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When your horse is developing an abscess, your daily care will play a big factor in the prompt recovery of your animal, regardless of his age or breed. Especially when caught early, an abscess is easily treated. In such case, there's a good chance your horse will recover completely within 2 to 3 days. However, if the abscess is not detected early and left unattended, the infection usually follows the route of least resistance, from the point of entry traveling-up the hoof wall and out the coronary band. In the process, the abscess destroys sensitive structures and generates more pus within the foot. That is why you need to be aware and alert to your horse behavior. Remember, early detection will minimize the amount of physical damage and of pain endured by your horse.

What is an Abscess
A hoof abscess is an internal infection in the hoof soft tissues. The natural healing defense mechanism of your horse sets off a reaction against the bacteria contained within the debris invading the dermal tissue, leading to an inflammation – the abscess.

The neutrophils, or white blood cells, migrate to the hoof to fight the present bacteria. As the neutrophils die, it causes the formation of pus. Over time, this inflammation will cause more pus to form, resulting in an increased pressure in the hoof. The pressure buildup is directly proportional to the accumulation of the pus.

In addition, during movement the horse has to continuously bear weight on his affected leg while the abscess is brewing in his hoof capsule. Within a few hours, the sub-solar abscess will start to cause mild pain building up to a more severe pain, often to the point that the horse is unwilling to bear weight on his affected limb.

Abscess can result from a bruised sole from stepping on a stone, or from repeated concussion, such as numerous landing on hard ground, or moving on hard surfaces. Occasionally, a hot nail or some bacteria entering via a crack in the hoof wall can be the root of an abscess. Unfortunately, abscesses can happen at any time to any horse. It is more common in heavy, small-hoofed horses because of the weight-to-hoof-surface-area ratio is greater in these horses.

As most of you have experienced it, one day your horse is fine, the other he is lame… However, when the inflammation becomes acute due to the excessive amount of pus you see a severe grade lameness, 4 to 5 out of 5. A characteristic of an abscess is the strong digital pulse present by the hoof, with the strongest pulse on the side of the abscess.
In the case of a long standing abscess, you might see some swelling in the pastern and even above the fetlock on the affected leg.

Many professional use hoof testers to assess the hoof and help diagnose a hoof abscess. When the abscess is present, the hoof tester examination will often show pain over the entire sole, however with one particular area being the most painful.

Farriers will often use a hoof knife to clean the sole and it will usually reveal a black spot in the sole, the result of the bacterial presence into the hoof.

There are several ways to drain an abscess:

  • Soak in hot water, with or without Epsom salt, to soften hard hooves so that it is easier to pare the sole to expose and drain an abscess. However, many thinks this practice is detrimental to the integrity of the hoof wall structure and damages the foot's protective barrier leading to other structural and pathological problem.
  • Poultices such as Animalintex or with Epsom salts to drain the pus outward. There are kits with all the bandaging materials fitted for the horse's foot (such as HOOFix), or you can make one yourself. See video E040  on poultices
  • Packing the hoof with
  • Nerve block, to allow the horse to walk until he pops his abscess at the coronary band.
  • Finding the abscess with hoof testers and knife combination seems to be popular.
  • Creating an opening, a hole, of sufficient size to allow drainage.
  • Bandaging the hoof with an antiseptic such as Betadine solution/ointment or 2% iodine until all drainage has ceased and the wound has dried.

An efficient way to treat the affected hoof is to apply a localized combination of poultices and soak bandages. They work well to bring the abscess out. When the drainage of the abscess is over and your horse is sound you should have your farrier replace the shoe.

A lot of veterinarians prefer to find the abscess with the hoof testers and will choose to make it drain out from the bottom. They believe this method reduces recurrence. This way, drainage done at the onset of lameness, before the infection ruptures at the coronet band will reduce damage to the hoof structures and allow the horse to improve within 24 to 48 hours.

Relaxing your Horse
Soreness in one of his hoof will cause your horse to move his body weight onto his other legs to avoid pressure in the affected one. This will result in an increased muscle tension over his withers, hips and neck. Gentle massage will help reduce this compensatory muscular tension. The affected leg will show even more tension over its entirety due to the soreness/pain and the constant effort to keep weight off it. Your regular massage sessions will secure some good circulation of fluid, both blood and lymph, which in turn will get good supply of oxygen, nutrients and assist the natural removal of toxins. This will assist the horse natural healing capacity.

Preventing an Abscess
Prevention focuses on building a strong sole-wall and white line junction. Consult with your farrier to develop a regular shoeing schedule. If you live in wet condition or when your horse is being bathed frequently, consider the use hoof hardeners, such as Keratex, and also use shavings or sawdust for bedding, it can also help harden the feet. On the other end, if you live in dry weather, use a hoof dressing and paint it on the entire foot to help soften the hoof capsule.

A hoof abscess can sneak up on you in a hurry, but with proper care and attention, you can minimize the damage and your horse's downtime. If you suspect your horse has an abscess, work with your veterinarian and farrier to resolve it quickly. Remember, early detection can save a lot of time and soreness to your horse. And also, as the horse owner you should review your horse's tetanus immunization status.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found the information useful.  My goal is help you provide quality home care for the benefit of your animal.

Please visit our FREE library. Our many articles address important aspects of animal wellness and fitness. Take the time to scroll through our free library to find out how you can actively contribute to your horse’s wellness.

Animal Awareness also offers a large video library with over a 100 mini-videos that will show you how to easily perform the various massage and stretching techniques talked about in this article, and more. These videos offer you the correct start and visual guidance. With this knowledge, you will be able to develop a good home care program for the benefit of your animal friend.  He will love you for it.

Enjoy your new Awareness!

Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, LMT

The “Full Body Massage” (EV006) will greatly assist the horse afflicted with an abscess. The “Stretching Exercises” (EV007) will maximize the benefit of your home-care program.

The “Trigger Point Massage Technique” (EV010) and the “Stress Point Massage Technique” (EV011) are strongly recommended to assist the muscular compensation often seen abscess cases.

If you are just starting with your home-care program, consider our “Introduction to Animal Massage” package,a 20% discount value on the first 7 DVDs, to secure a sound foundation in your equine massage skills. Then take advantage of our other packages to increase your knowledge of home-care protocols for the benefit of your horse(s).