When an equine emergency arises, one of the best things you can do to help your horse is to have an emergency plan in place. Knowing your horse’s “normal” will help you determine the severity of a situation and relay information about your horse’s condition to your veterinarian.
The first steps to identify something is wrong are knowing your horse’s normal vital signs, manure production and appearance, and feed and water consumption, said Katy Sullivan, assistant professor of clinical equine field service at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square, during a lecture on April 4, 2023.
Before an emergency happens, you must also establish who is responsible for financial and medical decisions regarding your horse, especially if you lease him. Have a plan in place to determine who can make decisions for your horse should you be unreachable. It is important to understand your insurance policy and how to open a claim if you have insurance, before an emergency happens, said Sullivan. Also be sure your truck and trailer are in safe, working condition and easy to access in the event of an emergency. Do what is best for you and your horse when deciding whether to go to the emergency hospital, said Sullivan. “Be realistic about what kind of financial investment you can take on before the emergency occurs, so you aren’t making emotional financial decisions,” she added. “Be open with your vet about your constraints.”
Sullivan recommends farm owners keep a generator and back
–up water source in the event of a natural disaster. Before a disaster occurs, owners should put identification on their horse and create a “go kit” in case evacuation is necessary. The kit should include feed and water for at least three days, medications, proof of vaccination and current negative Coggins test, microchip number, pre-signed veterinary medical treatment authorization (in case you cannot be with your horse and someone else must make medical decisions), and current photos of you and your horse, said Sullivan.
The most common emergencies veterinarians see are colic, lacerations, non-weight-bearing lameness, choke, eye problems, and neurologic events, Sullivan said. Changes in attitude, appetite, and water consumption can indicate colic, as can more serious signs such as flank watching or biting and repetitive rolling. If you believe your horse is colicking, observe his manure production and, if safe to do so, take his vital signs and listen for gut sounds. This information will help your veterinarian determine a course of action, said Sullivan.
While waiting for the veterinarian, you can hand-walk your horse if it is safe to do so. “This can help with gut motility, but also gives you as the owner something to do if you are anxious while waiting for the vet,” she added. Never give any medication without speaking to your veterinarian first.
With lacerations or puncture wounds, first identify what type of bleeding is present. Oozing blood will indicate veinous bleeding, while squirting indicates arterial. While you wait for the vet, apply pressure to the wound with a clean towel or bandaging. Identify if the horse is lame, if the wound is near a joint, and if any deeper structures are visible, and relay this information to the veterinarian, said Sullivan. While waiting for him or her to arrive, you can gently rinse the wound with a hose or saline wound spray.
“Non-weight-bearing lameness often indicates a hoof abscess, cellulitis, fracture, or penetrating object,” said Sullivan. If you suspect an abscess, have bandaging materials ready, check the digital pulse, and soak the foot in a warm water, Epsom salts, and betadine solution while waiting for the veterinarian. If the horse fails to improve after initial examination by your veterinarian and several days of treatment, a repeat exam with radiographs might be necessary.
“Cellulitis is the swelling and infection of subcutaneous tissue that can be secondary to a wound,” said Sullivan. Horses with cellulitis often have a fever. While waiting for the veterinarian, prepare bandaging material and standing wraps, and cold hose the infected area.
Although some fractures are obvious to the naked eye, others require radiographs to identify. If you suspect your horse has fractured a bone, keep him calm and as still as possible while waiting for the veterinarian. It can also be helpful to gather potential splint materials such as 2-by-4-inch pieces of wood or 6-inch PVC pipes cut in half, lengthwise, of various heights.
If your horse has a penetrating object wound, do not remove the object, especially if it is in the foot. The veterinarian will need to examine and radiograph the horse with the object in place to determine if any major structures are involved and the safest way to remove it. If the object falls out on its own, keep it for the veterinarian to see, and if it was in the hoof, try to find the spot where it penetrated.
“Choke commonly occurs when horses are fed unsoaked pellets or poorly hydrated beet pulp or hay cubes,” said Sullivan. Remove all food and water from your horse if he is choking, and do not massage the neck because that can cause further trauma to the esophagus. Hand-walk your horse while waiting for the veterinarian if it safe to do so, and have your vet examine him even if the choke appears to resolve on its own to ensure complete resolution and look for signs of potential complications.
Eye problems can become very serious very quickly, said Sullivan. “If you notice a problem with your horse’s eye, call your veterinarian immediately.” Over-the-counter soothing eye washes can be used while waiting for the vet, but never put eye medication with steroids in the eye without first consulting your veterinarian.
“In neurologic events, the first priority is to maintain your own safety,” said Sullivan. “The horse might be aware, but they are not in full control of their body, which can be very dangerous.” If it is safe to do so, take the horse’s temperature and remove anything he could potentially injure himself on, such as water or feed buckets, and remove any other animals that might be nearby.
Sullivan recommends owners keep a first-aid kit with items such as a stethoscope, thermometer, light source (such as a head light), exam gloves, and bandaging materials at the farm at all times. Again, being prepared for emergency events is the best way to help your horse.