A hoof abscess is like a big pimple. It's pus and goop. It builds up in the soft tissue inside the hoof and then it vents. It can vent anywhere, either at the coronet, through the heels or through the sole, but it will usually pick the path of least resistance. It can't go through the hoof wall, because that's very strong, so it heads up or down. The point of venting has not much to do with the source of the infection.
It's very painful. Some horses will not weight the leg at all. Many horses look as though they have a broken leg.
Here's one that's popped out the coronet band (this is not my photo).
This is what it looks like as it grows down.
In the above photo, there is excess wall length directly below the site of the rupture. That would mean that there is extra pressure there. You can also have a good guess at where it might rupture because it will be hotter there. Sometimes the leg will swell up to the next joint (even knee or hock).
This is my preferred spot for a rupture - somewhere on the side or in the middle. The reason being that once it has vented, the horse can recover very quickly and usually go back into work within a few days. If it comes out through the sole or heel it takes a lot longer to recover, often weeks or even months (more on this in a minute). You can't determine where it's going to vent, but you can help by soaking the hoof in warm salty water and making the tissue around the coronet soft, which means it easily ruptures.
Like pimples in people, abscesses usually happen when things are going very well, or very badly. You know yourself as soon as you start cleaning up your diet you get a big pimple. It's part of your body's way of eliminating waste. Hooves are similar. When the hoof starts to function correctly, there is an increase in blood flow and the body will naturally eliminate necrotic tissue and goop in this way.
Similarly, if you keep eating badly and not exercising and not looking after your health you get pimples too. Horses that are not living active lives with good diets and quality trimming can have repeated instance of hoof abscess.
Horses that have suffered from laminitis or founder will often abscess. It's part of the healing process, as usually a sign that the hoof is starting to function correctly. But you only want them to abscess once in each of the effected hooves.
I've seen horses abscess after working on a particularly concussive surface. Particularly jumping or cross country.
But if your horse keeps having abscess over and over in the same hoof then something is wrong. It can mean that the hoof has been:
* not trimmed frequently enough,
* trimmed in an unbalanced way,
* trimmed excessively (especially sole).
It could also mean that the horse is suffering from laminitis over and over again and recovering, only to founder again. This is usually about diet.
Or alternatively, they can have something foreign imbedded that the body is trying to remove. If your horse is having recurrent abscess in one hoof, it's a good idea to have it x-rayed.
The traditional method of dealing with abscess is give anti-inflammatories, cut the abscess out through the sole, poultice and confine the horse and then apply a shoe for recovery.
This is not the way we approach hoof abscess at Sound Advice.
The anti-inflammatories are wrong because this venting is an inflammatory process. The inflammation is serving a purpose. When you cut out the sole you are exposing the inner tissue to the outside world, which makes it more likely to suffer from further infection. You are also unbalancing the hoof, which may have been the initial problem. It can take weeks or even months of poulticing and protecting the hoof after the abscess event is over, which is totally unnecessary trauma and pain for the horse. When you confine the horse you are reducing movement and blood flow, and similarly, applying a shoe also reduces blood flow to the hoof. Essentially all of these actions are stopping the horse's natural method of getting rid of the inflammation.
So what do you do about it?
You can soak the hoof in warm, salty water. You can also use epsom salts. You need to keep the hoof clean so that you reduce the chance of further infection. You can use a boot for this, such as an Old Mac or Cavallo, which are suitable for turnout. If the limb is swollen you can hose that down too to reduce the inflammation, and apply a poultice like Tuff Rock.
You can use analgesics or anti-inflammatories, because it's so horrible for them to suffer, but it's a delicate balance between providing the horse with enough comfort that they will weight the hoof and move - increasing blood flow to the area, and removing the inflammation, which will make the abscess go dormant, only to become inflamed again later. I don't like bute, but you might need to consider it if it's going to provide your horse with enough relief that they will keep moving. You might find that cold hosing and booting is enough. You can also use Sound Advice Relief Mix, which is a natural alternative to bute.
Once it vents, you can keep it clean with any off-the-shelf antiseptic, but usually your horse will be back to their normal self within a few days.
Hoof abscess doesn't need to be a big, dramatic event for your horse. It's not the end of the world, and can even be a positive sign, but if it's happening again and again, you need to investigate thoroughly what might be going on.
A hoof treatment kit is available from our shop.
Limited numbers of Davis Soaker Boots are also available. Please contact us for more details.