Proactive Preparedness: Common Horse Emergencies

You love your horse more than anything and want to do what’s right to help them live a healthy, happy life. But horses are accident-prone, and not even bubble wrap can prevent all emergencies. Recognizing common medical situations and knowing how to respond to them can help you fast-track your horse’s road to recovery. Here are four common scenarios you may encounter and advice on what actions to take until your veterinarian arrives.

1. Colic

Colic is every horse owner’s worst nightmare because this severe belly ache can require immediate veterinary care or surgery. Colic can be caused by many things including gas, an impaction (blockage) or a displaced piece of intestine.

What to look for: Signs of discomfort in horses, including pawing, repeatedly lying down and getting back up, biting at their sides, hanging their head low, lack of manure production, loss of appetite, increased respiratory rate or sweating on the neck or flanks.

How to respond: You know your horse’s every move and can detect even the most subtle change in their behavior. When your intuition tells you something is wrong, call your veterinarian right away to explain what you’re seeing. They will offer guidance on next steps, which may include:

  • Removing hay, feed and sometimes water. Restrict or do not allow grazing until your veterinarian arrives to limit the buildup of feed and fluid in the stomach.
  • Keeping the horse in a calm environment near a buddy if possible.
  • Keeping the horse up and calmly walking if it’s safe to do so.
  • Watching out for your own safety! Be sure to choose a space with plenty of room so you stay safe too.

Also, note that pregnant mares may be more at-risk for colic the closer they get to foaling and after the foal is born, so be extra-observant of new mamas in your herd and communicate with your veterinarian proactively.

[Calculate your horse’s risk of colic.]

2. Wounds or lacerations

Horses are curious, and they seem to quickly find any and all sharp objects in a stall or pasture. Also, their legs have very little soft tissue covering for protection, so lower limb wounds can potentially infect a joint or tendon sheath, which could be life-threatening.

Most often, a wound or laceration emergency is due to a protruding object piercing a horse’s sensitive skin or a horse stepping on a sharp object such as a nail. The edges of a water bucket handle and double-sided clips can also tear eyelids and nostrils. Horses turned out in a herd can also be injured while kicking and playing.

Pro-Tip: Walk around your horse’s stall, paddock and the pasture areas regularly to look for potential hazards that may cause injuries.

What to look for: An injury with associated swelling and pain when touched as well as severe or non-weight-bearing lameness in one of the legs. In some cases, a scrape, patch of missing hair or puncture wound may be the only sign of an injury. In other cases, active bleeding or dried blood may be readily apparent.

  • Assess the location and severity of the wound. Sometimes a small puncture wound with minimal bleeding at a joint or a nail sticking out of the bottom of a hoof can be more severe with a worse prognosis than a large flap of bleeding skin hanging off the chest region.
  • Superficial head wounds can bleed a lot, but they heal relatively quickly because there’s a good blood supply to the area.

Contact your veterinarian anytime a wound is bigger than a minor cut or scrape, a wound is located near a joint or there’s swelling or lameness. What may seem like a minor surface or puncture wound could be more serious. Allowing a small injury to heal on its own may lead to an issue that requires prolonged downtime and additional treatment.

How to respond:

  • If your horse is actively bleeding, apply a pressure wrap to stop the flow of blood with a polo or standing wrap.
  • If your horse isn’t bleeding, cold-hose the area to remove any visible dirt, gravel or shavings from the wound site.
  • Use an antiseptic solution to clean the wound which will help reduce bacterial infections. It is recommended to wear clean, disposable gloves during wound care. Avoid applying antibiotic sprays or ointments without prior veterinary approval.

Always ask for advice before administering medication. Giving the wrong type, dosage or duration might create secondary side effects. Finally, if a foreign object (e.g., a nail or piece of wood) is present, keep the horse still and calm and don’t remove it until your veterinarian arrives.

3. Fever

A horse’s normal temperature varies, but an acceptable range is generally between 99.0-101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Exercise, especially in excessive heat and humidity, is likely to raise any horse’s temperature, but healthy horses quickly return to normal levels after a period of rest. A prolonged increase in temperature or a reading that’s more than a few degrees above average can suggest an issue.

