Chances are, you’ve had to deal with at least one hoof abscess. At times, the symptoms are dramatic – the horse may be lame and in obvious pain. In other cases, you may not recognize the condition at all until you discover evidence that an abscess has occurred. Either way, taking these infections seriously can help you plan for a sounder horse.
The hoof is a marvel of nature. It is a durable, tough, constantly renewable structure that serves as an impressive barrier against the world in which the horse lives. It is in constant contact with the elements. Sometimes, though, the conditions that contribute to optimal hoof health break down. When a horse becomes lame and has difficulty bearing weight and walking, one of the most likely culprits is a hoof abscess.
What is a hoof abscess?
An abscess is an infection. It occurs when bacteria or other microorganisms are introduced into the sensitive structures within the hoof. Pus forms as the body tries to rid itself of the infection. Since the hoof cannot expand to accommodate the collection of pus, and since the tissues may be inflamed, pain is the result.
What should I do?
If you suspect a hoof abscess, it’s best to call your farrier or barefoot trim specialist. When skilled in abscess care, the farrier or barefoot trim specialist can facilitate drainage of the abscess and make recommendations regarding continued treatment and prevention.
In all abscesses, the horse’s pain is caused by accumulating pus and inflamed tissues. Pus is a liquid, and once the pressure begins to build it will follow the path of least resistance as the hoof prepares to “drain itself”. Often this path of least resistance is the coronary band, sole and/ or the heel bulb area. If the hoof wall has cracks or weak areas, these may become drainage pathways. If you consult your farrier/natural trimmer prior to the abscess finding its own drain, he may be able to isolate the abscess and manually create a “drain”. A normal abscess will exit within one to two weeks of the first signs of occurrence.
In other cases, the involved area may be too deep, too large, or difficult to identify, taking away the option of creating a drainage path. If the abscess must heal on its own, a poultice may speed up the process and alleviate some of the pain.
In all cases, one of the most commonly overlooked parts of the treatment is the necessity for the hoof to move. In other words, turnout should not be restricted and walking in safe areas should be encouraged. In fact, horses with draining abscesses do well with regular walks and adequate turnout. Moving the foot facilitates drainage and promotes normal blood flow and structural support. Restricting a horse to a stall that will become littered with contaminants (urine and manure) and will not permit him to move the foot naturally, will only serve to delay and complicate his recovery. Good nutrition, clean conditions, hoof soaks, and exercise will promote good hoof health.
Knowing the signs of an abscess and implementing a simple holistic prevention program (see sidebar) will help ensure your horse never has to suffer the effects of this painful condition.
Sherri Pennanen is a certified United Horsemanship Horse Groom who serves Western New York and Southern Ontario. Natural, balanced trims and holistic horse care are the hallmarks of Sherri’s farrier business. She has studied under experts such as Pete Ramey, Jim Crew and Dr. Bowker. A certified hoof care specialist, Sherri says one of the best rewards for her work is being told by customers that the horses she trims “play again”. Visit her website at www.betterbebarefoot.com.