You walk out to your barn in the morning and you see your horse three-legged or toe-touching lame and unwilling to walk. You start to panic, hoping it’s not something serious. However, you know he was fine last night and had been in his stall, so what could it be?
Most likely, it’s a hoof abscess. Hoof abscesses are caused by trauma such as stepping on a nail, a piece of wood, or any sharp object that could penetrate the sole, white line (the junction between the hoof wall and the sole), or the frog, and let bacteria inside the hoof capsule. Sometimes a penetrating object such as a nail can result in infection of the deeper structures of the foot and require more extensive medical or surgical treatment. Always have your veterinarian assess the problem.
If your horse continually stands in very dry conditions, it also makes it easier for the sole to be penetrated by bacteria from cracks caused by the dryness; or if he continually stands in wet conditions, the soft soles that result are more easily penetrated by rocks or sticks. The bacteria then settles in and begins multiplying, which thus creates an abscess of puss in the lamina. Since there is not much free space inside the hoof, as the abscess grows (which they do very quickly), it becomes very painful for the horse and the pressure needs to be released. The abscess tries to find the path of least resistance to get out—usually it will come out at either the top on the coronary band or through the entry hole in the sole of the hoof. If the abscess has not presented itself out yet, there are ways to allow it to drain.
The main signs of an abscess include: the horse being a four out of five on the lameness scale (lame at the walk), increased digital pulse on affected hoof, hoof feels warm to the touch, and sensitive to hoof testers—more so in the area where the abscess resides within.
To determine whether your horse in fact has an abscess, first, check the affected leg for signs of injury—laceration, heat, swelling, etc. Second, feel the hoof—does it feel warmer than usual, and does the horse have an increased digital pulse? Check the hoof for any puncture wounds or dark holes on the sole. If your veterinarian is on site, they may want to take radiographs of the hoof to rule out a fracture and to see if there are gas pockets. They may also do a nerve block to ensure the lameness is coming from the hoof.
After confirming the issue is an abscess and cleaning out the hoof thoroughly, your veterinarian or farrier may use a paring knife to trim the sole and frog down to get a clearer view of where the hole might be draining. Once they have located the area, they will use the knife to open the abscess and drain it. You will notice a thick white/yellow/green puss.
Once the abscess has been drained, prepare a bandage for your horse to put onto the hoof using an antiseptic dressing such as iodine or betadine as well as a poultice pad and apply where the hole is open. Many people will use a diaper for this and wrap it in duct tape, while others will use a hoof boot. You may use what you have available as long as it is waterproof and can be secured.
Change the bandage every 24 hours or if it becomes loose. The abscess should be drained within 3 days but can take 7-10 days to fully heal. You should notice the horse feeling much more comfortable a few hours after the abscess has been draining. Keep him in a dry, small area such as a clean stall or a medical paddock. Phenylbutazone or another NSAID may be used to reduce pain and inflammation to keep your horse comfortable. Also, you should consider asking your veterinarian for a tetanus vaccination incase the horse stepped on a nail or metal object.
Hoof abscesses are fairly common and luckily are easy to treat—but be sure to always contact your veterinarian at any sign of an injury to ensure that it’s not something more serious.