First aid, equine style

Photo by Christina Weese.

Anyone who’s been around horses knows they’re accident prone and susceptible to problems such as colic and choke. If you’re a horse owner, knowing first aid can help you to prepare yourself and your animal for the veterinarian’s arrival.

How can horse owners prepare themselves for emergencies? Practise examining your horse so you become familiar with the process and can report the vital signs to your veterinarian in an emergency. Remember to conduct an exam only if it’s safe to do so.

  • Check the temperature using a rectal thermometer. Normal body temperature is between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees.
  • Determine the heart rate using a stethoscope to listen behind the left elbow. The normal rate is 20 to 45 beats per minute (bpm). “Using your fingers to palpate the facial artery and find the heart rate can be tricky, so practise on a normal, healthy horse in advance.”
  • Determine the respiratory rate by counting the breaths while watching the flank. The normal rate is 8 to 12 bpm.
  • To check for shock, assess the capillary refill time (CRT) by pressing your finger on the mucous membrane or the gums. The CRT should be less than two seconds, and the mucous membranes should appear pale pink and moist.
  • Listen for gastrointestinal sounds (GIT). Normal gut sounds should be almost constantly heard. Use a stethoscope or listen with your ear to each of the four quadrants: upper and lower left and right flanks.

Prepare a first aid kit: You can buy a first aid kit online or put one together using supplies available at your veterinary clinic. Include these items:

  • Your veterinarian’s contact numbers
  • A stethoscope
  • A thermometer
  • Scissors and bandaging supplies such as non-adherent bandages, plain gauze, Vetrap, quilts and polo wraps
  • Absorbent pads (or baby diapers) for stopping bleeding
  • A flashlight with a fresh set of batteries
  • Wire cutters

Keep these supplies in a clean bucket that can be filled with fresh warm water when your veterinarian arrives.

Prepare your truck and trailer: If referral is an option for you, be sure your trailer is in working order and have your truck ready for emergency transportation.

Colic: A colicky horse may be pawing, stretching out, looking at its belly and lying down and rolling. Call your veterinarian if you see a horse that stretches out longer and appears to be straining to urinate – that’s a common indication of mild colic.

What to do:

  • Conduct a physical exam but only if it’s safe to do so
  • Call your veterinarian. If advised to do so, administer a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as flunixin meglumine (Banamine) by squirting it into the mouth
  • Remove feed but make sure there’s access to fresh water. You can walk your horse if it’s quiet, but if it is trying to roll, it may be best to put your horse in a larger paddock and wait for your vet
  • Prepare a well-lit place out of the wind for the veterinarian to work
  • Have a bucket of warm water ready for inserting a nasal gastric tube

What not to do:

  • Never inject Banamine into the muscle. It can cause a complicated bacterial infection
  • Don’t attempt to give mineral oil orally. It can be aspirated into the lungs causing aspiration pneumonia – a serious, untreatable condition
  • Don’t perform a rectal exam. Leave that to your veterinarian who’s trained to perform the procedure without causing a rectal tear

Non-weight bearing lameness: The animal refuses to put any weight on a leg and may sometimes touch only the toe tip on the ground. The limb may be hot and swollen.

What to do:

  • Call your veterinarian who may recommend a specific dosage and administration method for an NSAID such as phenylbutazone (Bute)
  • Conduct a physical exam
  • If the horse can walk, take it to an area with electricity in case X-rays are required

What not to do:

  • Don’t force the horse to walk. Stay with it and keep it quiet
  • Don’t attempt a splint without your clinician’s guidance
  • Don’t try to dig out a hoof abscess on your own. Your clinician can use X-rays or hoof testers to locate the abscess and may recommend soaking the foot for a day or two before digging it out

Equine choke: This condition results from an esophageal obstruction that prevents swallowing. You may see feed material at the nostrils or excessive salivation. The animal may be making a stretching, gagging motion that looks as if it’s trying to burp.

What to do:

  • Conduct a physical exam
  • Call your veterinarian
  • Move to a safe, quiet, non-distressing place. Although a horse will sometimes relax enough that the choke resolves on its own, your clinician should still come out and pass a tube to completely resolve the obstruction

What not to do:

  • Don’t encourage the horse to eat. Remove all feed and water
  • Don’t try to administer mineral oil – it may cause aspiration pneumonia

Wounds: The wound location is extremely important. Call your veterinarian for any of the following: small puncture wounds, large lacerations, wounds accompanied by excessive bleeding and wounds over an important joint or over any ligaments or tendons.

What to do:

  • Stop the bleeding. Place a pressure bandage – an absorbent pad or wad of gauze – over the area and hold it in place with Kling (conforming bandage), making sure it’s not overly tight. Place another type of cotton wadding on top and use a cohesive bandage (such as Vetrap) to hold that in place. To determine the correct tension, unroll it and pull out as far as you can and then relax that by 50 per cent. Don’t make it too tight, or you’ll create a tourniquet effect. If the wound continues to bleed, place a bandage over top of it again and just keep adding layers until the bleeding stops
  • Once the bleeding has stopped, add another wrap such as a cotton quilt and cover with a polo wrap
  • Conduct a physical exam
  • Call your veterinarian
  • Place the animal in a comfortable, warm stall, ensuring that the lighting is good in case sutures are necessary
  • Prepare a bucket of warm water
  • Double check the last time your horse had a tetanus shot

What not to do:

  • Don’t place any kind of tourniquet over the area unless your veterinarian advises you to do so
  • Don’t clean the wound. You might push dirt or bacteria further into it
  • Don’t place any ointment or salve on the wound
  • Don’t delay calling your veterinarian

Eye trauma: The symptoms are often difficult to see, so watch for a horse that appears to be squinting or may have an eye that’s watering. To detect squinting, check the eyelashes. They should be pointed up or out to the side, not downwards. The animal may also act blind or become nervous when you’re on one side of him.

What to do:

  • Call your veterinarian
  • Conduct a physical exam in a dark, quiet place
  • If you need to transport your horse, use an old bra to protect and cover the eye

What not to do:

  • Don’t delay calling the veterinarian. Eye trauma is always considered an emergency
  • Don’t put any ointment into the eye unless your veterinarian recommends it. Don’t use ointments or drops from a previous time as they may have been prescribed for different conditions
  • Don’t try to examine the eye yourself. Your veterinarian often has to use a sedative and a nerve block to conduct an examination

Foaling problems: Although very rare and impossible to prevent, foaling problems can develop and escalate very quickly. Call your veterinarian immediately in any of these circumstances:

  • The water breaks and there’s no foal on the ground within 30 minutes
  • The foal presents abnormally. It should present with one foot in front, the other foot slightly backwith the nose nestled on top and the hooves pointing down

    Dr. Suzanne Mund. Photo by Christina Weese.

  • The placenta is delivered ahead of the foal. This is called a red bag delivery
  • There’s excessive hemorrhage

What to do:

  • Call the veterinarian immediately
  • Conduct a physical exam if it’s safe
  • Keep the mare quiet and comfortable
  • In the case of a red bag delivery, your veterinarian may instruct you to cut the white star of the red bag and pull the foal. This is the only time you should attempt any manipulations on a foal

What not to do:

  • Don’t attempt to reposition or pull the foal yourself unless your veterinarian advises you

Dr. Suzanne Mund, who graduated from the WCVM in 2013, is a resident in large animal surgery and a Master of Science graduate student in the WCVM Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.


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