Hoof Abscesses

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

Many horse owners are familiar with this scenario: Yesterday your horse was healthy, but today your horse is crippled. What could have possibly happened? It is possible that this horse has a hoof abscess. Nearly all horse owners will experience this problem at some point in their lives. With prompt treatment, most horses will make a complete recovery.

Hoof Abscesses

Hoof Abscesses Explained

Hoof abscesses are caused by bacteria getting trapped between the sensitive layer of the hoof wall, or sole, and the laminae. This is the tissue that binds the hoof capsule to coffin bone. The bacteria produce exudate (pus), and this builds up and causes pressure behind the sole or hoof wall. This pressure can cause severe pain.

Hoof abscesses are most common in the spring and winter, but they can also occur year-round. The environment can soften the feet and allow bacteria to enter. Extremely dry conditions may cause cracked and brittle feet. The bacteria that causes abscess can enter the foot through the hoof cracks. It travels up the white line and into the foot, penetrating the skin, and even “close” horseshoeing nail. Abscesses can also be triggered by deep bruising.

Diagnose a Hoof Abscess

Although a hoof abscess can take several days to develop in horses, most don’t show clinical signs until the pressure is so severe that they are unable to walk. This can often happen overnight. The hoof throbs when there is a decrease in blood flow. This can be seen as a stronger pulse in the lower limb. Pain can often be felt by palpating the heel bulbs or the coronary band (hairline). While some hoof abscesses may cause swelling in the lower limbs to varying degrees, most will not. Because hoof abscesses may mimic other serious conditions or injuries, it is crucial to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.

A vet will usually diagnose hoof abscess by looking at the history of the animal and performing a physical exam. Your vet may use hoof testers to locate the abscess in a specific area of the foot. Sometimes, he or she may use radiographs or diagnostic nerve blocks to confirm or pinpoint the exact location.


Draining the hoof abscess is the fastest way to relieve pain. This is similar to popping a large pimple. Because of the pressure and growing exudates, the abscess will attempt to follow the path of least resistance. Some abscesses will burst on their own, and drain at the heart (commonly called a “gravel”) or at the heel bulbs. Your veterinarian will need to drain any other abscesses. A small number of abscesses will eventually spread to other structures such as the coffin bone or the navicular Bursae. Chronic abscesses that are not treated promptly will show this to be especially true. The treatment of any other structures that are affected can take a long time and be costly. This could lead to unsoundness.

Your veterinarian will usually make a small incision through the sole, white line or hoof wall to allow the exudates to drain. Your veterinarian will likely apply a poultice or bandage once drainage has been established to pull out any remaining exudates. Your vet may recommend that you clean the area where the abscess is draining until it has dried and hardened.


Although regular hoof care and farriery are important steps in preventing hoof infections, there is no way to guarantee your horse’s immunity. Although hoof abscesses can be difficult to prevent, it is possible to avoid extreme wet and dry conditions as well as sudden changes of moisture. They can be prevented by routine mucking of stalls and pens or other restricted areas.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!