Properly caring for your horse

Owning a horse will more than likely result in you facing an emergency situation or an injury to your horse at some point in time. From simple abrasions to severe cases of colic, a number of medical emergencies can arise. Assessing the immediate need for veterinary attention versus being able to wait the next day for veterinary care requires recognizing what conditions are a critical emergency. Prompt assessment and evaluation prior to calling your veterinarian can help you make an informed decision. The guidelines recommended to help you cope with an emergency situation are:


-keep your veterinarians number at reach at all times

-ask for a back-up or referring veterinarian if your regular veterinarian is unavailable.

-determine the most direct route to an equine referral hospital and make arrangements for trailering if a truck and trailer are not on site

-post the name and phone numbers of friends and neighbors who can assist you with an emergency

-prepare and store a first aid kit in an easily accessible area and make sure family and friends are familiar with the location of the kit

  1. Assessing your horse

Prior to calling your veterinarian, taking your horses temperature, pulse, respiration and assessing gum color are important steps that may help us, over the phone, decide how quickly your horse needs to be seen. In order to determine what is normal for your horse, it is a good idea to evaluate these 3 parameters over several days.

How to evaluate these parameters:

-rectal temperature: I recommend a digital thermometer that gives you a result within 60 seconds. You can lubricate the tip of the thermometer with Vaseline or the old-fashioned way (spit). If you are using a glass, mercury containing thermometer, leave in it for 2-3 minutes for best accuracy.

-heart rate: the easiest area to listen for a horses heart rate is behind the elbow on the left side. Each beat has 2 sounds: lub-dub usually (horses can actually have 3-4 heart sounds per beat but you most likely won't hear the other 2 sounds). Make sure that you count each lub-dub as 1 beat-if not, you will double the horses heart rate. You do not need an expensive stethoscope to listen to the heart for the purpose of getting a heart rate. If you do not have a stethoscope, you can feel the horses pulse in 2 spots on the head: the facial artery and the transverse facial artery. Feel for the artery gently-do not press too hard against it as this will make it difficult to feel the pulse rate.The following values are normal ranges for an adult horse:

-temperature: 99.5-101.5 F. A mild increase in temperature (up to 102 F) is OK if the ambient temperature is very high.

-pulse: 28-42 beats per minute. The pulse will be higher after exercise and if your horse is excited.

-respiration: 8-18 breaths per minute. The rate will be higher after exercise and if your horse is excited. -gum color, in natural light. The gums should be moist and pink. When you push on the gums with your finger, the pink color should return to the area you pushed on within 2 seconds. Abnormalities to look for are: pale, red, dark red-purple or bluish color, or if you notice that the blood vessels in the gums stand out. If you notice a dark pink-purple line on the gums around the teeth, this is considered to be a sign of toxicity.

  1. What constitutes a true emergency?

Critical Emergencies: contact your veterinarian immediately

1. Moderate-Severe Colic

If your horse is frequently pawing, getting up and down, staying down and trying to roll, sweating, bloated, or any other signs of unrelenting pain, please contact your veterinarian immediately. Unless your veterinarian is hours away, do not administer any flunixin (banamine) as this drug can mask signs of surgical pain. Your veterinarian will need to evaluate your horse without pain medication on board in order to make an informed decision as to what to recommend. If you can get your horses vital signs before the veterinarian arrives, write these down so they can be compared to the vital signs that your veterinarian gets. Please note that not all surgical colics have high heart rates. Unless your horse is rolling uncontrollably, I recommend that a laying horse remain down, as long as it does not roll. Walking horses too frequently can cause exhaustion over time. However, walking horses 15-20 minutes at a time to see if it helps with the colic is acceptable.