What to look for: A fever may indicate a localized or systemic infection. When a horse has a fever, they can have an increased respiratory and/or heart rate, go off-feed and water, and have patchy areas of sweat over their neck or flanks. Typically, they’ll also act dull and depressed and may exhibit droopy eyelids or helicopter ears. 

How to respond: How your horse feels influences the next steps. For example, if your horse’s temperature is only one or two degrees higher and they’re eating and drinking normally, your veterinarian may not opt for a treatment. Instead, they may recommend taking your horse’s temperature for a few days.

If a fever persists or your horse’s temperature continues to increase, it’s a warning sign. Your veterinarian will likely want to evaluate your horse to determine the underlying cause in order to decide on a treatment plan.

Getting into the habit of checking your horse’s temperature once or twice a month helps establish a baseline so that you can quickly identify a problem when you notice a behavior change, and your horse will have become accustomed to having their temperature taken.

4. Injury to or near the eyes

The eye is made up of sensitive tissues and can be the site of numerous injuries. Horses scratching their face on a fence, poking their face with a piece of hay or tall grass, or playing with a herd mate can be culprits. Eyelid lacerations or corneal ulcers are some of the most common eye injuries and are always considered an emergency. 

What to look for: Excessive tearing or swelling of the eyelid. A horse may likely also squint or hold their eye shut. When looking at your horse head-on, the eyelashes of both eyes should point in the same direction, about 45 degrees downward. If the eyelashes point downward more on one side, that’s likely the side that’s injured.

How to respond: Any injury to the eye is considered an emergency, and you should call your veterinarian right away. Prevent the horse from rubbing their face on their leg, stall wall or handler until your veterinarian arrives to assess the situation. You may need to put a clean fly mask on the horse to help protect the area.

Plan ahead

Chances are you have a first aid kit for your family. Since your horses are your family too, having a kit for the barn or stable is an important part of proactive planning and responsible horse ownership. When you have the necessary supplies and knowledge of common emergencies, you can respond faster and increase your horse’s chances of a full recovery. These are the basic supplies we recommend having on hand to respond to emergencies:

  • Thermometer
  • Lubricant for the thermometer, such as petroleum jelly
  • Stethoscope
  • Latex or nitrile disposable gloves
  • 4″ x 4″ gauze pads
  • Standing bandage pad material or roll cotton
  • Elastic tape
  • Dormosedan Gel® (detomidine hydrochloride), a convenient solution when horses need a mild, standing sedative prior to certain stressful, nonpainful situations or husbandry procedures such as bandage changes or clipping
  • Bandage scissors
  • Duct tape
  • Antiseptic solution

Simple wounds can develop severe complications if left untreated or treated inappropriately. Ensuring that your veterinarian administers your horse’s annual core disease vaccinations can help prevent severe, life-threatening diseases like rabies or tetanus caused by bacteria living in the soil.

Core EQ Innovator® is the first and only vaccine that contains all core diseases (rabies, Eastern equine encephalomyelitis, Western equine encephalomyelitis, West Nile virus and tetanus) in a single injection. If an injury occurs more than six months after the last tetanus vaccine, a tetanus booster is recommended according to the AAEP’s guidelines for vaccination.1

Visit zoetisequine.com to learn more.

IMPORTANT SAFETY INFORMATION

Do not use DORMOSEDAN GEL in horses with pre-existing atrioventricular (AV) or sinoatrial (SA) block, with severe coronary insufficiency, cerebrovascular disease, respiratory disease, or chronic renal failure. Do not use in anesthetized or sedated horses, or in conditions of shock, severe debilitation or stress due to extreme heat, cold, fatigue or high altitude. Do not use in horses intended for human consumption. Handle gel-dosing syringes with caution to avoid direct exposure to skin, eyes or mouth. See full Prescribing Information.

Reference

  1. American Association of Equine Practitioners. Infectious disease control vaccination guidelines. https://aaep.org/guidelines/vaccination-guidelines/infectious-disease-control. Accessed September 1, 2022.

All trademarks are the property of Zoetis Services LLC or a related company or a licensor unless otherwise noted. Dormosedan is a registered trademark of Orion Corporation; distributed by Zoetis.
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