Q: What is the best way to draw out a hoof abscess? I am receiving conflicting advice from the professionals who work on my horse. My veterinarian says to poultice, but my farrier says to just leave it alone, as poultice will soften the sole and make the foot more prone to injury.

A: Actually, both your farrier and veterinarian are correct. A poultice and foot wrap are meant to draw out the infection more quickly than just letting time do its job. Keeping the hoof wet all the time definitely makes it soft, especially in a white-hooved horse. One way or the other, an abscess needs to drain to relieve pressure (and pain) and to get the infection out so healing can happen.

Similarly, controversy surrounds whether or not to give antibiotics for a foot abscess. Modern thinking suggests that antibiotics do not get into abscesses because there is no blood supply in an abscess; and that antibiotics do not go to the foot very well as the blood supply there is poor anyhow. Yet for decades, horse owners, farriers and veterinarians have prescribed oral antibiotics to treat foot abscesses.

Ideally, your farrier should identify the location of the abscess, pare down the hoof so it can drain, and then you can apply a drawing salve to draw out the infection without affecting the entire hoof. There will be a hole in your horse’s hoof (whether made by the farrier, veterinarian, or nature when the abscess ruptures) and you want the infection out, not more dirt and bacteria in. Use short soaks or hosing to keep the area clean, fill the hole with a drawing salve, and keep the hoof clean and dry until the hoof wall heals.

Q: My mare has begun peeing as soon as I take her saddle off after every ride. She never used to do this. Should I be worried about this change in behavior?

A: This is definitely a reason to be concerned. Any behavior change is an indication of a problem. This particular behavior can suggest anything from pain to infection.

There are a few different things to check to figure out what’s going on. First, when you remove your saddle, is your mare’s back evenly wet everywhere the saddle was? Also, look at the line at the end of the saddle which often corresponds to the lower back, where the kidneys are. Is there sweat there also? Or is there a crease in the flesh? A dry spot, especially over the kidneys, suggests your saddle isn’t fitting right and is the cause of her problems.

Check the underside of your saddle and make sure the tree is solid and not broken. Check your saddle pads for wear, ensuring they are an even thickness all over. Even a saddle pad that breaks down and causes wear can make a difference, and create pain on your horse’s back.

Next, have your veterinarian check a blood and urine sample to look for systemic infection, kidney disease, or bladder infection. Depending on the age of your mare, it is normal for kidneys to start to age along with the horse, but you shouldn’t notice changes in the bloodwork until 60% or 70% of the kidneys functioning abnormally. This tends to happen at a fairly advanced age.

Once your mare passes a standard veterinary exam, it’s time to check for chiropractic issues; is the location of the saddle on your horse’s back making her uncomfortable and “out of alignment”? Does your mare flinch when you touch her lower back? Are her muscles warm in that area? Veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (chiropractic) can restore comfort, motion and health to your mare, once all the other issues mentioned above have been addressed.

Q: I have seen some equine shampoos labeled “pH balanced”. What is the pH of a horse’s skin, and would using these products actually make a difference to his well-being?

A: There is very little regulation in the grooming product industry. In fact, the only products regulated by a government agency are those that contain insecticide (the EPA in this case). This means the quality of ingredients and the pH range of any shampoo can be quite broad.

Interestingly, human shampoos tend to have more pH range than animal products. Most shampoos should be close to the neutral pH of 7.0 – the pH of normal, healthy skin. So a balanced shampoo will have a pH somewhere between 6.0 and 8.0. Human shampoos can range from a pH of 3.0 all the way to 10.0! (Smaller numbers are more acid, higher numbers are more alkaline.)

So, if a horse shampoo tells you it’s pH balanced, that’s a good first step in identifying a quality product. The next thing you would like your grooming products to do is list their ingredients. Sadly, there is no law that says they have to list ingredients; manufacturers will cite proprietary recipes as a reason for not doing so. However, if a horse breaks out in hives because of a new grooming product, you will want to know exactly what the ingredients are to find out what caused the allergic reaction. A shampoo manufacturer who will not share this information, citing proprietary discretion, is not helping the consumer.

The next thing to look for is a shampoo that contains more natural ingredients and fewer surfactants. Surfactants are the chemicals that make lots of bubbles and give the perception of extra cleanliness; SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) — a petroleum derivative – is an example.

Scrutinizing your horse’s shampoo can actually be quite a science. Beginning with a balanced pH is a great start.

Q: I have an elderly gelding with arthritis in both knees. He is fully retired, receives as much turnout as possible, and gets daily Previcox. He is generally quite a happy fellow – he enjoys his horse friends and is in good weight and health. I have, however, noticed some changes lately – he is slowing down, tends to look off in front, and doesn’t really lie down (or roll) anymore that we can tell. I am concerned about keeping him comfortable heading into the colder months. Is there anything else you would do for him? I know that we will soon likely have to make a decision about his quality of life, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.

A: Arthritis is a complicated, and emotional, issue. As we age, we all have inflammation in our joints that makes us creak and pop as we walk, regardless of our species. Yet having arthritis also makes us think about quality-of-life issues, since it can become quite painful. Consequently, we often give nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as Previcox.

Regardless of species, daily use of anti-inflammatory medication becomes pro-inflammatory. As horse owners, we give anti-inflammatory medications because we want our horses to feel better. Sadly, long-term use of these medications can cause serious, and harmful, side effects. These side effects can range from worsening arthritis to intestinal bleeding and ulceration.

Alternatively, approaches ranging from herbal medications to physical-type therapies can have fewer side effects. These therapies are based on the knowledge that movement inhibits pain, so the more your horse moves around the better. It can be as simple as walking on a lead line, or physical therapy.

Medically, there are nice homeopathic and herbal remedies for the arthritic horse. Arnica Montana has been used for centuries to treat arthritic pain. Herbals such as Devil’s Claw and Boswellia can help. Herbal pharmacies make some great blends. Nutraceuticals like glucosamine and hyaluronic acid help arthritis patients.

Massage, chiropractic, and acupuncture are fabulous physical modalities to help your horse feel better. Each of these treatments creates movement, which stimulates the body to naturally release its own beta-endorphins, reducing pain and restoring function to the elderly patient. There are even some newer therapies that can help the painful horse, including magnet blankets and electromagnetic fields therapy – called PEMF.

Since your horse has been on Previcox for quite some time, it’s worth considering whether or not he has intestinal or stomach ulcers. There are some nice oral aloe blends that can be given over two or three months to help with such problems. And if you couple it with the natural treatments, your horse is going to feel better than he ever has before — simply by reducing the inflammation in his body.

Another thing to think about is that food is the greatest source of inflammation for horses. Rather than feed the standard pellet, look for a whole-grain feed, not one based on grain by-products and waste from the human food industry. Hay and flaxseed diets are wonderful sources of nutrition for the elderly horse. When needed, beet pulp can definitely help older horses pack on some weight in the winter.