Abscesses can occur in a horse’s feet at any time of year but the end of winter is a favourite time for them after the horse has endured a wet season, particularly this year. Abscesses are annoying but ultimately not that serious.
Abscesses can affect any of the horse’s hooves and is simply an infection. Bacteria from the wet ground has penetrated at some point and built up inside the hoof. Because the hoof is a hard, sealed capsule the infection thrives and has nowhere to escape from, a bit like toothache. And just like toothache, abscesses can be very painful.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms:-
A horse with a bad abscess can look like he has a broken leg so they can be quite worrying in appearance but in fact are usually quite trivial. Once the pressure has been relieved, a lame horse can miraculously come sound in almost a matter of minutes. Some horses take longer.
It is not usual to prescribe antibiotics for the horse but to find the abscess and release it from the foot. The vet or farrier can do this. Using hoof testers which work around the foot and pinch it, they create additional pressure until an area of intense pain is identified. It is then possible to pare away some of the sole and often if the abscess is very ripe, it will burst at that point. Otherwise a track is created and hot tubbing and poulticing will encourage the abscess to drain out at this weaker point.
Sometimes abscesses run around the sole of the foot and the horse may have mild symptoms for a couple of weeks or longer. It is hard to get them out until they reach a head so if possible you want the horse to be as lame as possible as then the abscess is easier to pin point. Sometimes an abscess will find its own exit point and erupt by itself. This may be the soft area of the heel or the coronary band where the skin joins the hoof.
Usually once the location has been identified, the farrier or vet will create a track to encourage the abscess to leak out. If your horse is shod, the shoe may need to come off. Hot tubbing the foot – standing it in bowl of warm water – and then applying a poultice will help draw out the infection. If the abscess has already burst, it is usual to hot tub the foot to clean and flush it and also poultice to encourage any remaining pus to come out.
A poultice is a pre prepared dressing which encourages the release of infection and bacteria. Applying a poultice is fiddly and it can be quite hard especially if there is no-one to help you. Here are some top tips:-
It is difficult to do all this without the horse putting his foot to the floor so you need to be quick and efficient. Keep the table and your tray within reach. Trousers with pockets on their legs are useful to drop scissors into. If the light is not sufficiently good, a head lamp/miner’s lamp is an excellent addition to a stable yard vet box to provide better light at close quarters whilst leaving your hands free. You can add further strips of duck tape across the front of the hoof once it is on the floor o protect the poultice and keep it in place.
A poultice should be changed every 24 hours. You will need curved scissors or a farrier’s knife to cut away the dressing to avoid causing injury to the horse. It is usual to wet poultice for two days and then follow up with a dry poultice until the dressing comes off clean. Pus will be evident on the poultice both visually and from the smell, it will range in colour from pale and creamy to black which indicates it has been present in the hoof for a while. Some people use nappies to cover the foot so the horse can go out in the field. Owners worry about turning the horse out in mud and it is not ideal in very bad conditions if the horse has a track in his foot despite the poultice but the stable environment is not sterile either so you have to be practical essentially, it will be very difficult to keep it scrupulously clean. If your dressing comes off, simply tub the foot and start again.
Even with the best stable management, abscesses will occur. A good vet box will always contain a roll of wadding and several bandages of Vet Wrap plus a packet of poultice which can be cut to size. Duck tape will help keep the dressing dry and protect it. This is the same treatment that you would use for a wound elsewhere on the horse’s body the only difference is that this is in the foot.