Large laceration: First steps

When your horse suffers a large, bleeding wound, summon help and then take steps to lay the groundwork for healing.

If there’s a single protruding nail in a pasture fence, some member of the herd always seems to find it. It can be alarming when your horse shows up bleeding at the gate, but keep in mind that many of the largest equine wounds (lacerations) will heal without complications—if managed properly from the beginning.

Bleeding wound on horse's leg
AdobeStock image

Call your veterinarian right away for any wound you’re not comfortable handling on your own. In addition to making a thorough assessment of the wound—in particular, determining whether critical structures are affected—a veterinarian will decide whether stitches are needed and may remove dead or damaged tissue to aid the healing process.

What to do

As you wait for the veterinarian to arrive, take the following steps to staunch bleeding in a large laceration and keep your horse calm and comfortable:

• Apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. Grab the cleanest cloth you have at hand—bandages are best, but a towel, your shirt or a saddle pad will do—and press it gently but firmly against the wound. Do not ease up on the pressure while the bleeding continues. If the fabric becomes soaked with blood, place another directly over it. If it’s possible, you can also use a bandage to hold the cloth in place.

• Find a safe treatment area. If you can do so safely, walk the horse to a quiet, well-lit area with access to running water. However, do not move the horse if you are having difficulty controlling the bleeding or if you suspect there may also be injury to a tendon, ligament or bone. If the horse seems reluctant to move, let him stay where he is until help arrives.

• Keep the horse calm. Bringing in a quiet buddy to stand nearby may help settle an anxious horse. If the wound is not on his head or neck, you can offer him hay and water.

• Flush the laceration. Once the bleeding has slowed, use a gentle stream of water from a hose to rinse the wound as thoroughly as you can. You want to remove any dirt or small debris that may be clinging to the exposed tissues. Do not use a high-pressure spray attachment—this may push debris deeper into the wound. (Note: Skip this step if the bleeding was pulsatile and spurting; if an artery might be involved you do not want to risk restarting the bleeding—just leave your bandage in place and wait for the veterinarian.)

• Look for foreign material. Splinters or other foreign objects stuck in a wound can slow healing. If you see anything, leave it in place until the veterinarian arrives. She may need to determine the depth and track of any punctures within the larger wound. If embedded debris falls away while you are waiting, keep the object to show to your veterinarian.

• Examine the rest of the horse, too. A gaping wound will demand your attention, but your horse may have incurred other injuries that also require treatment.

What NOT to do

• Don’t use a tourniquet on a laceration. When applied incorrectly, tourniquets can damage nerves, muscles and other tissues. A horse can lose more than two gallons of blood without serious ill effects; a tourniquet is unlikely to be needed before help arrives.

• Don’t administer medications to the horse unless your veterinarian instructs you to. If you give the horse oral medications for pain, your veterinarian will not be able to administer faster-acting, more effective intravenous analgesics. You may also mask any signs of lameness.

• Don’t apply topical aerosols, ointments, powders or salves to the laceration. Antibacterial ointments can be damaging to healthy tissues, and sticky preparations may interfere with your veterinarian’s efforts to assess and clean the wound.

How bad is it?

Experienced horse owners can care for many minor scrapes and cuts on their own. But lacerations that are more complicated or severe will heal more efficiently if a veterinarian is called in sooner rather than later. If in doubt about the seriousness of a wound, do not hesitate to call for help. Here are some of the factors that can complicate a wound:

  • Size. The length and width of a wound can affect how well it will heal, but depth is a particular concern. Serious infections may develop if the surface of a deep wound heals over, trapping pockets of bacteria under the skin. Underestimating the depth of a wound is a common mistake. Call your veterinarian if you aren’t sure how deep a wound is.
  • Age. Even a small wound that goes undiscovered or untreated for more than eight hours can harbor significant bacterial growth that increases the risk of infection and other complications.
  • Bruising. Traumas such as kicks or collisions are likely to cause significant bruising in the tissues surrounding the wound itself. Extensive bruising can complicate healing.
  • Complexity. A straight cut from a sharp object will heal more readily than torn flesh with ragged edges.
  • Location. Wounds on the lower leg aren’t as likely to be life threatening, but their proximity to muck and dirty bedding increases the risk of contamination and infection. Wounds to the abdomen and neck may be more serious if bleeding cannot be controlled or an abdominal wound is deep enough to introduce infection to major organs. Any head wound that is more than skin-deep is serious.
  • Contamination. Foreign material embedded in a wound— such as gravel, splinters, dirt or hair—can introduce infection and slow healing. Sometimes the debris may not be visible at the surface of the wound. Ask your veterinarian to examine any wound that does not heal as expected.




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