The Horse Doctor is IN

In the last Horseblog I talked in general about lame horses and the crazy-making process of figuring out what, where, how, and what to do about it.

Now we can get specific. This is a low-tech, simple and traditional way of dealing with a common equine lameness problem: namely, a hoof abscess.

Because horses are built the way they are, with big bodies balanced on relatively spindly legs and rigid, keratinous hooves, any injury or infection in the leg or even the body has only one direction to go: downward. But the bottom of the structure is closed, protected by a quarter-inch or so of mutated toenail.

This means that a pocket of infection ends up in a locked box–and the sensitive tissues inside are full of nerve endings that scream under pressure. Result: sudden, acute, leg in the air, ai-ai-ai lameness. If the horse is lucky, his caretakers diagnose the abscess right away (having excluded other possibilities such as stone bruise, tendon damage, trauma, etc.), and will move in with the hoof knife and the sharp-pointed hoof pick and dig until they find a soft or rotten-feeling spot in the sole. The horse will assist by jerking back strongly when the tester finds the spot.

See it?

It’s the pitted spot just above the curved indentation (which in this case is a truncated frog–point of V cut out by farrier as part of process of removing thumbtack-like tiny stone embedded underneath–a puncture wound and the proximate cause of the infection).

Here’s a closer look:

That reddish bit is the sensitive tissue of the hoof, through which the abscess is draining.

The one good thing about an abscess is, once it blows, the relief from pain is immediate. There may be lingering soreness but the acute agony disappears. The horse is usually walking sound in very short order.

The exercise at the time of the photo session was to determine if there was drainage. Horse by then was moving sound and showing no signs of pain. The choices for the treatment were: poultice to draw the rest of the abscess, or spray with iodine (seven-percent solution!) and cover to help toughen the sole and heal the abscess. Puffy ankle and enlarged abscess since previous day indicated poultice.

Options for a drawing poultice are numerous. Some vets swear by “sugardine”: a paste of sugar and povidone iodine. Epsom salts are popular, too–either a simple paste with water, or this stuff, which is a combination of epsom salts and methyl salicylate. For the record, it smells like wintergreen and has the texture of overworked taffy. (Pardon my blur, I had horse “helping” by headbutting me for treats.)

This got smeared on the well-cleaned, brushed and dry hoof, and then padded with gauze (cotton also works but tends to get stuck and rather messy at removal).

Horse was very patient.

Next, the wrap. It needs to breathe and flex, so while one could use a leather or vinyl boot, cloth is much better. This was half a dishtowel folded in half for a size 0 foot. Cheery gingham because we’ve been doing this for two weeks and are [a] running out of shop towels and [b] getting punchy.

Taped the front together so it wouldn’t all fly off. Doing it blindly–from my angle, I could see his sole but not his front.

Duct tape: the fabric of the universe.

It’s important to reinforce the toe because that’s what hits the ground first. Wrap can wear off and fly apart there and come off. We don’t want that with debrided sole and open abscess.

And then wrap the top. With more towel it’s one wrap around the top, but with a smaller one like this, it’s a couple of angles to secure the whole thing.

That’s not exactly elegant, but it’s not going anywhere.

With bandage scissors, cut a couple of gussets up top in front, so the part above the hoof can move and breathe, and that’s good for two days. To remove, simply cut down the front with the trusty bandage scissors, peel off, and discard.

See slight puffiness in ankle? Still working on that abscess. He had the stone in his foot for two weeks, the first set of diagnostics having failed to find it (it was very small and very well hidden), so it’s taken a while for everything to clear. He had his sole removed around the abscess two weeks ago here, and that has grown back nicely. Another few days and he can get out of the wrap and start getting back to work.

As a writer of course, I like to extrapolate. In a culture that has no duct tape, one might fashion a boot out of cloth, measure it to the foot, then remove and stitch the front where the first piece of tape went. Stitch the toe as well, for strength. Pull back onto hoof and secure around the pastern with strip of bandage. Tie or clip. Voila.

As for the poultice, any drawing herb or potion will do. Pad with more bandage, gauze, cotton or tree fluff, whatever is handy. Check in two to three days. Redo if still draining. It smells about like what you would expect drainage from an infection to smell like. When it stops smelling like that, the hole should close fairly rapidly and the horse should be healed within a week or two.

In the meantime, horse might get some form of medication. Antibiotics if the technological level allows it. Homeopathic treatment, perhaps: silicea is the nostrum recommended for abscesses in horses. Massage of the leg and ankle to help move the drainage downward.

And of course, rewards for the horse who stands so patiently through it all. They do appreciate relief of pain, and many seem to understand what all the pushing and pulling (and fumbling and cussing) is for.


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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is best known for her historical fantasy. She also writes science fiction, straight historicals, high fantasy, and whatever else strikes her fancy--including Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Doing It Right (published by Book View Cafe). She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.
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5 Responses to The Horse Doctor is IN

  1. green_knight says:

    I see your green goo and raise you sauerkraut. That’s the traditional method in Germany, and probably available in low tech societies; it works well. I’ve forgotten the exact science behind it, but was amused to see that someone tested it and found that yes, it _should_ work. (As opposed to observing that it works.)

    And I really like your wrapping technique, must study it just in case.

  2. Ooooh! Glad Pooka is better. And I feel a horse going lame in my next tale or so, with a wonderful and fast recovery.
    Thanks!

  3. Pingback: CSI: Horse Farm Edition | Book View Cafe Blog