MS-CL-MR-2-Horse-Tales11About two weeks ago I went out to feed the horses and I noticed that my younger mare, Morgan, appeared to be favoring her right front foot. She held it up for me to examine — and not knowing what the problem was, I started high up on her leg and ran my hands down, checking for swelling or heat in the joints, or lumps / bumps / cuts anywhere else. I also checked her left front leg for comparison but couldn’t find anything that seemed out of the ordinary or that felt different from her other leg. I picked up her foot and saw what looked like a small cut across the bulb of her heel, and had a flashback of one day when we were riding a while before, she seemed to stumble on a rock. And that part of the arena did tend to be a bit rocky — so I thought she may have bruised or cut her foot slightly.
I remembered that over the past week or so I had noticed Morgan lying down in the hay or in her stall from time, which I had thought unusual for a horse of her age (13). I asked my husband and he said he had seen her ‘pointing’ that front foot forward… and so I decided it was prudent to contact our veterinarian.
Doc came and began his examination by picking up her foot, cleaning it, and testing it with the hoof testers, for pressure-related pain. He asked if I’d noticed any heat or swelling anywhere on her foot or her leg, and I replied that I did not. He tested all around her foot, and found an area of her heel, near where it appeared to have a slight cut, where she reacted to the pressure of the testers. Doc believed she might have suffered from a stone bruise, especially after I related how she had stumbled in a rocky area of the arena. He thought it also could have been a ‘gravel’ infection caused when she hit her foot against a rock that produced a tiny crack, just large enough to admit bacteria, which could have started an infection. Fortunately, in Morgan’s case, the infection had passed as there was no indication of heat, moisture or anything oozing from the small cut. He suggested I rest her, and give her phenylbutazone (Bute) for a week and see if that helped the problem.
Morgan seemed to get steadily better after about three days, and by the time the week had passed, she was walking without any trouble. I contacted our farrier, Jim, to have him come and trim the horses’ feet as her soreness had passed, and he came a few days later.
Jim observed as I led Morgan from her stall to the alleyway and back to face him. He picked up her foot and proceeded to clean it out with the hoof pick and then pare it down a bit with his hoof knife; then called me over to look. He found a ‘spot’ on the sole that looked suspicious, and that coordinated with the small cut on the bulb of her heel… Jim believed what Morgan may have had was a stone bruise that caused a “gravel” infection that came up through her sole and exited out through the bulb of her heel. I am happy to report that I rode Morgan earlier this week — she traveled well, without any sign of lameness or discomfort — and whatever it was that had caused her lameness had been addressed.
So what exactly is a ‘gravel’? I had once asked the veterinarian years back when I discovered that another horse, Prissy, had a sore foot, and after examining her and finding a small abscess on her coronary band, he referred to it as a ‘gravel’ Infection. Dr. B explained the term is one coined by horsemen many years ago, when it was believed that the horse had picked up a small bit of gravel or dirt in its foot, which worked its way up ‘through the path of least resistance’ — often up through the softer tissue above the hoof. When it reached that point, it would exit the foot through an area on the coronary band. Actually it is fairly impossible for a piece of gravel to actually ‘work its way’ up through the hoof, but the theory is true for something as tiny as bacteria. A small crack on the bottom of the hoof, or even a bruise inside the sole, can be the start of the infection.
He continued by saying “blood is the perfect medium for bacteria to grow in; if it gets through a crack, it sets up an infection. The body is attacking it, trying to push the infection out. The inside of the hoof, the laminae, is like the leaves of a book. These are the normal ‘seams’ that run up and between the ‘pages’,” so to speak. The bacteria or infection travels up through the ‘seam’ up to the top of the foot, and eventually pushes out through the coronary band.
In Prissy’s case, the treatment was to flush the point of exit (in this instance, the coronary band, which after being trimmed of the hair above, showed a small opening that was slightly oozing) with ‘tamed’ iodine (such as Povidine, a milder form that is used as a teat dip.) In ideal circumstances, when there is no mud in the barnyard or area where the hose is kept, the sole would be cut away a bit more to establish better drainage at the bottom — however, at the time Prissy’s injury occurred, it was early spring with muddy conditions, and so Dr. B did not open up the sole, but directed me to soak her foot twice a day, for 20 minutes, in an iodine solution (disinfectant) of warm water mixed with just enough tamed iodine so as to resemble a ‘weak-tea-colored’ solution, deep enough to cover the coronary band. Prissy was injected with a long-acting penicillin and a tetanus booster, since she hadn’t had one in more than a year. Her prognosis was excellent, and she healed without any additional problems.
Fortunately, in Morgan’s case, there was no abscess present, and her lameness was mild and short-lived. However, as in Prissy’s case many years before, an abscess is an infection in the hoof that is extremely painful and, the infection causes inflammation; the hoof capsule constrains the inflamed tissue causing the pressure to build up.
If your horse comes up lame, do a thorough examination of its leg and foot. Clean out your horse’s foot to see if you can detect any reason for its lameness, and also check around the coronary band for possible sign of abscess, such as heat and swelling, in addition to a strong pulse. If you suspect an abscess, your horse may exhibit a digital pulse. The digital pulse, which is the pulse in the fetlock joint, is usually faint and difficult to detect; however if a horse has an abscess or laminitis, the pulse become throbbing and is referred to as a ‘bounding pulse.’
If you believe your horse may have stepped on a nail or sharp object and punctured its foot, contact your veterinarian immediately, as punctures are potentially life-threatening.