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Coping With Hoof Abscesses During The Winter Months

Horsey folk don’t need to be told it has been the wettest December on record as they know from the state of their fields and the condition of their horses’ feet how wet the ground has been. Trying to avoid hoof abscesses is a number one priority this winter for most horse owners but is there anything you can really do or is an abscess just inevitable?

It is true to say that even the best looked after horses can pick up an abscess but there are things owners can do to help look after their horses' feet in these current very wet conditions. This can diminish the likelihood of an abscess and also protect against other issues like bruising caused by a soft sole or thrush, particularly in the frog.  

Here are some simple steps which might just keep your horse the right side of the line.

- Keep your horse’s feet as dry as possible, that can mean keeping them out of the fields but there are other health implications. Horses are designed to move around and stable kept horses are much more likely to succumb to impaction colic than their grass-kept counterparts. Horses out 24/7 need to be given access to drier areas whether that is new grazing that has not become poached or a field shelter with a dry base in it

- Make sure that stable kept horses have clean dry bedding

- Keep up-to-date with shoeing and trimming as a lax farriery routine can be a contributory factor 

- Keep the feet clean by spraying with iodine once a day

- Pick the feet out regularly

- Boost hoof nutrition with an appropriate dietary supplement for horses with a poor quality horn that is prone to cracks

- Use topical treatments to help strengthen hoof horn but make sure that what you are applying doesn’t interfere with the ability of the horse’s hooves to breathe and function properly


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Signs of a hoof abscess

Hoof abscesses can present differently, the first you may know of it could be a hopping lame horse or there could be a mild, more intermittent lameness. The degree of lameness is dictated by the pain; if the abscess is ripe and ready to burst then the horse can be very lame and maybe even non-weight bearing on that foot often described as ‘fracture lame’.

Often, there will be heat in the affected foot spreading up the leg, there may also be filling to the affected leg and almost always, there is a digital pulse present.

Sometimes abscesses can take a while to build so the horse can be mildly lame with no obvious cause or just intermittently lame and then sound again as the pus runs around inside the foot.

The only real confirmation of an abscess is when it has burst so trying to bring it to a head can hasten the process.

How to manage a potential abscess

The vet or farrier can visit and use hoof testers to see if they can pinpoint where the infection is sitting’.  If the abscess is ready to burst, a horse will usually react violently to hoof testers and the farrier may be able to pare away the sole to relieve pressure and burst the abscess.

However, some abscesses can be frustrating when the pus moves around so the horse may show no reaction to hoof testers even though the foot and maybe even the leg is warm or hot to the touch and there is a digital pulse present.

Tubbing the foot in warm water with a handful of Epsom Salts can encourage the pus to collect at a specific point. If the abscess bursts itself then it will usually find its way out through the softest point which could be the bulbs of the heel, the top or side of the frog or the coronary band.  If the farrier can identify the area after a few days of hot tubbing and hot poultices then he may be able to cut away some sole and allow the abscess to drain out through the bottom of the foot.

A combination of hot tubbing, hot poulticing and waiting is usually the only option.  The horse can be turned out during this time providing it is safe to do so as movement can usually help the pus to build. Keeping a poultice on the foot in very wet and muddy conditions can be a real challenge though.

Managing the abscess when it has burst

Keep the foot clean and keep hot tubbing and hot poulticing to encourage all the infection to drain out. This may be the time to keep the horse in the stable as there will either be an open wound at the heel or coronary band or the farrier will have cut away some sole to open up a drainage point. Whatever the exit point, it must be kept clean to prevent reinfection.

Hot poulticing can be followed by dry poulticing and then the exit point will need to be covered with a clean dry dressing until it has healed.

It is usually easier to poultice the foot when the shoe is missing and most farriers will remove the shoe when they are looking for an abscess and leave it off.

Can a hoof abscess be confused with anything else?

It is important to rule out other possibilities and the two other likely candidates are a bruise to the sole which can also be very painful and is a common cause of lameness and a fracture. A fracture to the pedal bone is diagnosed based on the presentation of the horse and usually an X-ray.  Horses with pedal bone fractures can be very lame or mildly lame, it all depends on which part of the pedal bone they have damaged. 

Essential equipment to manage an abscess

- Self stick veterinary bandages commonly known as vetwrap which are used to keep dressings and poultices in place

- Poultices such as Animalintex

- Wadding or veterinary dressing which is basically a layer of cotton wool sandwiched between two layers of gauze. This can be bought on a long roll and cut into smaller pieces to use as a clean dressing or pad to go over the top of a poultice, it can also be cut into sections to clean the foot and dry it after hot tubbing

- Duct tape which should be cut into strips and goes over the top of the vetwrap to act as a waterproof layer


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