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Our neighbor’s horse developed an abscess before his futurity trial and was scratched from the race. This was the third time the horse missed running because of foot infections. Naturally, he wanted to know why his horse kept developing abscesses.
Horses get abscesses because of sole bruising, hoof cracks, or puncture wounds. Recurring abscesses are typically caused by bacteria entering weakened hooves. Horses with bad feet are predisposed to develop abscesses, particularly if they stand in dirty, moist stalls where bacteria thrive.
Abscesses are a common problem in horses; luckily, most recover from them relatively quickly. But owners with horses that keep getting abscesses need to take special precautions.
What is an abscess?
An abscess is a bacterial infection in a horse’s foot. The condition forms pockets that fill with puss, typically under the sole and inside the horse hoof wall.
Abscesses can be painful but often are minor problems that heal independently or with routine hoof trimming. Less severe abscesses are similar to a bruise or blisters in humans.
I had a board drop on my finger and popped the blood vessel under my nail. The fluid built up over a couple of days and was excruciating and throbbing.
I drilled a hole through my nail, the blood squirted out, and I had instant relief and healed quickly. This episode is similar to a minor abscess in a horse’s hoof, a pocket of fluid building under the hard shell surrounding its foot.
Below is a YouTube video about abscesses in horse hoofs.
Typically a farrier drains the infection by cutting a drain hole in the sole of the horse’s foot. We’ve had horses with abscesses that traveled up the horse’s foot and busted through the coronary band.
Busting out of the coronary band or sole is not unusual and is often welcome. It’s essential in some cases for the abscess to open to drain, heal, and relieve pressure.
Sometimes acute abscesses develop, which are extremely painful and can develop into a severe health condition if left untreated. I find that horse owners and trainers focus on their horse’s training and diet but neglect their feet.
Poor foot care is a primary reason many horses keep getting abscesses.
What causes an abscess
Abscesses are caused when harmful bacteria enter the animals’ hoofs. The most common ways bacteria enter a horse’s foot are through cracks in the horse’s hooves, puncture wounds, and weak hoof walls.
Many horse owners and trainers focus on their horse’s training and diet but neglect their feet. Poor foot care is a primary reason many horses keep getting abscesses.
I wrote a helpful article on how to care for your horse’s hooves; you can read it here: How to Care for and Clean Horses Hooves: 6 Essential Steps.
Most horses develop hoof cracks, and the reasons and severity vary. However, it seems that racehorses have a more significant percentage of cracks than other horses.
The high rate of cracks in racehorses’ hooves could be because Thoroughbreds have notoriously bad feet, put extreme pressure on their hooves, and are kept shod.
Fortunately, most hoof cracks are cosmetic and aren’t a health risk. However, it doesn’t take much of an opening for bacteria to invade and infect a cracked hoof.
Keep your horses’ feet trimmed because long toes put pressure on the hoof wall and often create cracks. If your horse has chronic cracked hoofs, it would be best to have its feet examined by your farrier or veterinarian for treatment and advice.
I use a hoof conditioner to strengthen hoof walls and add a biotin supplement to their diet. I believe these products help and have done this for our horses for years.
Most puncture wounds occur in the sole of a horse’s hoof. The sole is the foot’s underside, which is sensitive, unlike the outer hoof wall. Punctures can range in severity from relatively insignificant to life-threatening.
Puncture wounds to the sole occur when a horse steps on a sharp object like a nail, screw, or wire. But the most common puncture wounds are caused by misplaced horseshoe nails.
Superficial puncture wounds lead to infection and abscess formation. If you suspect your horse has a puncture wound inspect its foot and remove the object.
Next, wash the affected area and apply a poultice. These steps are usually all that’s needed to treat most simple puncture wounds. If the injury gets infected, you need to drain the puss out of it and apply another poultice.
As I stated, these treatments should take care of most simple puncture wounds; however, keep an eye on your animal because if your horse becomes lame over the next couple of days, you need to call your vet and have the wound evaluated.
If the puncture occurred in the back half of the horse’s foot or involved the frog, you should call the vet. Superficial puncture wounds typically heal without any problems.
Weak hoof walls
Imperfect feet are a significant issue with Thoroughbreds. I believe the reason for this is because of breeding for speed without concern for the quality of their feet. Many have thin hoof walls, allowing bacteria to enter and create abscesses.
Racehorses also spend a lot of time in a stall; if the stall floors are wet, bacteria can enter their hoofs. No matter how fast, an abscess will slow a horse.
I knew a trainer whose horse won almost $100,000 in its first two races, and then it hit a wall. The horse would slow down in the middle of the race no matter what the trainer tried.
Eventually, he ran the horse in a cheap claiming race, and someone purchased it. The new trainer turned the horse around, and it began to win again.
I asked the trainer what he did to get the horse to run, and he told me the horse had abscess issues. He said they weren’t obvious, but the horse always developed them. So he had to keep the animal’s feet completely dry and clean.
Supplements with biotin strengthen horses’ hooves. Also, make sure to keep your horse moving. Blood flow is critical for the health of horses’ feet. Amazon sells some hoof supplements; you can find them here. I typically stick with brands I know, like Farnam, but I haven’t found one brand significantly better than others.
There are many reasons some horses are predisposed to develop abscesses; the following are less common but should be considered if your horse has this problem:
Temperature plays a role in the health of horses’ hooves. In cold weather, hooves are not as thick, making them even more susceptible to bacterial infections.
Horses with chronic inflammation in their hooves or lower legs often rock back and forth. This movement will sometimes lead to the animal abscessing in their hooves.
Cushing disease, a hormonal disorder, weakens the horse’s immune system and makes them more prone to bacterial infections.
Horses get abscesses; that is a fact, and your horse will likely get one. They are bacterial infections that create puss-filled pockets in your horse’s foot.
Most of the time, they do not cause serious problems and go away with very little treatment. The best treatment is to open the infection, drain the pus, clean the infected area, and apply a poultice.
If you own a horse that frequently gets abscesses, you need to investigate and find the cause. Horses with unhealthy hooves that stand in moist stalls are prone to getting abscesses.
Bacteria thrive in dark, warm, moist locations, like dirty horse stalls. If the animal has cracked or weakened hooves, bacteria will enter, and infection will grow.
Some horses have genetically bad feet and are susceptible to developing abscesses. The best way to prevent recurrent abscesses is to keep your horses’ hooves clean and dry.
- Cleaning Hoofs, Leads to a Healthier Horse
- Do Thoroughbreds Have Bad Feet? 5 Traits of poor horse hoofs
- Why Do Horses Trip and Stumble So Much? 7 Reasons
- Horseshoes: Why Horses Need Them Plus Facts, Uses, and Types
- Thoroughbred Horse Breed: Facts and Characteristics
- 12 Horse Coat Colors: Patterns, Genetics, and Pictures
- What Does a Horse Eat? An Essential Feeding Guide
- Do Thoroughbreds Make Good Trail Riding Horses?
- What Does a Horse Wear on Race Day?
- Are Thoroughbreds good horses?
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.