A horse with a hoof abcess will show signs of lameness, sometimes severe. An abcess is basically just an infection inside the hoof, an area where pus is gathering and causing pain and pressure as the infection grows. A good indicator of an abcess is the horse standing with the toe pointed out forward, (rather than resting it behind them) as they are trying to relieve the pressure. Abcesses can be extremely painful.
Abcesses have been called "gravel" for many years because it used to be believed that a small rock (gravel) entered the bottom of the hoof and got infected. It's now known that abcesses are usually called by bacteria entering the hoof through a puncture wound or crack. Often, the wound will be so tiny that you will never see it or know that its there. Abcesses can also occur during or after founder rehabilitation.
Abcesses almost always increase during the rainy seasons or anytime a horse has to live in very wet surroundings. Fungus and bacteria grow and thrive in moisture. Abcesses can also occur if the horse lives in or is forced to stand in extremely mucky or dirty conditions for any length of time. The hoof actually acts somewhat like a filter or a sponge. The hoof sits in the muck and when the water drains out of the hoof, that leaves all of the bad stuff, (i.e., manure, urine) and therefore concentrated amounts of bacteria left standing in the hoof.
Opinions on treatment for an abcess varies greatly by individual. There are questions on whether the hoof should be covered or bandaged and whether or not soaking the hoof has any real benefits. I'll explain what has worked for me. I highly recommend at this point that you consult with a farrier to diagnose your horse, preferably one who is familiar with (and practices) Natural Hoof Care.
I used to think it was best for a farrier to pare out the abcess/infected area to let the infection drain and allow air to get to it. After reading Pete Ramey's book, "Making Natural Hoof Care Work For You", I was convinced otherwise. Ramey has documented proof of astounding success in many areas of hoof care and I trust his opinion. He recommends that it is best to allow nature to take its course and allow the infection to work its way out on its own. Opening up the sole of the hoof can allow bacteria into the bloodstream, thereby causing a secondary infection.
Normally, the infection will travel upwards through the hoof, following the path of least resistance and will eventually blow out, usually at the coronary band. It's hard to watch a horse hobble around, knowing they are in pain but it's far better than risking serious health issues or death because of a secondary infection caused by opening up the sole of the hoof.
Even if I suspect an abcess, I still always call my farrier, just to be sure there is nothing else causing the lameness.
I believe in soaking the hoof but in moderation since too much wetness can actually make the condition worse.
Ramey suggests a soak in 50% apple cider vinegar and water, 2 hours, twice a week.
I personally do not bandage the hoof for several reasons. 1) a bandage that is too loose is a pain to keep on and they usually fall off, (repeatedly!), 2) its easy to put a bandage on too tightly, (or sometimes when they get wet and dry, they tighten on their own), which can cause more harm than good by cutting off circulation and 3) I believe fresh air is best but that is IF you can have the horse in a fairly clean and dry environment. Confinement to a stall is not recommended because the horse moving will help the abcess to work its way out.
I strongly advise against a poultice because poultices seal the hoof off, which means they seal the bacteria in.
The best things you can do to prevent abcesses are:
- Keep your horse in as dry and clean environment as possible. The harder and drier their pasture or paddock is, the healthier the hooves will be. Horses should never stand in wet, muddy, mucky conditions, especially where there is a lot of manure. Keep stalls cleaned out. If your horse stays in a small turnout or paddock, routinely scrape out and remove excess manure. If they are pastured horses, possibly you can rotate pastures, etc.
- Pick your horses hooves out every day and get in the daily habit of looking for any wounds, lameness or the dark, foul smell of thrush.
- Keep your horse on a routine trimming schedule, about every 4 to 6 weeks or as recommended by the farrier.
Regardless of what you do, there is no 100% guarantee that your horse will never get an abcess in the hoof, however, following the steps above can greatly improve the chances that they won't.
On this page, I have a link to "Making Natural Hoof Care Work For You" by Pete Ramey. I highly recommend taking a look at his website and getting a copy of his book. It will change the way you view the hoof and care for the horse forever.