and her family operate their Tennessee Century Farm, an Angus cow-calf beef operation with resident horses, donkeys, and dogs, in the Sequatchie Valley of Southeast Tennessee. You can learn more about Hope and her award-winning work by visiting her website, https://redhorseonaredhill.pubsitepro.com.

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