Basic first aid tips for horsekeepers

It was a dark, cold Sunday evening just a couple weeks ago and the horses were late coming home from their pasture to the barn for the night. I had their feed, water and hay all ready and was just getting a spare lead rope and flashlight to head out and see where they were when they appeared in the back paddock and headed into the barn. My relief was momentary, as I immediately noticed that Sabrina, my elder mare, seemed to be bleeding profusely from above her eye. I called my husband to come into the barn to help and was prepared to call the veterinarian if necessary, but decided first to calm down, take a deep breath and assess the situation. I put Morgan, our other mare, in her stall where she was happily occupied with eating and didn’t mind being closed in so I could attend to Sabrina.

Fortunately, we had recently installed new brighter energy-efficient spotlights in the barn above the alleyway and stalls and I put Sabrina in cross ties to have both hands free to examine her. I got out the equine first aid kit, some clean towels and a small bucket of water. I moistened a towel and gently blotted the area above her eye to wash away some of the blood, and could see that what had at first glance appeared to be a pretty serious wound was actually not so bad – it was a horizontal cut about an inch or so above her eye, and once the blood was blotted away, seemed like it would be something I could take care of.

I remember being told that scalp wounds and head wounds will bleed profusely, often belying the size and extent of the wound. It was a bit tricky administering to the wound, though, as it was just above her eye, but Sabrina is a stoic and sensible horse, and must have realized I was doing my best to help her, and patiently stood still as I worked on her. I figured she must have banged into a post or branch on her way home in the dark, and I wanted to clean the wound to prevent infection, so I used a paper towel moistened with a bit of Povidine that was wrung out so as not to drip onto her eye, holding my other hand with a clean towel to catch any drops that might spill.

I then remembered in my equine first aid kit a product known as “blood stop powder” and got it out. It is described as “a first aid essential to aid in controlling excessive bleeding from wounds and punctures, and aids in granulation and scab formation.” I had never used this product before but was concerned about stopping the bleeding and thought this would be an ideal time to use it.

Being careful not to get any of the powder in Sabrina’s eye, I poured a bit onto another damp cloth and gently daubed it on the wound with one hand, holding another damp towel slightly below to catch any stray powder that might have otherwise dropped into her eye. Due to the location of the wound, it wasn’t easy to bandage, and so I made sure that enough of the powder adhered without falling off.

Later that evening I went out to check on Sabrina and was happy to see that she was eating contentedly, the wound was not bleeding any more, and all seemed well. The next morning, I could see that a scab had already started to form, the wound was dry and she seemed well on her way to recovery.

This experience caused me to be very grateful that I had the first aid kit in the barn, and realized it was important enough to mention to other horsekeepers who may not.

I contacted Dr. Joe Nebzydoski, a large animal vet from the Youngsville Veterinary Clinic, and asked if he would be willing to spend a few minutes discussing first aid, kits and emergency calls from horse owners.

He concurred that having a basic first aid kit in the barn is important – there are a number of equine first aid kits available that can be purchased or ordered from any number of equine tack and equipment stores, either in person or online. Short of a ready-made “kit,” you can put one together using things you probably already have, or if not, should add to your horse’s tack and equipment supplies. You can keep these items in a clean bucket that can be covered or stored in a closed bag to keep free of dust.

First aid supplies to have on hand in case of emergencies:

  • Gauze and bandages, both sterile and non-sterile
  • Bandage scissors and tape
  • Vetwrap
  • Disinfectant such as Betadyne or Povidine
  • Clean towels
  • Septic ointment such as Furazone
  • Blood stop powder
  • Digital thermometer
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Rubber gloves
  • Hoof pick/brush for examining foot wounds
  • Stethoscope for determining heart rate, gut sounds
  • Flashlight with working batteries
  • A tube of Banamine and Bute (Phenylbutazone)**

**If you live at a distance from the nearest veterinarian, Dr. Nebzydoski recommends having a tube of Banamine in the event of colic, as well as a tune of Bute (Phenylbutazone) for lameness – to be administered under your vet’s consultation. The two should not be given simultaneously. Bute is an analgesic (pain reliever) and anti-inflammatory medication commonly used for the treatment of lameness in horses. It belongs to a group of medications known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Banamine (Flunixin meglumine) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that quickly controls inflammatory responses within two hours of administration and is recommended for the alleviation of visceral pain associated with colic in the horse.

The top three emergency calls Dr. Nebzydoski receives regarding horses involve injury, colic and choke.

What to do/know before calling your veterinarian:

  1. Make a list of information to relate to your veterinarian; this will help determine what type and severity your emergency is – and how best to help.
  2. If there’s an injury, where is the location? If a leg or foot injury, is the horse able to bear any weight on that leg?
  3. If there’s a laceration – where is the wound, and how bad is it bleeding? Try gently blotting the area with clean towels or gauze to remove excess blood and determine the extent of injury. Oftentimes you can alleviate an actively bleeding wound on the leg, for example, by wrapping or bandaging the wound tightly until the vet arrives.
  4. If you suspect colic, see if the horse will eat or drink at all. If you have a stethoscope (safest method) listen for “gut” sounds on each side of the horse just above and below the flank area – you should be able to hear from one to three consistent gurgles/rumblings every 60 seconds. If the horse eats or drinks and has good “gut” sounds, you can likely “walk off” the problem by leading the horse around for 30 minutes. If you are not able to get your horse to eat or drink and you cannot hear any gut sounds, or if your horse is rolling or throwing himself around, call your vet immediately; you may be asked to administer some Banamine to calm your horse while waiting to be treated.
  5. For suspected choking, sometimes putting the horse in a quiet stall with a little water will alleviate the problem. If not, call the veterinarian.
  6. Always call your vet for eye wounds, don’t take any chances.
  7. Taking your horse’s temperature and recording its heart rate and respiration rate will be valuable information to know when you call your vet.

Vital life signs in the adult horse:

  • Heart rate: 32 – 36 beats per minute is the normal heart rate for an adult horse that is cool, calm and relaxed.
  • Respiration: 16 – 20 breaths per minute is normal for an adult horse at rest.
  • Temperature: A temperature from 99.8 – 100.5º is normal for a healthy adult horse.

Be sure to post your vet’s telephone number and contact information prominently in your barn, and have an equine first aid kit or supplies handy and in a clean place. You’ll rest easier knowing you will be prepared for unexpected or emergency situations, especially heading into the long winter months ahead.

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