While reading the book ‘Perfect Partners’ by Kelly Marks (an excellent book by the way) I was struck by a very true statement she made…. “Well meaning is not the same as well being for the horse”.
One of the ways we tend to show good care for our horse is to provide plenty of feed. Unfortunately this over-caring can be cruel to a horse or pony especially in spring and early summer when grasses are high in sugar.
Our equines (that includes donkeys and mules) often have to endure the pain of a hoof abscess caused by too much rich grass, and can be affected even if they don’t appear to be overweight.
Stages of a hoof abscess
These photos show the various stages of an abscess which in the beginning can cause three-legged lameness before it bursts through soft tissue.
The pain the horse endures at this stage is similar to when you hit your thumb with a hammer and the swelling and blood is trapped under your thumbnail.
Eventually the pus and serum are forced from the internal hoof structures and come out through the coronet band or heel bulb areas.
Sometimes a milder abscess is not even evident in a horse not exercised regularly, only showing up when the hoof trimmer discovers a rotting hole in the sole or hoof wall.
If you suspect an abscess it’s a good idea to poultice the affected hoof, changing it daily so the coronet and heel bulbs are soft to allow the abscess to find the easy way out. By using a hoof boot you can leave the horse in their own environment so they aren’t further stressed by being separated from their herd. A poultice can be as simple as a strip of cotton wool or even a nappy soaked in epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to a store bought poultice kit.
Recovery can take up to a week, however if your horse is lame for longer than this, call the vet in case it’s something more serious than an abscess.
Although your horse will be very lame it’s important not to restrict their movement as blood flow to the hoof will help heal it. The main issue to watch for is they can still comfortably get to water – it may help to provide a closer source, or hand water to ensure they are not getting dehydrated.
How to avoid an abscess
Of course if you want to avoid the abscess situation then you need to restrict your horse or pony’s intake of grass, especially in the afternoon and overnight when the sugar content is highest.
Rather than ‘locking them up’ in a small bare dirt yard with nothing to eat (being cruel to be kind) a long narrow area to move in is a better option and some soaked hay (to reduce sugars) must be provided to prevent gut ulcers, colic and development of vices such as wood chewing to alleviate hunger. Don’t use cereal hays/straw such as oat, wheat or barley as these can be even higher than grass hay in sugars.
The best option is to set up a ‘track’ around the edge of the horse’s pasture which is grazed out by sheep, cattle or other horses early in the season. You could even plough it up if you have a chronically foundered pony or horse with insulin resistance, to remove all the grass while still providing room to move.
Movement is vital for a horse to burn calories and relieve boredom. Having the company of another horse promotes movement and play, and is much healthier way of keeping any horse. A horse or pony kept on its own and in pain from laminitis will suffer depression and prolonged recovery.
If you can’t provide a track or company for movement, then exercise by riding, driving or leading is essential, as is the company of another prey animal such as a cow, sheep or goat.
I heard that in Denmark it is illegal to keep a horse on its own – a law we could well do with here too if we had the ability to police it.
See the page on Paddock Paradise for ideas on setting up a track. Another option is to run your pony in a large area of bush or poor pasture grazed out by sheep. You may still need to provide ‘low sugar’ hay so to find out more about that visit www.safergrass.org
Causes of an abscess
A hoof abscess can be a warning sign that the horse has suffered a laminitic episode, and therefore is prone to more of these unless the feed situation is changed. Caring horse owners love to give their horse a bucket feed or treats but this can cause more problems.
Treats such as carrots, apples, sugar cubes, bread and mints all have sugars that add up to tip the horse’s intake over the edge (just like a diabetic).
Instead, give your horse a handful of sunflower seeds or a good scratch/groom where they like to be rubbed – it’s much healthier for them.
Grains, pellets and even oaten chaff are high in sugars too, so feed an alternative if you have to such as Speedi-beet, and soak the oaten chaff or use a very small amount of lucerne (alfalfa) chaff.
A hoof abscess can also be caused by bruising to the hoof by a direct trauma or lack of trimming and mechanical forces. Check with your hoof care provider to find the most likely cause so you can avoid the situation in the future.
Check the Laminitis page so you know the early signs, get them off the grass and work with your hoof trimmer to alleviate the symptoms.
Education and action is the key to being kind to your horse – if you really love your horse you will make an effort to find out new information that can help keep them from suffering the affects of over or under feeding.