All About Hoof Abscesses
The first time most horse owners find out about an abscess is normally when their horse presents with lameness. Which can sometimes be so severe that the poor animal can look like they have seriously injured themselves or even broken a limb.
As an abscess can be an extremely painful internal hoof infection for our horses. That can range from causing minor lameness in the hoof to preventing a horse from any weight bearing on the affected leg at all.
Abscesses happen inside the inner workings of the hoof capsule, and often no sign of the abscess itself can be found externally, though a digital pulse can sometimes accompany the lameness at the rear of the hoof, and swelling can also be present in the leg too. They are very common reasons for lameness in domestic horses, and most horses suffer from at least one abscess in their lives, if not more which is to be expected and totally normal.
However, we have found in our own research from working with hundreds of horses, as well as helping thousands of owners with horses suffering from these issues, that horses who are prone to hoof abscesses and those that have them frequently, or for prolonged periods of time, often have other issues going on.
We find this to be mostly diet-related, so we would advise looking into this in more detail such as feeding a more natural whole food diet-see our recommended feeding plan, which is spray/weed killer free if possible. In addition to reducing high sugar intakes such as from grazing rich grasses in favour of feeding out more low sugar hays via a slow feeder hay net, and also from scrapping grains and other by-products and inflammatory fillers, which are often concealed within a lot of the pelleted feeds and pre-packaged food sources from the horse's diet. If this doesn't improve matters then we recommend checking for metabolic issues and having your horse's blood tested and checked for conditions such as Laminitis, Cushing's, PSSM or Insulin Resistance etc...
99% of hoof abscesses are caused by infectious debris such as sand, dirt and manure etc....tracking up into the inner hoof capsule through holes in the normally sealed white line areas of the hoof, causing bacterial and fungal agents to be able to gain access into the internal tissues, which are referred to as subsolar or sub mural tissue, that is the soft tissue dermis layer located inside the hoof capsule itself. Once these foreign matters gain access to the inner hoof, a septic pus-filled cavity forms inside and this is the cause of our horse's pain and lameness. Bacterial access happens through small openings in the hoof that occur in our horse's hooves in 1 of 3 ways as follows:
1-HOOF WALL/SOLE SEPARATION: bacteria enter the inner part of the hoof via small holes or tears at the seal, where the outer hoof wall meets the sole, which can be called white line disease and is also referred to as seedy toe. This separation can sometimes be seen like little pinpricks at the joint of where the outer hoof wall meets the sole but also there can be no visual trace of them to the human eye too so these small holes are not always visible. These minuscule fissures happen due to various reasons including the horse being shod or trimmed in a way that leaves the hoof in the wrong shape with long toes and no heels, or not having the horses hooves trimmed frequently enough, both of which cause physical stress between hoof wall and sole due to pressure from the long toe causing stress on the hoof capsule, creating small stress tears, that open to allow debris to enter the inner dermis layer of the hoof. Another way this happens is due to diets that are high in sugars, often from feeding foods that include inappropriate concentrates or from horses living off high fructan grasses such as clover or ryegrass diets. Because high sugar diets cause inflammation which can also lead to the tight seal between the outer hoof wall and sole having minor tears...causing small inflammatory tracks that again allow debris into the inner workings of the hoof, causing these infection-filled cavities, and the pressure and pain that come with that from abscesses.
2-HOOF CAPSULE PUNCTURE: sometimes horses stand on items that make a small hole in the hoof such as thorns, or even nails, or a nail from a metal shoeing can go astray and enter the soft structures of the inner cells of the hoof capsule, which again leave minor channels of the hoof open to the elements, including dirt and debris, which leads to abscesses forming from the same ways as mentioned above.
3-CRACKS: sometimes the hoof wall will crack which can happen for a variety of reasons including poor mineralisation, injury, hoof concussions, and from force stress upon the hoof caused by incorrect trimming and/or balancing, as well as a lack of supplements or from the use of incorrectly balanced supplements, or through too high of a grass/grain diet, all of which can cause the hoof to become brittle and crack, which can also happen due to an injury or a fall etc...or if the horse has been run on hard surfaces without protection or allowing the hoof to acclimatise to going on hard terrain etc,.
All of which can damage the hoof. It is where the hoof has cracked that allows access for bacterial agents as described above to gain access to cause access an infection.
So how do we treat an abscess?
There are many schools of thought on how to address abscesses and whether to open the hoof up to try to drain it or not is still a big matter of debate between many equine circles. My own take on it is if the site of the abscess can be easily found by a professional hoof care practitioner of either farrier, barefoot trimmer or vet, then allow them to make a small minor opening in order to release the pressure and drain the abscess, but I would advise to never allow anyone whether that is vet or farrier etc...to dig away and make a substantial hole in your horses hoof, especially in the sole, as that will often lead to secondary infections that could cause more complex and further issues within the hoof.
Regardless of whether you've opened up the site of the abscess or not, you will need to keep the area clean, which is often addressed by soaking and poulticing the area with a cleaning agent such as an iodine solution, then using Epsom salt soaks, to give relief to the horse, either by standing your horse in a bucket of warm water or hoof bath or by coating the area with a poultice product such as our Hoof Clay and then using a specially medicated padded hoof bandage available from most tack stores which will help to draw out the abscess. Our Equibalm cream can also be applied to the legs and hooves to help cool and soothe the area. This will also help heal the area after a drained abscess or will serve to try to provide a softening in the hoof wall to allow it to burst naturally, which normally will cause a blowout at the coronet, or at the back of the heel or even the sole depending on the site of the abscess.
We have also seen wonderful results with the use of Vitamin C given to horses to help heal abscesses. We use the powdered form available from most chemists and give 1-2 teaspoons per day mixed into the horse's feed depending on size. We only give this for a maximum of just 1 week when a new horse first arrives at our centre with an abscess and have been pleasantly surprised at the fast and effective results. What is very interesting is that none of our resident herd has had an abscess ever-not one.-apart from on arrival Which we believe is due to our diet and environmental approach-please see more about this on our other pages.
The use of the above antibacterial medications, such as betadine (iodine-based gel) on the site with a poultice pad or even a baby nappy to keep it clean, is how we recommend treating abscesses, which can fixed in place with elastic bandages. A tape such as duct tape to keep the bandages in place and offer sole protection, or various hoof care items such as abscess socks and boots and more are now available to make this process easier, such as Tubbease socks etc....which can be found with a range of hoof natural hoof care products on this link:
Pain medication can also be given in the form of Bute or, as we prefer to use the natural anti-inflammatory of Devils claw and antibiotics to address the infection. Anything longer than a week of treatment with no drain or burst from an abscess, and we need to start asking more in-depth questions as to what and why these long-term abscesses are occurring in any horse, as abscesses can often happen as a more severe symptom of other conditions such as laminitis or toxicosis from mycotoxin poisoning.
See this link for our organic Devils Claw Pain Relief:
How to prevent abscesses:
Feed a low-sugar diet and limit lush grass, preferring hay over grass to prevent inflammation caused by grass sugars which cause hoof wall/sole separation to keep a sealed hoof. See this link for our recommended feeding guide :
Feed a balanced supplement to address mineral and vitamin deficiencies that will prevent your horse's hooves from cracking-see this link:
Consider tracking your horse as a way to manage paddock conditions and encourage movement to gain naturally healthier hooves-see this link:
Have your horse's hooves trimmed to the correct shape of short toes and reasonable heels to prevent stress tears. We recommend avoiding using metal shoes due to the risk of nails causing channels to open to infection. See this link for alternatives to metal shoes: