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Horse First Aid: What to do in an Emergency

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I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was out in the barn, getting ready to take my horse out for a ride, when I noticed something was off. She was standing in the corner of her stall, sweating profusely, and her breathing was shallow. I knew something was wrong, and I had to act fast.

I immediately recognized the signs of heat stroke and knew I had to take action. I quickly led her out of the barn and into a shaded area. I hosed her down with cool water and used a fan to help lower her body temperature.

I also made sure she had access to fresh water and electrolytes. It was a scary experience, but thanks to my knowledge of horse first aid and quick thinking, I saved my horse’s life.

At that moment, I realized the importance of being prepared for emergencies when it comes to horse care. In this blog post, I discuss common horse emergencies, the techniques and tools you’ll need to administer first aid, and how to prepare for an emergency before it happens.

Common Horse Emergencies

As horse owners, we are responsible for ensuring our horses’ safety and well-being, including being prepared to provide first aid in case of an emergency. The most common emergencies in horses include colic, fractures and lacerations, respiratory distress, casting, heat stroke, eye injuries, and choke.

picture of a person giving her horse first aid.
Horse with colic

Colic

Colic is a common emergency in horses characterized by abdominal pain. It can be caused by assorted factors such as gastrointestinal issues, impactions, or a twisted intestine. Colic can range from mild to severe and can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Recognizing the signs of colic early is crucial to the health and well-being of your horse. The quicker you treat the condition, the better your horse’s chance to survive. Some signs to look out for include the following:

  • Pawing at the ground
  • Rolling or thrashing
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Distended abdomen

I’ve had a couple of horses colic, and both recovered; however, one underwent surgery. I walked my horses to ensure they wouldn’t lie down and gave them mineral oil. I also contacted the vet right away.

Preparation is key when it comes to colic. Keeping a close eye on your horse’s behavior and monitoring their eating and drinking habits can help you catch colic early on. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations can also help prevent colic from occurring in the first place.

In the case of colic, it’s important to administer pain relief and try to get the horse to pass gas or stool. This can be done by walking the horse, administering a laxative, or even massaging the horse’s stomach.

In some cases, it may be necessary to transport the horse to an emergency veterinary clinic. Knowing how to transport a horse in an emergency safely can make all the difference.

It’s important to note that colic can be a serious and even life-threatening condition and requires the attention of a veterinarian; if the horse is showing signs of colic, it’s important to call your vet as soon as possible.

Picture of a horse with bucked shins.
Bucked shins

Fractures and lacerations

Fractures and lacerations are common emergencies in horses, especially if the horse is active or involved in sports. They can be caused by numerous factors, such as falls, kicks, overwork, or accidents with fences or other objects.

As with many other emergency situations, the quicker you begin treatment, the better. For example, cleaning and wrapping an open wound reduces the chance of infection, and cold treatment can reduce inflammation.

Some signs to look out for include the following:

  • Limping or favoring one limb
  • Swelling or heat in the affected area
  • Visible deformity

Preparation is key when it comes to fractures and lacerations. Keeping your horse’s environment safe and free of hazards can help prevent accidents from occurring. Also, not working young horses too hard.

In case of a fracture or laceration, it’s important to stabilize the affected limb and prevent the horse from moving around too much. This can be done by using a splint or bandage to immobilize the limb and prevent further damage.

If the injury is severe, giving your horse substantial time off from riding or working may be necessary. It’s important to note that fractures and lacerations can be serious and require the attention of a veterinarian.

I recently had a horse with some slight swelling in his cannon bone which I first thought was bucked shins, but I later learned it was caused by striking his leg against a gate. The vet advised me to give him two weeks of stall rest before turning him out in the pasture.

I did this, and he fully recovered after a month. If you suspect your horse has a fracture, you must call your vet as soon as possible. While waiting for the vet, you should keep the horse calm and in a safe area and avoid moving or handling the injured limb as much as possible.