2. Dystocia (birthing difficulties) or red bag (premature placental separation)

Once a mare starts the active phase of labor, the foal should be out on the ground within 30 minutes. If the mare is showing signs of actively pushing without a foal appearing at the vulva, this is an emergency. Until your veterinarian can arrive, you can feel to see if the foal is in the birth canal. I recommend wrapping the tail (do NOT wrap tightly-tails have fallen off due to circulation being cut off) to get it out of your way, clean the vulva with Ivory soap or betadine scrub and warm water. Clean your hands, apply lubricant (J lube, KY jelly, NOT Vaseline) and insert into the vulva-this will give you an idea of where the foal is. You can feel both front feet and a nose, the foal is in the correction position. If you only feel one foot and a nose, this means that the other front foot is back. If you feel 2 feet and do not feel a nose, the foal may be coming out back end first. If you feel a tail and no feet, the foal is in breech position and most likely will not come out without a C-section. Sometimes, the owner will be able to correct the foals position if the foot is held back. If you need to try to correct the malposition before the veterinarian arrives, use LOTS OF LUBE!! If in doubt, do not do anything until your veterinarian arrives, UNLESS it is a red bag foaling! If the mare is in active labor and a red bag is present at her vulva, you MUST act quickly! Feel the red bag and determine if you can feel a foal behind it-if so, grab something sharp (scissors, knife) and cut the bag open WITHOUT cutting the foal! If this is not done immediately once the red bag is noted, the foal will suffocate as it is not getting oxygenated. If a foal is not felt behind the bag, do not cut! This may mean that the bladder is prolapsed (rare).

3. Retained placenta

Any mare that has not passed the placenta within 4 hours of foaling is considered to have a retained placenta. If not treated aggressively, a retained placenta will lead to toxemia, sepsis and founder. Do not pull on any placenta hanging out as you may inadvertently tear the uterine lining and cause bleeding. If the placenta is at risk of being stepped on by the mare, tie it to itself or tie it up with baling twine to it is out of the way.

3. Choke-esophageal obstruction

This most commonly occurs after feeding and is associated more often with pelleted types of feed than with grains. The horse will cough and feed may come out of the mouth and the nose. Your horse may swallow frequently and look distressed. Although these cases are referred to as a choke, the airway is not obstructed and they can breathe! In order to relieve the choke, the horse will be sedated and an esophageal tube passed to try to relieve the obstruction. If the choke is mild, the horse may relieve it on it's own. If the horse does not pass the obstruction within 30 minutes, your veterinarian will need to come out. It is very difficult to relieve a long-standing choke without causing damage to the esophagus. Once the obstruction is relieved, your horse should receive antibiotics for at least 2 weeks due to the aspiration of food and saliva into the lungs.

4. Acute diarrhea

Any horse that develops frequent, watery diarrhea needs to be seen. A severe case of diarrhea will dehydrate your horse extremely rapidly and can then result in kidney failure. There are many reasons why a healthy horse may suddenly develop diarrhea; treatment is usually the same regardless of the cause. Your horse will require IV fluids as part of the treatment plan, as the large intestine is unable to absorb any water that the horse is drinking.

5. Sick neonate-young foal

ANY problems or concerns with a neonate are an emergency! Neonates have essentially no energy stores and can go downhill rapidly without veterinary care. Any foal that does not nurse frequently, stay active and alert, is depressed and uninterested in their surroundings, or having any other abnormal sign is a cause for concern. With regards to the vital parameters in foals, the temperature is similar to adults (in foals: be careful if the temperature is LOW-this is generally not a concern in adults, but is serious in neonates!). The respiratory rate will be higher and foals have more irregular breathing patterns, especially when sleeping, as compared to adults. The heart rate is a lot higher-it can range from 80-120+ bpm, depending on how excited the foal is. Some causes for concerns include: diarrhea, swollen joint(s), any lameness, swollen umbilicus, nasal discharge, coughing, increased respiratory effort and distended abdomen.

