What A Hoof Abscess Taught Me

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Last weekend, at the Twin Rivers International Three-Day Event, I underwent one of the most frustrating experiences a rider can have on the verge of a major competition: Your otherwise tuned-up and healthy horse suffers a hoof abscess and you have to withdraw.

Hoof abscesses are immensely frustrating because you can't completely prevent them, because your horse goes suddenly lame (sometimes pathetically, three-legged lame), and because the abscess could pop out of the hoof in hours, in a day or two, or in weeks.

This abscess occurred in the right front hoof of Firebolt, my wonderful Quarter Horse mare, about whom I've written frequently in this blog. we'd actually been soaking and wrapping her other front foot, since she?d cut the coronary band in the trailer the previous Friday. To prevent an infection (and a possible abscess), we put her on SMZ?s for five days, and I suspect that those antibiotics just delayed an abscess that was already brewing in the right hoof.

We shipped the 260 miles to Twin Rivers on Wednesday morning, and I schooled her lightly that afternoon. Then I worked her in a dressage ring the next morning without concerns. Fortunately, following the riders? briefing early on Thursday afternoon, I decided to do a few practice trots with her before I changed into my formal clothes for the first horse inspection. I was extremely surprised?and worried?when she trotted off noticeably lame.

So I asked to see the FEI treating veterinarian, because I didn't want to present a lame horse to the ground jury and get rejected. (That happened to me nine years ago, in my first CCI1* with my wonderful partner Master Merlin, and I didn't want to repeat that experience!) The treating vet examined Firebolt, and, with her hoof testers, found she was clearly sore in the toe of her right front hoof. We each suspected an abscess, and she suggested that I could try icing her foot until the jog to decrease the pain enough so we could do the dressage the next day, in the hope that it would pop before then.

But I decided not to ice or even try to present her, because it wasn?t worth the intense effort and anxiety. it's tremendously embarrassing to be disqualified on the first horse inspection?the jury and your fellow competitors wonder why you even brought the horse if you doubted his soundness' Plus, I recalled that the one abscess she?d had before had taken a couple of days to pop.

I decided right away to withdraw her, and told the veterinarian to scratch our names from the jog order.

Two concerns helped me make such a quick decision. First, I would have ridden her anxiously and defensively, and, especially on a challenging cross-country course, that's no way to ride. It guarantees failure on almost any horse, and since our relationship is based on complete trust in each other, I suspect she?d be able to tell if I were worried.

Second, Firebolt has such a ?throw-myself-on-top-of-the-hand-grenade? work ethic that she would have kept going despite the pain and possibly hurt something else, something that would have been far worse than an abscess. I absolutely didn't want to do that to her.

So feeling the intense disappointment of being all dressed up with nowhere to go, we walked back to Firebolt?s stall to soak her and then wrap her in Epsom salts and Betadine. I soaked her and wrapped her again on Friday morning, and when I took the wrap off that evening to soak her again, the smell and the black color of the goo in the diaper told me that the abscess had popped. The hoof was also cold with no pulse. To save myself further frustration, I didn't jog her.

With only one other horse to ride at Twin Rivers, I spent a great deal of time pondering why this inopportune abscess was so much less disappointing than the one Merlin suffered nine years ago. And I came up with several factors, in roughly reverse order of importance:

First, I have more horses to ride than I did then. With Merlin, all my eggs were in his basket. Today I've got more baskets than Alba?s, although hers is the brightest and the best. I've got two more promising younger horses of my own, plus two or three students? horses to compete. ?There will be another day,? I could tell myself this time.

Second, the atmosphere at West Coast events is generally more convivial than on the East Coast. You don't feel such an intense pressure to win, place and move up to the next level. I don't mean that as a criticism of either the East or the West. it's just an observation that's probably largely due to the fact that the greater distances out here prevent us from going head-to-head every week or two.

Third, with Merlin the CCI1* we missed was to be a test of our abilities and our partnership that we hadn?t taken yet. Merlin was clearly a good horse and we needed to pass the test to move on, as he should. But we'd missed the test and were basically being held back a grade. (We would get there, though, subsequently finishing 10th and fourth.)

This CCI1* was really just a technicality, a hoop that the FEI said we had to correctly jump through. We've already finished second in a CCI1* (with a fabulous cross-country day), but we'd lowered one too many show jumps to get the required qualifying score to do a CCI2*. And since this spring we'd completed two intermediate horse trials with clear cross-country rounds, as far as I was concerned, we'd already passed the test.

Fourth, at age 53, I'm no longer in a rush to accomplish competitive goals. I love to compete my horses, but I'm in the late afternoon of my competitive career, and the dreams I had 30 years ago are simply not in reach any longer. Each event tells me where my training is going right and where it needs to be better. But I'm now doing it for my own education and my horses? education. If that means we progress to the next level, fantastic. But if we don't, well, we'll just have to work harder to be perfect at whatever level we're competing.

Still, I couldn?t make myself watch the CCI1*. It was just too disappointing.