Helping Hooves Heal

Hooves can be prone to developing abscesses and the first sign is often sudden, severe lameness. Poultices are bandages for horses' hooves that creates a microenviroment to help draw out and heal abscesses that develop in the soft tissue structures inside the foot.

In this blog we take a look at how to make poultices and how to use them, plus we share some tips on what to look out for to spot if your horse might have an abscess. Please note - there are any number of reasons a horse could be lame, so an owner should always consult their vet to secure a prompt and accurate diagnosis.

What to have in stock

A poultice is made up of three layers:

  1. Dressing for absorption - poultice dressings are designed for the job and have added antiseptic and infection-drawing ingredients.
  2. Padding for comfort - at Redwings we simply use a double layer of cotton wool
  3. Outer layer for protection - a conforming bandage to hold everything in place, followed by a covering of duct tape

A hot or cold poultice?

A warm, moist compress helps draw out infection, and a hot poultice is essentially an attached compress.

Hot poultices will be most effective at encouraging an abscess to drain, but if there is no access to warm water, a cold poultice will still be beneficial as the moisture will soften tissue, making it easier for an abscess to rupture.

If an abscess is suspected, a hot poultice can be applied while waiting for the vet. This will help soften the sole, encouraging an abscess to burst and making it easier for the vet to investigate. Padding can also make the horse more comfortable and encourage weight bearing. However, if it’s not clear the problem is in the foot, or the horse is reluctant to have their leg picked up, keep the horse quiet and wait for the vet.

Don’t use a poultice if you think there may be a foreign body involved as this could cause the object to become further embedded. Leave the object in place, consider using padding around but not on the affected area, and avoid moving the horse until a vet has assessed the situation.

Poultice top tips:

  • Brush off the leg and clean the foot thoroughly, including scrubbing out the frog clefts, and make sure it is completely dry before starting.
  • Always use clean water, ideally boiled water that has cooled to the required temperature.
  • Use a thermos flask to get hot water to a horse when you don’t have access to a kettle.
  • Remember that a ‘hot’ poultice should actually only be a warm poultice – comfortable to touch.
  • When poulticing the sole, cut a ‘v’ out of the dressing to sit around the frog – this helps preserve the quality of frog tissue and prevent thrush.
  • Work with the horse’s foot kept as low as possible, especially if they are stiff or have other lameness issues. If a horse finds it uncomfortable to have the leg raised for any length of time, speak to your vet about possible pain relief options to help them through the poulticing period.
  • Don’t scrimp on bandaging materials. It’s more expensive to have to reapply a poultice than put on a secure, effective one in the first place. A poultice that falls off also exposes the site to dirt and bacteria.
  • Use a section of tubular bandage to prevent shavings or dirt getting into the top of the poultice (see photo). The ‘stocking’ can be re-used each time, just use a bit of duct tape to stick the bottom in place when a new poultice is applied.
  • Always make sure you can slip a finger between the poultice and the coronary band, otherwise it is too tight and risks reducing blood circulation to the foot.

When to stop poulticing

When all the pus has drained, a dry poultice can be applied and left on for a couple of days. This continues to protect the hole left by the abscess while it heals, and encourages tissues to harden up again. The foot and limb should be checked thoroughly before deciding to stop poulticing, then monitored closely for the following week.

Look out for:

Lameness that doesn’t improve dramatically after an abscess has burst or returns shortly afterwards

Swelling above the hoof or further up the leg

Change in discharge colour – brown, dark grey or black discharge is normal; yellow, greenish or blood stained pus is not

Dullness, lack of appetite or other behavioural changes in the horse

A vet should be made aware of any of these developments as soon as possible.