Accidents, injuries and illnesses are a part of horse ownership. When an emergency arises, you’ll need to know how to respond, especially when a veterinarian can’t be reached or can’t get to the horse for an extended period.
“For this reason alone, every horse owner should be able to administer basic first aid,” said Steve Adair, DVM, an associate professor of equine surgery at the University of Tennessee (UT).
Being proficient in administering first aid means you’ll be able to handle minor cuts and scrapes on your own and that you’ll be able to provide basic care to keep your horse comfortable until the veterinarian arrives.
In his role at UT, Dr. Adair has worked extensively with draft breeds. For 30 years, he and other veterinarians at the University of Tennessee have overseen the famous Budweiser Clydesdales’ health. In this article, he highlights first aid appropriate for draft horse owners.
Horse’s vital signs
Regardless of the injury, infection or illness, it’s critical to familiarize yourself with a horse’s vital signs. Monitoring a horse’s temperature, pulse (heart rate) and respiration rate (TPR) provide insight into the severity of the situation and can provide an early indication of illness.
Dr. Adair says the resting temperature for a healthy adult horse is 99.5-101.5 F. Always include a thermometer in your first aid kit and have extra batteries on hand for digital models.
The heart rate for a horse at rest is 28-44 beats per minute. A horse’s pulse can be observed without a stethoscope, but Dr. Adair recommends keeping one in the barn to make the process easier. If you don’t have a stethoscope, find the horse’s pulse and count the pulsations for 15 seconds. Multiply that by four. If you have a stethoscope, listen for the heart’s “lub dub” sound. Every beat counts as one.
To evaluate the horse’s respiration rate, watch the horse’s chest move in and out. One exhale and inhale equals one breath. The respiration rate is 10-24 breaths per minute.
“If you suspect the horse is not feeling well, check his vitals twice a day and up to every few hours,” Dr. Adair said.
In addition to monitoring a horse’s TPR, also check the horse’s mucous membrane (gum) color and capillary refill time. Normally, a horse’s gums are pink in color and are moist to the touch. While inspecting his gums, press a finger on the gum line and slowly count how long it takes for color to return after the pressure is released. Gums that are shades of red, blue and even white can indicate a problem. An abnormal color combined with longer capillary refill times, typically means the horse is in shock. Share this information with your veterinarian immediately.
Horses have a natural knack for acquiring cuts, scratches or gouges. Wounds are typically classified by where they are on the horse’s body, for example, head, limb, body. The size of the gash and the amount of blood don’t always accurately depict the severity of the injury. If the wound is severe enough to require veterinary attention, follow your veterinarian’s instructions until he or she arrives because there are instances where they will advise you not to clean a wound.
Horses that are bleeding profusely need immediate attention. Catch the horse and apply pressure to the wound to slow or stop the flow of blood. Never put yourself in danger of getting hurt while tending to a horse’s wounds. Have a handler hold the horse if possible and have plenty of room to stay clear of a thrashing horse.
Prevention is always recommended. Check stalls, barns and run-in sheds for sharp edges and take care of dangling tree limbs to limit opportunity for trouble. Horses will find a way to get injured in even the most well-tended environments. Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to handle potential lacerations before they occur.
Splints and bandages
Various bandage types and applications are available. In the first aid context, they are commonly used to reduce swelling in the legs or as protection for a wound.
“You should be able to apply a bandage or splint in case of lacerations, punctures or broken legs,” Dr. Adair said.
Bandages, for example, may be needed to treat progressive lymphangitis (big leg), a condition that is more common in draft breeds than light breeds. It is identifiable by the noticeable swelling on the rear legs that begin at the hoof and extend all the way up to the stifle. Big leg starts from an infection in a skin wound that spreads into the lymphatic system. Wraps are one part of a treatment protocol for the condition.
The best resource for learning the difference between wraps and how to apply them is your veterinarian. Local cooperative extension and related horse husbandry organizations may also offer workshops on the basics of applying wraps.
Giving an intravenous injection is not a task that should be taken lightly or done without speaking with your veterinarian first. However, there may be instances, especially with draft horses, when it may be necessary to administer an IV injection.
Anti-inflammatory medications are often a component of a treatment regimen of big leg and other conditions more prevalent in draft horses including laminitis and myositis.
“You should know how to give an anti-inflammatory intravenous (IV) injection such as banamine,” Dr. Adair said.
It is important to understand dosing and the proper technique for administering IV injections. Giving too much or in the incorrect location can be toxic. Ask your veterinarian for training on how to properly give an injection and only administer under veterinary advice.
Learn to develop a working knowledge of basic first aid techniques. Though such knowledge is never a replacement for veterinary care, it is an essential skill that could one day save your horse’s life.
“Always seek advice from a veterinarian if possible,” Dr. Adair said.
Ask your veterinarian for resources and or training to learn important first aid techniques.
Must-haves in your first aid kit
Keeping a well-stocked first aid kit means that you’ll have the right tools to help your horse in the event of an injury, illness or accident.
Treating wounds quickly is key to reducing the opportunity for infection. Depending on the severity, treatment limits the amount of blood lost. Dr. Adair recommends the following items for treating lacerations and other wounds:
- Gauze pads
- Roll cotton
- Brown gauze
- Adhesive tape (Elastikon, VetWrap, etc.)
- Non-adherent wound dressings
- Leg wraps
- White tape
- Duct Tape
- Surgical soap (such as betadine scrub)
- Eye wash
- Exam gloves
Monitoring your horse’s vital signs is critical to determining the severity of an illness. Keep these items in your first aid kit for easy access:
- Thermometer and spare batteries for digital versions
- Hoof Pick
In emergency situations, you may need to free your horse from an entanglement. Dr. Adair suggests including the following items in any first aid kit:
- Flashlight and spare batteries
- Hack saw (for trailer in case of wreck and you should cut partition or divider)
- Utility knife or seatbelt cutter (in case of wreck and you must cut head tie)