LIFE LESSONS FROM A HOOF ABCESS
The horses were grazing happily in the pasture while I was pulling a muck bucket into Siete’s stall. Suddenly, our neighbor’s cat ran through our yard. My twelve year old, severely arthritic dog chased after him. I shouted, “Pepper!” I tried to run after her. Both the dog and I fell at the same time. My horses spooked, and ran to the fence to see what was wrong. I scraped my knees. The dog needed to be lifted to her feet and half-carried into the house. When I returned moments later, one of the horses was lame in her back left leg. Siete, who is only five, had mysteriously injured herself.
I hosed her leg with cold water for about ten minutes and crossed my fingers that it was just a little twist. After owning horses for ten years, I’ve finally learned that they do just limp sometimes and work their way out of it. With all that weight carried on those four skinny legs, it’s amazing they aren’t injured more. Sure enough, in a couple of days, Siete seemed to get around fine. I had almost forgotten the incident when the following Saturday, I came out to the barn, and she was holding that back left leg in a very protective stance. It hurt so badly that she couldn’t put any weight on it. I touched it, and there was no heat. When I tried to pick out the hoof, she kicked out at me like I had just stabbed her with a hot poker. Hoof abscess, I thought, here we go again!
Before we moved north to Connecticut, we spent two muddy, abscess plagued years in Virginia and North Carolina. Epsom salts, feet in buckets, poultice of sugar and iodine, I knew the drill. Before I could begin though, I need to have someone open up the hoof and drain it as much as possible. Farrier or vet? The farrier was cheaper, but he’s a hard man to track down on short notice. The vet came in twenty minutes.
She worked hard. The temperature that day was in the nineties, and Siete was cranky. The vet opened up a hole, but couldn’t get the abscess to drain. She was soaking wet with sweat, and my horse, who is usually a model patient, was really upset. Her foot was sore, and we weren’t making it feel better by digging in it. Finally, the vet decided she’d gone deep enough. She left me with some green goo called Pharmacid(?) and some Bute. I asked about the sugar and iodine, and she said that the iodine might burn so I should use this other stuff. I dug out the Epsom salts, the baby diapers and the duct tape from my tack room. Let the soaking begin.
Siete apparently had forgotten how she used to stand happily with her foot in a bucket of warm water and Epsom salts. In Virginia, we called the process “a horsey spa day”, and gave her massages while she soaked. Then, Betty, my friend who was a vet tech, would help me wrestle an “Easy boot” over the sugar/iodine slurry, the diaper and duct tape. We agreed that “Easy boot” was a misnomer.
Now, with my husband, Mark, and my daughter to assist me, I tried to doctor Siete. My good little horse, who usually stands calmly while I pick out her feet, kept trying to kick out and pull her back leg away. Finally, Mark offered to have a go at it. Siete is very fond of him, and he was strong enough to hold on when she tried to yank her hoof out of his hand. I could keep her under control better holding her halter. The only problem was that my husband had no idea what he was supposed to do. I tried to talk him through it. I was reminded of those disaster movies where the pilot can’t fly the plane, so he has to tell the stewardess what to do.
We managed on the first night to get the green goo on the diaper and the diaper on the hoof, securely wrapped in duct tape. Siete limped around unhappily and mangled her bandage without pulling it off. The next session didn’t go as well. My husband got home late from work, and the horses were fed and settled in for the night. I think Siete was already sleeping when we turned on the lights in the barn and led her out.
She was not a happy camper. We managed to pull off the bandage, which was full of green goo and some black stuff. As soon as she got her foot wet, she kicked over the bucket and put a big hole in it. I rushed to mix more warm water and Epsom salts in a new container, which she promptly spilled again. I had prepped the diaper with the medication and pre-arranged the tape on it so Mark could just slap it on. Unfortunately, Siete kicked out and the whole thing fell in the dirt. Tempers flared all around. I opted for quitting, which I rarely do. I was afraid that my husband might decide we should sell the horses or that Siete would get so worked up that someone would get hurt. That night, I went to sleep feeling inadequate and wondering why I owned horses.
