Tips for Handling Equine Emergencies

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Credit: Thinkstock Your veterinarian might recommend wrapping and/or cold hosing an injury until medical help arrives.

Credit: Thinkstock Your veterinarian might recommend wrapping and/or cold hosing an injury until medical help arrives.

Many farms and stables have staff or owners who are inexperienced, but might find themselves in a situation to make a decision about a horse's well-being on your property. Information supplied in this article from Travis M. Tull, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, can help your staff and owners make the right decisions in an emergency.

Horse ownership is a rewarding experience that allows an individual to establish a relationship with their animal providing some people with a livelihood and others an outlet from the daily work schedule or routine. Regardless of use or vocation, when considering ownership, one must be aware of the inherent responsibility that accompanies a dependent animal. Adequate shelter, pasture, food, a preventative health plan and specialized tack or equipment are all needed to care for and facilitate animal use.

The individual that coined the phrase: “There is no such thing as a free horse” spoke truly and likely from first-hand knowledge.

Although the horse has been domesticated for quite some time, it is still a grazing prey animal whose first reaction to perceived animosity is escape. It is no surprise that medical emergencies in the horse are a common facet of ownership due to their size, strength, athletic ability, unique anatomy and frequent overriding reaction to stimuli.

For this reason it is important for horse owners to recognize this risk, be comfortable identifying medical problems, and have a plan for such an occurrence thus maximizing the chances for a positive outcome.

Early Recognition and Action is Important

One of the most essential factors in the ultimate outcome of equine emergencies is time or duration. Regardless of etiology or location of the physical problem, the longer a malady goes unrecognized or untreated, the worse the prognosis becomes and the more expensive it becomes to treat.

The physiologic response to trauma, while beneficial in the short term, incites problems through continued stimulation of inflammation if the inciting cause is not resolved and secondary bacterial infection also complicates resolution. Chronicity is directly correlated to increased expense of treatment and inversely correlated to a favorable outcome. Therefore, it is no surprise that the first, and arguably the most important, step is to have a relationship with an equine veterinarian.

These individuals are available to aid owners in determining what problems need immediate attention and/or referral to a hospital facility while also providing essential recommendations on nutrition, husbandry and preventative health that will reduce the risk of future emergencies.

The second step is for owners to have a general response plan as stress and excitement can override typical cognitive responses.

The final step is to know where an equine hospital is located and the distance or time it will take to transport a horse there. When assessing an emergency, owners should remember to remain calm, stay safe, gather information and supply the information to their veterinarian when contacted. Information that will help your veterinarian evaluate the situation over the phone includes basic information such as your horse’s age, gender, and breed; vital signs such as temperature, pulse, respiration, mucous membrane color (color of the gums) if possible to obtain safely; and the duration of the problem.

A normal adult horse should have a temperature between 99.5 and 101.5°F, a pulse or heart rate of 28-44 beats per minute, respiration rate of 12-16 breaths per minute, and a light pink mucous membrane color (although this can be variable).

Horses like people have differing vital signs, so it is important for owners to establish what is normal for their horse before an emergency arises. It also is imperative for owners to observe their horse’s normal behavior as horses have unpredictable pain thresholds and sometimes minor changes in behavior can indicate a problem.

Regardless of type of emergency, most animals should be confined in clean dry stall in order to limit their movement. Owners should also avoid administrating non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as bute or banamine as these drugs may interfere with your veterinarian’s ability to evaluate your horse.

Types of Emergencies

There are general categories of emergencies that will briefly be discussed in this article.

Musculoskeletal emergencies are common and include lacerations, penetrating foreign bodies and lameness.

Lacerations that are full thickness or completely through the skin are often more contaminated than suspected, may involve important structures such as tendons, ligaments or joints, and warrant veterinary intervention. The area may be cleaned with tap water and covered with a clean bandage or leg wrap. Applying topical medications are usually unnecessary. If significant hemorrhage or bleeding occurs the wound should be wrapped snugly with an absorbent dressing over the wound.

Penetrating foreign bodies either in the hooves or elsewhere are unsightly, but should be left in place to allow your veterinarian to identify what anatomic structures are involved.

Any horse with a non-weight-bearing lameness should be evaluated by a veterinarian. The horse could have a simple abscess, but other more serious injuries, such as fractures or infected joints, often result in the same clinical signs.

Colic, a generic term for abdominal pain, is common and often resolves with veterinary care at the farm. In handling the painful colicky horse, it is not necessary to administer mineral oil by mouth, or prevent the horse from rolling by continuous walking as either activity could result in injury to the horse owner. Instead the animal should be placed in an area where they will not injure themselves or become cast (stuck) against a stall or fence and the veterinarian contacted.

Ophthalmic (eye) problems are always a veterinary emergency and often present as tearing, squinting, discharge, swelling or light sensitivity. The eye is a delicate organ and attempts at treatment without a veterinarian may result in irreversible damage.

If food or water is observed coming out of your horses nostrils, it could be a sign of esophageal obstruction (choke) or dysphagia (problems swallowing) and the horse should have food and water removed and your veterinarian contacted.

Epistaxis or bleeding from the nostrils, ataxia (uncoordinated movements) or inability to stand are all emergencies that also require veterinary attention.

Take-Home Message

An equine emergency can be a stressful ordeal for both the horse owner as well as the horse involved. Concise communication of pertinent information and vital signs to your veterinarian will allow him or her to rapidly evaluate the situation and give further instruction until he or she arrives. If horse owners are adequately prepared they can maximize the probability that their horses will have a positive outcomes facilitated by rapid recognition, prompt action and veterinary intervention.