Your horse has had three hoof abscesses this year, but his barn mate hasn’t had a single one. What could account for that difference? Plenty of things.
Abscesses are pockets of pus that form within the hoof after bacteria gain entry through a crack or another defect in the horn. A horse with an abscess typically becomes lame quickly and remains that way until the pressure is relieved, either when the pus is drained by a veterinarian or farrier or the abscess bursts on its own.
Healthy horses with good-quality feet aren’t typically prone to abscesses, but they can certainly develop them with enough provocation. On the other hand, repeated abscesses are a sign of a predisposing condition that needs to be addressed. These include:
• poor hoof quality. A horse with weak, shelly hooves is more likely to develop bruises and cracks that allow bacteria to enter.
• infrequent farriery care. Long, overgrown feet are at a greater risk of developing abscesses than are well-maintained and balanced hooves.
• chronic laminitis. Ongoing, low-level inflammation of the laminae may not lead to a classic laminitic stance, with the horse rocked back on his hindquarters in obvious pain. Instead, it can show up as repeated abscesses.
• uncontrolled pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, also known as Cushing’s). This common hormonal disorder of older horses can increase the risk of hoof abscesses by weakening the immune system.
• environmental conditions. Paddock footing that fluctuates between wet and dry can cause the hoof to expand and contract rapidly, which can lead to tiny cracks that allow bacteria to enter and form abscesses. Likewise, rocky or uneven footing can cause repeated, small traumas to the hoof, leading to recurring abscesses.
If you suspect that any of these conditions may be contributing to recurring abscesses in your horse, take a closer look—consulting with your veterinarian and farrier if necessary—and do what you can to remedy the situation. Reducing the frequency of abscesses will be well worth the effort.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #470, November 2016.