Dealing with Abscesses

Contributed by: Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing


You walk out to feed or visit your horses and all of a sudden one is barely able to walk. He is in so much pain, you think that surely, he has broken a leg or something. Upon further inspection, nope, it’s just an abscess.

Abscesses are essentially pockets of pus inside the hoof. However, they can be located either high or low or in the heels, so the actual location can be very difficult to locate.

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How Abscesses Form

While proper hoof care and regular trimming typically is the best way to prevent an abscess, the weather can also have an effect. The cycling between wet and dry conditions can cause the hoof to dry, therefore shrink and then when wet it expands. The back and forth conditions of wet and dry allows bacteria to invade the hoof.

Another way that abscesses develop is via a penetration in the hoof. The horse might step on a sharp rock, a piece of glass, nail or anything that is sharp. The penetration gets covered up or sealed, leaving the bacteria inside to form an abscess. This same premise applies to close nails in shoeing or hot fitting a shoe on a thin sole.

Finally, poor hoof balance and conformation that results in cracks can provide bacteria the opportunity to invade the hoof wall.

Now that we know what causes an abscess, what are the typical signs in the horse?


  Photo Courtesy:  Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing

Photo Courtesy: Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing

Symptoms of Abscesses

First, most people will notice that their horse is suddenly lame and can barely walk. They may also walk with a pointed toe as they try to avoid putting pressure on the affected foot. As the pressure from the abscess increases, the pain increases.

Saying that, some horses develop and pop abscesses without ever missing a beat! You just notice that as their hoof grows out, they might have a horizontal crack or hole that grows out from where the abscess popped. This is typical of abscesses that pop from the coronet band.


Another method of diagnosing an abscess is with a hoof tester. This applies force specifically to different parts of the sole looking for a pain reaction.

Dark spots in the sole can also be an identifier of an abscess.


 "A PROPER TRIM" - Photo Courtesy: Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing

"A PROPER TRIM" - Photo Courtesy: Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing


Abscess treatment first starts with getting the abscess to pop! Once it pops, the pain is relieved, and the horse will be able to walk. The first step is typically to soak the hoof in warm water with Epsom salts. This helps the hoof to soften and allow the abscess to come out. Next, you need to pack and wrap the hoof.

The most common method is to use ichthammol drawing salve or a product like Magic Cushion. The salve will help to draw the abscess out and allow it to pop either from the sole, heel bulb or coronet band. After soaking, you slather and pack the hoof with the product of your choice and then cover the foot in a baby diaper. Next, wrap the hoof in vet wrap covering the entire hoof and the coronet band. Use strips of strong duct tape (Gorilla tape is best) and make a base over the bottom of the hoof and then wrap the entire hoof in duct tape. This will make the wrap last longer.

Finally, turn the horse out. It’s actually good for them to walk on it and work it out. Leaving the horse stalled, in some cases, can cause leg swelling.

In some cases, the horse may need an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medication if the abscess continues to linger. It’s also important to know that one abscess can lead to another. Your farrier can be an excellent resource throughout the process, as can your vet if the abscess seems to particularly invasive.



It’s important to also know that even after a horse recovers from an abscess, they can have lingering performance issues depending on the location.

They may continue to be sore in the affected foot for quite some time and may even require special trimming and shoeing depending on the damage done to the hoof by the abscess.


Valerie Mellema is the owner of Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing.

She has been in the equine industry for over 25 years and is a published author of multiple horse care books. She is also the owner of Mellema Thoroughbreds, a thoroughbred breeding farm. She shows her OTTB, Mistic Gray, in hunter/jumpers.

You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.