by Judy Van Put
Keeping your horse happy and healthy involves much more than just daily feeding and grooming. In addition to providing a clean, dry and safe environment and keeping current on immunizations and other health issues, it is important to care for your horse’s feet on a regular basis. Cleaning and picking out your horse’s hooves is necessary, not only for the removal of manure, dirt and debris, but also for observing the foot and checking for any signs of lameness or injury.
One of the most common causes of sudden or acute lameness in horses that is seen by veterinarians and farriers is a hoof abscess. An abscess is caused by a foreign substance — which can be as seemingly innocuous as a bit of dirt, sand, or manure — entering into the sensitive hoof through a crack in the wall or sole or laminae of the foot, coupled with an infectious agent, such as bacteria or fungus. These agents begin to build up — feed on the abundance of blood and tissue, and multiply in the dark and warm recesses of the horse’s hoof.
The foreign substance can gain entry into the foot either through a break or tiny separation (fissure) in the white line; or via a break or fissure in the junction of the sole and wall of the foot, including via the inner surface of the bars of the foot adjacent to the sole; or by a puncture wound such as by a misplaced nail while shoeing; or by way of a crack in the full thickness of the hoof wall or via old nail holes through the thickness of the hoof wall. Bacteria and fungus travel along this entryway into the interior of the hoof.
As weight is put upon the foot, the foreign substance will be pushed along through the entry fissure until it reaches inside the sensitive hoof capsule. The bacteria and/or fungus that accompany the substance continue to grow, causing white blood cells to enter the area, and leading to inflammation, heat and pain. This inflamed area induces pressure and pain, and results in a thin layer of tissue that forms an abscess; and ultimately leads to the painful signs (lameness) associated with the condition.
In the case of a misplaced nail during shoeing: if a nail is driven into the sensitive laminae of the foot, the horse will react from the pain, and there will be a hemorrhage causing blood as the nail exits the foot. The blood can actually help to dilute the contamination of bacteria; but the application of an antiseptic and removal of the offending nail by the farrier should be utilized to prevent infection and abscess.
However, if the farrier drives a nail into a sensitive area that does not bleed, and removes the nail placing it into another area in the horse’s foot, he should be aware of where the nail was originally placed, and if in the dermal tissue, inside the junction of the sole and the wall, it’s wise to place the horse on a broad-spectrum antibiotic for 3-5 days a precautionary measure, as the nail can bring in bacteria or fungus which can lead to an abscess.
Another condition caused by shoeing that can lead to an abscess is the so-called “Close nail” — where the nail is applied too close to the sensitive dermal border of the hoof wall. This can cause pressure and pain, and the movement of the horse applying pressure to his foot can lead to an abscess. The process may take longer, however, from 7 to 14 days before the discomfort is noticed.
Other puncture wounds can be caused by the penetration of the sole of the foot by a sharp object, such as a nail, piece of hardware, glass or sharp stone. In this instance, pain occurs immediately, and if not treated, infection follows within three days. With the instance of a puncture wound, you should consult with your veterinarian for treatment.
In some cases, an abscess can occur without the overt symptoms that are usually present. If the abscess is long-standing, there may be swelling in the pastern or fetlock; the causative agent may migrate up soaking bandage with Epsom salts should be applied for at least the first 24-48 hours; consult your veterinarian and check to make sure your horse is up-to-date on his tetanus immunization.
Abscesses can be prevented, to some extent, by diligent and careful hoof care. Regular cleaning of the hooves, keeping paddocks and turnout areas clean and free of nails and hardware, and keeping your horse on a regular trimming or shoeing schedule will prevent problems from occurring. Regular trimming will keep hooves from over growing — excessive length of the toe can increase the pressure on the toe, causing a widening and weakening of the hoof wall that can cause cracks or weak areas that can invite foreign entry. In addition, going too long between trimming can result in heels that are too high, or sheared, or run under. These conditions can lead to laminitis and weakening of the foot and hoof wall, leading to hoof wall separation and other hoof diseases.
Proper trimming of the hooves is important in maintaining strong hoof structure. In addition, dry bedding, and in some instances, the use of hoof conditioners or hardeners during times of wet weather, and hoof dressings during dry weather can also help in maintaining healthy feet.
Contact your farrier and veterinarian immediately if you suspect an abscess or problem with your horse’s feet. And remember the old adage: “No Hoof, No Horse!”
(Information for this article was taken from an article in the American Farriers Journal, by Dr. Stephen O’Grady.)
by Judy Van Put