I called the vet in the morning and told her the whole sad tale. She laughed and asked me if there was any black or grey puss in the bandage when I pulled it off. I remembered that there was that black stuff, and she congratulated me that the abscess had drained. She recommended that I continue to soak the foot until the end of the week and try to keep the hole in the bottom of the hoof clean. Fortunately, Siete’s trainer was scheduled to come that day. I also remembered that the farrier was going to be paying us a visit on the following afternoon. Liz, our trainer, helped me clean, soak and re-bandage the hoof. She also offered to help me hold Siete when the farrier trimmed her since I now had a horse who didn’t want anyone to touch her feet.
One of my biggest fears about having my horses at home was that I wouldn’t be a skilled enough horsewoman to handle problems that would arise. I realized with relief that I wasn’t out here all alone. I actually had someone experienced who would help me. The next day, Liz kept Siete calm while the farrier and I got a good look at what was going on with Siete’s back feet. He opened the abscess further and determined that it had drained. Then, he discovered another small abscess on her other back foot, which he also dug open and drained. He recommended that I buy a “medicine boot”. It covers the whole foot and you can just dump the medicine in it and wrap the straps around her pastern. As I moaned about my problems, he also pointed out that these were only hoof abscesses, not laminitis or strained tendons or anything serious.
It caused me to take a step back and look at the positive aspects of the situation. I had some really good back-up. The vet, the trainer and the farrier were all very concerned about me and Siete. It was also true that things could be much worse. We would get over this eventually, and there wasn’t any deadline. I decided to use this time to train myself to be more calm, patient and confident around my horse. Silk, who was Siete’s mother, learned to trust me over the years as I took care of her injuries and made her feel better. I needed to see this as an opportunity to show Siete that she can trust me the way Silk does. So, at each step, I asked myself two questions before I did anything: First, what do I need in order to feel comfortable handling Siete as I proceed? Then, what will make Siete feel most safe and relaxed while I do what I need to do to heal her feet?
I bought a “medicine boot” at my local feed store. I filled it with the green goo. My husband and I were able to soak each of Siete’s feet for about ten minutes, and pull the boot on the hoof with the bigger abscess. While I was at the grocery store, I ran into my local “medicine woman”. One of my neighbors, Fran, is a Sioux Indian who has a gift for training horses. Her daughter, Kathy, helps me feed Silk and Siete if I have to go out of town. I asked them for help and advice. They recommended that I buy some icthamol ointment at the pharmacy and offered to come over to help me doctor Siete that afternoon.
Without using any force, the three of us were able to clean and soak each foot for fifteen minutes. Using a big empty syringe which I had for oral paste medications, Fran helped me shoot the Epsom salt water mixture into the holes in the hoof to really flush everything out. Then, she showed me how to fill the holes where the abscesses were with the sticky black icthamol ointment. We really slathered it on the bottom of each hoof. She said I should leave Siete’s feet alone until the next day when she and Kathy would be back to help me again. I also gave my horse some Bute to reduce the inflammation and relieve the pain. When I came out to the barn the next morning, Siete was standing solidly on all four feet for the first time in a week. We continued to soak the hooves in warm water and Epsom salts and jam as much ointment as possible in the abscesses for another three days.
Then, I had to go to Virginia for a few days. I left my husband home to care for the horses alone for the first time. Mark did an admirable job, but the smaller abscess blew up the day I returned. We used the medicine boot and the green goo for a day. I called my friend, the medicine woman, and she came over. As Fran watched my husband coax Siete to stick her foot in the bucket of water, she pointed out what a good little horse we had. She also noted how capable Mark was at handling Siete. My husband had never spent any time around the horses until they moved into our backyard. I could see his confidence soar when Fran complimented him.
I never expected that my horse’s hoof abscesses would provide me with some life lessons, but they did. Now, five weeks later, both of Siete’s feet appear to be healed. I gained a new friend and mentor and plan to spend more time with Fran. It feels less scary to deal with my horse’s medical issues now that I have a good relationship with a vet, a trainer and a farrier. Siete trusts us more than she ever has. Most important, I learned that I am capable of taking good care of my horses, and I’m so glad that I own them.