The diagnosis of a hoof abscess is something most equestrians are going to have to deal with sooner or later.
It is icky, painful, annoying, and time consuming to figure it out and get it treated. I talk to a lot of horse owners that don’t have a good understanding of what a hoof abscess really is or what to do if it happens to their horse.
What is it?
An abscess is a “localized collection of pus surrounded by inflamed tissue.” A hoof abscess is, therefore, a pocket of infection within the hoof. Horses, like people, can get abscesses virtually anywhere on their bodies, but hoof abscesses are unique—and very common.
Common doesn’t mean normal, though. So even if you have been lucky enough not to have a horse experience one, it’s a good idea to know what to do to make the horse more comfortable and treat the problem appropriately.
Hoof abscesses are particularly painful because the hoof wall contains everything within the hoof so completely. Since it has very limited flexibility, when there is an infection brewing, the pocket of yuck that is forming will begin pressing on the sensitive inner parts of the hoof.
Where do they come from?
Hoof abscesses often form when a piece of dirt, rock, or other debris gets lodged in one of the softer parts of the bottom of the hoof, like the white line. (This is where the term “gravel” for an abscess comes from). The irritant then moves its way further inside the hoof, and the infection starts forming. Sometimes, your farrier might catch it early on during a routine trim, and the little troublemaker can be cleaned out before it becomes a huge problem. Other times, though, you’re not that lucky. Abscesses often work their way up the white line, looking for an exit. In those instances, the abscess will likely burst out at the coronary band, and then the resulting scar will grow out along with the new hoof wall. It’s nothing but an ugly reminder of all that soaking and wrapping you did months ago.
The tried-and-true methods of treating an abscess involves soaking the hoof in Epsom salts and warm water, opening up the pocket with a hoof knife, and antibiotics. Of course, like anything equine, all or none of these treatments may be appropriate depending on your situation. For example, if your horse’s hooves are already a little squishy from standing in mud all day, soaking is just going to make matters worse. If the infection is too deep, your vet or farrier can’t easily open it up without causing a lot of damage. If you just notice there must have been an abscess because your horse now has that telltale mark growing out on his hoof wall, antibiotics are probably no longer needed.
There are other ways besides soaking to try to draw out the infection, like wrapping the hoof in a diaper with a poultice. What you do and how you treat it will totally depend on your individual situation. Consult with the pros and you’ll be on the best road to recovery.
5 key things to know about hoof abscesses
1. It is, by definition, an infection. This means that you need to consult your veterinarian to get appropriate treatment, at least if you catch it while it is active.
2. It was probably not caused by mismanagement. Sure, environmental conditions can set a horse up for hoof trouble, and there may be tweaks you can make to help prevent problems in the future. But if you’re an average horse owner that is doing the best you can for your horse there probably isn’t much you could have done to prevent an abscess. Evaluate the situation, make changes as needed, and don’t beat yourself up over it.
3. Horses with hoof problems are often more prone to abscesses. That’s really fair, right? But if your horse has previously struggled with laminitis or white line disease, that part of his hoof is already compromised and open for trouble. That doesn’t necessarily make those horses harder to treat – you just want to watch them more closely (which you probably already do).
4. It likely looks way worse than it really is. If your horse comes up three-legged lame, it undoubtedly makes you think the worst. Abscesses are very painful, but treated appropriately, they rarely cause long-term damage – and many resolve on their own, before you even knew there was a problem. But…
5. They can be serious. I know, I just told you it probably isn’t a big deal. However, we ARE talking about a painful infection trapped in an integral area of the horse’s body. No hoof, no horse, remember. Don’t hesitate to seek treatment, and be sure to carefully follow the instructions you’re given to make sure your horse recovers fully.
The bottom line with getting an abscess resolved (and attempting to prevent recurrence) is diligence and communication with your hoof care team. They, and you, know your horse and his environment the best. Happy soaking (or not)!
All content is for informational purposes only. Contact your local veterinarian if you have any questions regarding the health of your animals.
About the Author
Nancy Rich-Gutierrez is an IT professional and manages her husband’s farrier company. When she’s not busy with her full-time job or running the office for her farrier, she’s chasing their two-year-old and riding her Arabian horses. Check out the HG Horseshoeing blog at hghorseshoeing.com.