Regarding lacerations, horses always seem to find a way to cut themselves. So, it’s important to have the right tools and supplies on hand to provide prompt and effective treatment. Here are some items that you should consider keeping in your horse first aid kit:

  1. Cleaning supplies: This can include items such as a mild antiseptic solution, sterile saline solution, and sterile gauze. These will be used to clean the wound and remove any debris before dressing the wound.
  2. Bandages: A variety of bandages should be kept on hand, including non-stick bandages, gauze bandages, and self-adhesive bandages. These will be used to cover the wound and keep it clean and protected.
  3. Wound closure products: This can include items such as sutures, staples, or adhesives. These will be used to close the wound and promote healing.
  4. Pain medication: Pain medication will be important to alleviate pain and discomfort for your horse.
  5. Scissors: Scissors will be used to cut bandages and other materials as needed.
  6. Thermometer: Monitoring the horse’s temperature can be important when dealing with lacerations.
  7. Flashlight: A flashlight can help examine the wound in low-light conditions.
  8. Hoof pick: A hoof pick can be used to clean the hoof and around the wound area.

It’s important to have these items readily available in case of an emergency, check the expiration dates, and restock if necessary. Improper care can lead to proud flesh developing.

Proud flesh is a condition where granulation tissue (the tissue that forms during the healing process) grows excessively and becomes raised and thickened. It can occur in wounds that take longer to heal, especially in areas with poor blood flow.

Remember your goal is to care for the horse in an emergency and that it’s always best to consult a veterinarian for proper treatment.

Here is a YouTube video that provides emergency advice from a veterinarian.

Respiratory distress

Respiratory distress is a condition in which a horse experiences difficulty breathing and can be caused by many things, such as lung infections, allergies, or heart disease. The most obvious sign of respiratory distress is rapid, shallow breathing.

Your horse may also appear anxious and exhibit other signs such as nasal flaring, open-mouth breathing, coughing or wheezing, and bluish or grayish gums.

These symptoms indicate that your horse has difficulty getting enough oxygen and is distressed. If your horse is experiencing respiratory distress, the first step is to try to calm them as much as possible.

This can be done by speaking to them in a soothing manner and keeping them in a quiet and well-ventilated area. If you suspect that a particular object or item may be causing the reaction, remove it immediately.

It’s important to contact your vet immediately for emergency care. Your vet may need to perform a physical examination to determine the cause of the respiratory distress and will then be able to recommend the appropriate treatment.

Picture of our horse stuck on the ground.
Getting our horse up

Casting or downed horse

It’s not good for horses to lie down for extended periods because it can put significant pressure on their internal organs, especially the lungs. This can make it difficult for the horse to breathe.

Additionally, being stuck in a lying position can put a lot of stress on a horse’s muscles and joints. This can cause the horse to experience pain and discomfort and can even lead to muscle and joint injuries.

I had a horse that cast in her stall and injured her shoulder. Casting, or a downed horse, is a condition in which a horse cannot get up because it laid down too close to a stable object like a stall wall.

Casting can be serious and even life-threatening. I currently own a horse that likes to roll around in fresh shavings, and inevitably he gets stuck on the ground.

Overall, it’s important for a horse to be able to stand and move around to maintain their overall health and well-being. So if you find your horse stuck on the ground, you need to try and get it back on its feet.

But to do this can be dangerous, so wait for help. We typically grab our horse by its legs and pull them to the center of the stall. You can also wrap soft cotton lead ropes around their lower legs to pull them over to help them get up.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke occurs when a horse’s body temperature rises to dangerous levels due to high temperatures and humidity exposure. It can be caused by different factors, such as being left in a hot environment, lack of access to water, or heavy exercise in hot weather.

Heat stroke can be serious and even life-threatening if left untreated. So it’s critical to know the signs and act quickly. Some symptoms to look out for include:

  • Elevated body temperature (above 102.°F)
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Sweating or lack of sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle weakness
  • Lethargy or confusion

Preparation is key when it comes to heat stroke. Keeping a close eye on your horse’s behavior and monitoring its overall health can help you catch heat stroke early on. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations can also help prevent heat stroke from occurring in the first place.

