Emergency care for your horse


If you own horses long enough, sooner or later you are likely to confront an emergency.

There are several behavioural traits that make horses especially accident prone: one is their instinctive flight response; another is their herd instinct and third is their natural curiosity. Such behaviours account for many of the cuts, abrasions and bruises that horses suffer. In fact, wounds are probably the most common emergency that horse owners must contend with.

There are other types of emergencies such as colic, foaling difficulties, acute lameness, seizures and illness. As a horse owner, you must know how to recognise serious problems, respond promptly and take appropriate action while awaiting the arrival of your veterinarian.

Recognising a problem

When a horse is cut or bleeding, the problem is obvious. However, in cases of colic, illness or more subtle injury, it may not be as apparent. It is important to know your horse’s normal vital signs aswell as its normal behaviour patterns. By observing a change in these signs you may be able to recognise signs of ill health.

There will be variations in each individual horse. Take several baseline measurements when the horse is healthy, rested and relaxed. Write them down and keep them in a handy place, perhaps with your first aid kit so you have them to compare to in a case of emergency. Normal ranges for adult horses are:

  • Heart rate: 30-40 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate: 12-20 beats per minute
  • Temperature: 37.5°C - 38.5°C. If the temperature exceeds 39°C, contact your veterinarian immediately.
  • Capillary refill time (time it takes for colour to return to gum tissue adjacent to teeth after pressing and releasing with your finger): 2 seconds or less.

What else should I look for?

  • Colour of the mucous membranes of gums, conjunctiva (inner eye tissue) and inner lips of vulva should be salmon pink.
  • Skin pliability: pinch a flap of skin on the neck and release. It should immediately snap back into place. Failure to do so is evidence of dehydration.
  • Colour, consistency and volume of faeces and urine should be typical of the individual’s usual excretions. Straining or failure to excrete should be noted.
  • Signs of distress, anxiety or discomfort.
  • Lethargy, depression or a horse that is not eating.
  • Presence or absence of gut sounds.
  • Evidence of lameness such as head bobbing, reluctance to move, odd stance, pain, unwillingness to rise.
  • Bleeding, swelling, evidence of pain.
  • Seizures, paralysis, or tying-up (a form of muscle cramps).

First aid kits

First aid kits can be simple or elaborate, but there are some essentials. Here is a short list to get you started. (*Material should be sterile)

  • Cotton wool roll*
  • Gauze pads, assorted sizes*
  • Bandage*
  • Flashlight and spare batteries
  • Pliers (to pull nails)
  • Adhesive Tape
  • Leg Wraps
  • Sharp Scissors
  • Rectal thermometer
  • Surgical scrub such as Betadine® and antiseptic solution
  • Antiseptic powder or ointment
  • Latex gloves
  • Permanent marker pen

Emergency wound care

The sight of blood may unnerve you but maintaining your presence of mind can save your horse’s life. The initial steps you take to treat a wound can prevent further damage and speed healing. The following should be used as a guideline:

1. Evaluate the location, depth and severity of the wound. Call your veterinarian anytime you feel your horse is in need of emergency care, for example:

  • There appears to be excessive bleeding
  • The entire skin thickness has been penetrated
  • The wound occurs over or near a joint
  • Any structures such as bones or tendons are visible
  • A puncture has occurred
  • The wound is severely contaminated with dirt, grass etc.

2. Consult with your veterinarian before you attempt to clean the wound or remove debris or penetrating objects, as you may precipitate uncontrollable bleeding or do further damage to the wound. Large objects should be stabilised to avoid damaging movement if possible. Do not put anything on the wound except a compress or cold water.

3. Stop the bleeding by covering the wound with a sterile, absorbent pad (not cotton wool), applying firm steady even pressure to the wound.

4. Do not medicate or tranquilise the horse unless specifically directed by your veterinarian. If the horse has suffered severe blood loss or shock, the administration of certain drugs can be life-threatening.

5. If the eye is injured, do not attempt to treat. Await your veterinarian.

6. If a horse steps on a nail or other sharp object and it remains embedded in the hoof, first clean the hoof. Consult with your veterinarian before you remove the nail. If advised, carefully remove the nail to prevent the horse from stepping on it and driving it deeper into the hoof cavity. Be sure to mark the point and depth of entry with a marker so the veterinarian can assess the extent of the damage. Apply antiseptic to the wound, and wrap to prevent additional contamination.

7. All horses being treated for lacerations or puncture wounds will require effective tetanus protection.

Other emergencies

There are far too many types of emergencies to adequately cover them all in this article. However, regardless of the situation, it is important to remember these points:

  1. Keep the horse as calm as possible. Your own calm behaviour will help achieve this.
  2. Move the horse to a safe area.
  3. Get someone to help you and delegate responsibilities such as calling the vet, retrieving the first aid kit, holding the horse etc.
  4. Notify your veterinarian immediately. Be prepared to provide specific information about the horse’s condition. 
  5. Listen closely and follow your veterinarian’s instructions. Do not administer drugs especially tranquilisers or sedatives, unless specifically instructed to do so.

Many accidents can be prevented by taking the time to evaluate your horse’s environment and removing potential hazards. Mentally rehearse your emergency action plan, preparation will help you stay calm in the event of a real emergency. Keep your veterinarian’s phone number and first aid kit handy. In an emergency, time is critical. Do not be concerned about over-reacting or annoying your veterinarian. Your horse’s health and well-being depend on it.

This content was originally published by Equine Veterinarians Australia (EVA), a special interest group of The Australian Veterinary Association.