6. Tying up (Monday morning sickness)

This disease affects the skeletal muscle of horses, resulting in necrosis (death) of muscle tissue. This often occurs when a horse that is not normally exercised undergoes rigorous exercise. However, there are syndromes in some breeds that resemble the typical Monday morning disease. If your horse appears stiff, crampy, and has hard muscles when you feel them, call your veterinarian. Without appropriate treatment, the breakdown products of muscle necrosis can cause kidney failure. DO NOT WALK YOUR HORSE-this will worsen the disease! Place your horse in a thickly bedded stall and offer plenty of water until you wait for your veterinarian. Do not give any banamine or phenylbutazone without consent from your veterinarian as this may worsen any kidney disease already present.

7. Acute neurological disease: staggering, incoordination, seizures, inability to rise, behavior change.

Contact your veterinarian if any of these signs occurs. If your horse is severely uncoordinated, please use extreme caution when handling it so you don't get hurt. If possible, place your horse in a small paddock or large, deeply bedded stall. If an uncoordinated horse gains momentum and starts running, it will have a difficult time stopping and may hurt itself. NOTE OF CAUTION: if you want to do a physical examination on your horse, I recommend wearing gloves if you look in it's mouth. Although rabies is rare in large animals, it is seen in a number of large animals around the country each year. Georgia has endemic rabies in the wildlife population and horses can be easily exposed to rabies.

8. Difficulty breathing or rapid, distressed breathing

This is a definite emergency-keeping your horse quiet and cooled off (if in the hot, humid summer months) may help. However, this requires emergency treatment and possibly a tracheotomy (emergency hole in the windpipe) in order to alleviate the respiratory distress, depending on the location of the disease process.

9 Corneal ulcer/puncture

Any problems involving the eye itself is an emergency. Horses are prone to fungal infections, deep bacterial infections, and other problems with the eye. However, the majority of superficial ulcers will heal without complications. But, due to the preponderance of potential problems with horse eyes, any eye abnormality involving tearing up, pain (squinting, holding the eyelids shut), cloudy cornea, swelling or trauma is a cause for concern. Do not put anything other than saline solution in the eye. Ointments will stick to the cornea and make it hard for the veterinarian to do their examination.

10. Wounds

i. Involving joints or tendon sheaths

ii. Upper eyelid laceration/eye itself

iii. Wounds penetrating the sole of the foot, abdomen or chest. Any wounds involving the above are considered critical emergencies. A small puncture wound can seem innocuous unless there is involvement of a joint or tendon sheath. In addition, puncture wounds of the foot can affect a number of important structures. If there is a puncture wound to the foot and the puncture involves a nail or similar sharp object, do not remove the nail! It is important that your veterinarian examine the location of the puncture and he/she will most likely want to take an x-ray to see in what direction the object is headed.

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11. Fracture

The most common fractures usually involve the lower limb. Complete fractures result in a non-weight bearing lameness of the affected leg and usually result in swelling of the area. If you feel the swelling and it feels like a bag of ice, you can suspect a fracture. Fractures below the knee and the hock can be splinted using a heavy roll of cotton, gauze rolls, PVC pipes for splints and duct tape. The joint above and below the fracture site should be stabilized in this manner. It is difficult to stabilize a fracture of the knee and the hock and it is difficult to immobilize the elbow and the stifle. Fractures involving the elbow, stifle and above do not require immediate stabilization unlike the lower legs, as the amount of soft tissue in those areas usually helps with stability. Fractures at the base of the skull can occur if a rearing horse flips over; these are usually associated with immediate neurological signs and have a grave prognosis. Other skull fractures (from a kick, wound, etc) may heal well depending on the extent of the injury and the location.