In case of heat stroke, it’s important to act fast to lower the horse’s body temperature. This can be done by hosing the horse down with cool water, using a fan to cool the horse, and providing them with fresh water and electrolytes.

Moving the horse to a shaded or air-conditioned area is also important to help them cool down. If your horse shows signs of heat stroke, it’s important to call your vet as soon as possible.

While waiting for the vet, you should keep the horse calm and in a cool place and continue to try to lower the horse’s body temperature.

Eye Injuries

Eye injuries happen in horses for numerous reasons, such as trauma, infection, or exposure to irritants. Recognizing and diagnosing an eye injury is essential so you can protect it from further damage. Here are some things to watch for:

  • Redness or inflammation of the eye or eyelid
  • Squinting or excessive tearing
  • Cloudiness or discharge from the eye
  • Swelling of the eyelid or third eyelid
  • Loss of vision or sensitivity to light
  • Behavioral changes such as rubbing the eye or holding the head in an unusual position

Keeping your horse’s environment safe and free of hazards can help prevent eye injuries from occurring. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations can also help prevent eye injuries from occurring.

In case of an eye injury, keeping the horse as calm as possible and preventing further damage is important. This can be done by covering the eye with a bandage or fly mask.

If the injury is severe, you may need to bring your horse to an emergency veterinary clinic for further treatment. Eye injuries can be serious, and most require the attention of a veterinarian.

Picture of a horse with its mouth wide open.
Horse choke

Choke

Choke is a condition that occurs when a horse has a blockage in the esophagus caused by food or other foreign material. This blockage can cause difficulty swallowing, coughing or gagging, and excessive salivation. Choke can be serious and requires prompt attention.

Choke, also known as esophageal obstruction, is a condition in which food or other foreign material becomes lodged in the horse’s esophagus, making it difficult for the horse to swallow. Choke typically occurs when horses eat too fast, too much, or ingest foreign material.

Another common cause is dental issues that prevent the horse from chewing properly. When horses have dental issues, they may have trouble masticating the food, which can lead to choke.

If your horse is experiencing choke, it will show several signs, such as nasal discharge, difficulty swallowing, and distress. They will also likely refuse to eat and may appear anxious or uncomfortable.

To help ease the choke, it’s important to remove any feed or foreign material from the horse’s mouth, keep them calm and wait for professional help. In some cases, the blockage may clear on its own, but it’s still important to have a veterinarian evaluate the horse to ensure there is no further damage or injury.

Preparing for an Emergency

Preparing for an emergency before it happens can mean the difference between life and death for your horse. Putting together a horse first aid kit is a must-have for any horse owner. This kit should include items such as bandages, pain medication, scissors, and a thermometer.

Knowing the location of emergency veterinary clinics in your area is also important. It’s a good idea to have emergency contact information readily available, including the phone number for your regular veterinarian and emergency veterinary clinics.

Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations can help prevent emergencies from occurring in the first place. Keeping your horse in good health can help you avoid the need for emergency care.

Conclusion

As a horse owner, one of the things you must be prepared for is the potential of an emergency situation. Over the years, I have dealt with all the emergencies I’ve covered. Through these experiences, I’ve learned that having a plan in place and knowing how to respond in these situations is essential to ensuring the well-being of my horses.

It’s also crucial to have a good relationship with a veterinarian and to have their contact information readily available in case of an emergency. Remember, as a responsible horse owner; horse care includes being prepared for emergencies.

FAQs

What are signs that a horse is in pain?

Signs that a horse is in pain include lameness, reluctance to move, change in behavior, sweating, muscle tension, increased breathing and heart rate, and change in appetite.

What do white gums on a horse mean?

White gums on a horse can indicate various health problems such as anemia, shock, low blood pressure, or poor circulation. It’s important to consult with a veterinarian if a horse’s gums appear pale or white.