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First Aid for Horses

No horse owner wants to think about their horse becoming injured, but thinking about it now can help save your horse’s life in the future. Accidents and injuries happen. The better prepared you are for these events, the better chance your horse has of recovering. However, never think of first aid as a substitute for veterinary care. Unless the injury is very minor, such as a superficial scrape, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible and follow any instructions she gives you.

What Is First Aid?

First aid provides immediate care after an injury or illness. Usually, the goal of first aid is to prevent any further harm from occurring and to start the recovery process. There are two general types of first aid. In the case of very minor injuries, first aid treats the problem and no further medical attention is needed. The other type is a stop-gap measure providing immediate care until more skilled medical help arrives.

The First-Aid Kit

Every horse owner should put together a first-aid kit and place it in the stable. Keep the kit in the same place at all times so that you always know where it is. It should be clearly labeled, so if someone else has to find it—for example, if you need to stay with your horse to keep him calm after a fall—that person will be able to do so quickly. Plastic or metal toolboxes work nicely as first-aid kits. You can also purchase a first-aid kit specifically for horses.

There are a number of items you should include in the kit. Here is a good list to start with:

  • adhesive tape
  • bandages in various sizes
  • blunt-nosed scissors
  • equine fly-repellent ointment (keeps flies out of wounds that are in places you can’t bandage)
  • equine thermometer (normal horse temperature is 99 to 101ºF [37.2 to 38.3ºC])
  • flashlight
  • gauze pads
  • ophthalmic antibiotic ointment
  • povidone-iodine solution or other horse-safe antiseptic
  • rubbing alcohol
  • self-adhering bandage (such as Vetrap or Pet Wrap)
  • stethoscope (for monitoring heart rate and listening to gut sounds)
  • stopwatch or watch that shows seconds (for measuring pulse and respiration rates—information your vet may need when you call in an emergency)
  • triple antibiotic ointment
  • wire cutters (useful if your horse becomes tangled in wire fencing, fishing line, or other similar materials)
It is also wise to keep a number of clean towels and a clean bucket near the first-aid kit. These items will come in handy for cleaning wounds. The towels and bucket should only be used for this purpose; never use them for other purposes, or you risk exposing your horse to infection.

Get in the habit of inspecting your first-aid kit regularly. Take stock of all the items to make sure that you have everything you need. Check the expiration dates of all medications, and replace any that are out of date.

What to Do When Your Horse Is Injured

The first thing to do if your horse is injured is to remain calm. He needs you at this moment, and if you panic, you will not be able to help him. Additionally, your screaming or frantic motions will just upset him more. Take a deep breath and then act appropriately.

Quickly observe the situation and assess your horse and his surroundings. Try to determine how serious the injury is and if there is more than one injury. Look for broken bones, injuries to the eyes, and deep punctures. These wounds will always require vet care, while a small cut may not. Always call your vet if you are unsure of how injured your horse is.

If your horse can move around, tie him up to prevent him from moving around a lot and making the injury worse. If he is severely panicked and thrashing around, remember your own safety—you can do your horse no good if he accidentally injures you. If this is the case, try to verbally calm him while you call your veterinarian (or better yet, have a friend call).

If your horse is bleeding badly (i.e., blood is squirting out in pulses or rapidly streaming out), you must stop the bleeding. To do this, take a clean towel or bandage and place it over the wound. Hold it firmly but gently in place until the bleeding stops. If bleeding is minor and/or slow, try to stop it only if your vet instructs you to do so over the phone. Do not remove any foreign objects (thorns, nails, glass, etc.) yourself; doing so may make a wound worse.

After assessing the situation and stopping serious bleeding, take your horse’s vital signs, write them down, and call your vet. Take his pulse (just behind the left elbow and on the back of the lower jaw are two good locations to do this), respiratory rate, and temperature. It’s also a good idea to look at his gums to see if they are their normal healthy pink color. This information will help your vet determine how badly injured your horse really is and therefore how quickly she needs to get to your horse. Your vet will likely have instructions for you to carry out until she arrives.

Treating a Minor Wound

Treating minor injuries in horses is similar to treating them in humans. Use common sense and follow this list:

  1. Gently clean out the wound with a clean towel soaked in a mix of warm water and antiseptic (such as povidone-iodine).
  2. Dry the wound with sterile gauze. Use a towel to dry off the surrounding area so that a bandage will stick properly.
  3. Apply triple antibiotic ointment unless your vet says otherwise.
  4. Cover the wound with nonstick sterile gauze and fix in place with a bandage. You will need to change the bandage and clean the wound twice a day or as per your vet’s instructions.
  5. If the wound is in an area you can’t bandage, apply the fly-repellent wound ointment.

Overheating and Heatstroke

Heatstroke in horses is common when they are overworked on hot summer days, but it can occur on warm days at any time of the year. Be on the lookout for these signs: unexpected fatigue, lethargy, inappetence, stumbling, panting, elevated temperature, and elevated pulse and/or respiratory rate. If you see these signs in your horse, he is probably overheated.

The first thing to do when you suspect that your horse has heatstroke is to cool him off. Move him to a shady area. Offer him drinking water, but do not let him drink too much—give a gallon (3 to 4 liters) or so every few minutes rather than a whole trough at once. Pour cold water over his back, and have a fan blowing on him if you can. While you are doing these things, make sure that he can get to his salt lick. If he is overheated, he has probably lost a lot of salt and other electrolytes in his sweat—the salt lick will help restore them.

If there is no improvement in your horse’s symptoms within 30 minutes, call your veterinarian for help. Call your vet immediately if his temperature goes over 105ºF (40.5ºC) or he stops sweating.