12. Hemorrhage-especially bright red bleeding

Any profuse, frequent hemorrhage is cause for concern. HOWEVER: a 1000 lb horse has approximately 11 gallons of blood in his blood stream! If you think that your horse has only lost 1-2 quarts of blood, it will be fine! The one exception to this rule is more of a chronic disease process where horses have intermittent, recurrent, bloody nasal discharge. Fungal diseases of the guttural pouch will eventually erode away the walls of large arteries in the guttural pouch and will result in rapid exsanguinations if the infection is not addressed. However, if your horse has a cut in it's limb and has not lost a significant amount of blood, it will not go into shock! In any case, DO NOT tie off the limb of a horse by attempting to reduce blood loss! You can inadvertently cut off blood circulation to the entire limb, as well as cause nerve damage! If you want to reduce blood loss, the best method is to pack any wound present with gauze and apply a pressure bandage to the wound (if possible) using thick cotton and gauze.

13. Heat stroke

This is a common problem in the SE, especially in endurance horses. Heat stroke due to overheating, exhaustion and electrolyte imbalances can be fatal without treatment. If you suspect your horse is overheating, find a shady spot and use cold water to cool your horse down. Rubbing alcohol can also help cool off your horse. Offer cool water in one bucket and offer water with electrolytes in another bucket (Gatorade power works fine if there is nothing else available). If available, place ice packs on the head as high temperatures will affect the brain. If available, placing a fan in front of your horse may help.

14. Acute founder (laminitis)Founder can occur with ANY disease process in horses, and commonly accompanies cases of diarrhea, pneumonia, tying up, grain overload, as well as may occur secondary to Cushings disease and metabolic syndrome (non emergency conditions). If the disease is acute, place your horse in a stall with thick bedding (6 inch thickness MINIMUM). Sand is a great source of bedding for this condition as horses can shift their weight around and find a comfortable position. DO NOT walk your horses around-this is an extremely painful condition and this may make it worse. While you are waiting for your veterinarian, he/she may want you to ice your horses feet (place ice in plastic bags and place over the feet)-this is an individual treatment option that some veterinarians use.

15. Grain overload

If you know that your horse has gotten into excess grain (bags of feed or other sources of carbohydrates like a large amount of bread, corn, etc), contact your veterinarian. This can result in colic, diarrhea and/or founder. Your veterinarian will more than likely pass a tube into the stomach and administer mineral oil or charcoal, as well as start your horse on anti-inflammatories. Close monitoring of your horses feet after an overeating episode is necessary to determine if laminitis (founder) is going to occur.

16. Toxin/poison ingestion

The treatment depends of the type of toxin or poison ingested. This is a rare occurrence.

17. Post-castration bleeding or any tissue coming out of the castration site

A small amount of bleeding immediately post-castration is normal; however, a steady, large stream of blood coming from the incision site is a concern.

18. Clostridium myositis

This is a disease affecting muscles after an injection has been given. The injections may be flunixin (banamine), vaccines, antibiotics; anything injected into a muscle can result in this. However, it is thought that this condition is associated with spores located deep in the muscle tissue and is not associated with spores at the surface of the skin. Horses affected with this type of myositis will usually have swelling and pain at the site of injection within 24 hours. In addition, crepitus is present: this refers to the presence of gas underneath the skin and you can feel this in the affected area (this feels like bubble wrap under the skin). This requires treatment with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. If the myositis is severe enough, muscle necrosis (death) will occur.

Urgent emergencies: contact your veterinarian that day or the next morning

1. Puncture Wounds NOT involving a joint or tendon sheath, abdomen or chest

As long as the puncture does not involve the above areas, you can clip/shave around the puncture wound and clean off the wound with soap (Ivory soap is a good choice) and irrigate with clean tap water. Hydrogen peroxide is not recommended for any wounds as it can be harmful to the tissues.

2. Mild lacerations or abrasions

As above. For mild lacerations or abrasions, oral antibiotics are usually not indicated as most heal well on their own. If the laceration/abrasion occurs in a hot season, you can put SWAT fly ointment AROUND the affected area to keep the flies off-do not put this directly on the wound.

3. Mild diarrhea: not frequent or voluminous

Mild diarrhea can occur with a variety of conditions and may be due to a heavy parasite burden among other things. There are many other causes of diarrhea though. As long as your horse is not getting dehydrated (check the gums for moistness), I recommend that you contact your veterinarian to set up an appointment for an examination.

4. Sudden onset of weight-bearing lameness

The most frequent cause of sudden lameness is a foot problem, usually a solar abscess. Even though the horse is very lame with this, it should still be able to bear weight on the affected leg. Until your veterinarian arrives, you can try soaking the foot in Epsom salts and putting a bandage on the foot for extra support (a sanitary pad works well to cover the bottom of the foot). If you have any Icthammol ointment or Magnapaste available, you can lather it on to the sole of the foot as this may help draw the abscess out.

Minor emergencies: contact your veterinarian to schedule a routine appointment

  1. Slight lameness
  2. Skin rash
  3. Slight eye discharge AS LONG AS the horse does not appear painful (i.e. squinting, tearing excessively, not opening the eye at all)
  4. Slightly reduced appetite with no other problems
  5. Slight difficulty chewing
  6. Slight nasal discharge with normal breathing

First Aid Kits

You can either purchase pre-made first aid kits or make you own. I recommend a condensed version for the trailer and the trail.The basic supplies are as follows:

Rectal thermometer

Inexpensive stethoscope

3x3 or 4x4 gauze squares

Adhesive tape such as Elastikon

White medical tape: 1 or 2

Antiseptic scrub: I recommend Nolvasan (chlorhexidine) scrub

Saline solution (as for contact lenses)

Large syringe: 35-60 cc syringe (the 60 cc catheter-tipped syringe is excellent for flushing wounds)

18 ga needle

Cotton roll

Vetrap or Coflex bandage: 4 inch size

Sterile non-adherent Telfa pads

Topical medication: not necessary but can include triple antibiotic ointment

Bandage scissors

Extra halter (nylon)

Extra lead rope

Duct tape (of course!)

Hoof pickOther supplies may include: fly spray, cold packs, rubbing alcohol, Epsom salts, electrolyte powder, clean towels/rags

Basic Wound Management

There are 4 principles of basic wound management:

1. Wound lavage: flush the wound copiously using saline solution. This will help remove contamination and bacteria. If no saline solution is available, tap water is a reasonable alternative. Pressure flushing using a large syringe and an 18 ga needle can be useful. However, do not apply too much pressure as this can actually push contaminants deeper into the wound. If you want to clip the hair around a wound first, apply a large amount of KY jelly to the surface of the wound before clipping; this will make it easier to remove the hair that will be stuck to the wound. If you want to flush the wound with iodine solution, dilute the iodine solution to a weak tea color. If you use chlohexidine solution, dilute this 1:4 with water.

2. Bandaging wounds on the lower legs will help keep the wound protected and clean. Change the bandage daily initially until drainage is minimal. Then, changing the bandage every 2-3 days is acceptable AS LONG AS the bandage stays clean and dry.

3. Depending on the location of the wound, further restriction of movement may be necessary. Wounds that are present over joints tend to take longer to heal, as the constant motion of the joint decreases healing. Some wounds benefit from temporary casting in order to allow faster healing and reduce the production of proudflesh.

4. Here is a list of things to avoid doing:

a. Do not use hydrogen peroxide on wounds: this destroys new cells

b. Do not place alcohol or tincture of iodine on a horse wound: this is caustic to the tissues

With regards to tetanus: if your horse has a wound, sole abscess, has recently foaled and has not been kept up to date on tetanus vaccines, contact your veterinarian so a tetanus booster can be administered. I recommend administering a tetanus booster vaccine to horses if it is has been over 6 months since their last vaccine. If your horse has never been vaccinated, contact your veterinarian so he/she can administer tetanus antitoxin and tetanus toxoid.

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Posted in Other Home Post Date 02/19/2016






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