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First aid for horse injuries and wounds
NOTE: This article is provided for general information purposes only. We recommend that you establish a relationship with an equine veterinarian and consult with your veterinarian regarding proper first aid, vaccinations and wound treatment for your horse.
Anyone who owns a horse needs to be prepared for the eventuality of wound and injury care. Horses sometimes get hurt or injured in the normal course of the day from barbed wire, nails, fencing, glass or metal. They run into things, step on sharp objects or get stuck on obstacles. If there are deep cuts, puncture wounds, open-sore injuries or injuries requiring antibiotics, you’ll need to call the veterinarian—but it’s important to be able to provide your horse with first aid until help arrives.
You can keep your horse safe from tetanus by making sure he is vaccinated each year. Preventive measures, like a tetanus shot, can make the difference between a horse that recovers from a simple-looking wound and one that dies from a bacterial infection.
Cleaning open wounds
The best thing to use in cleaning cuts, tears or abrasions is sterile saline solution. You should always have plenty of saline in your first-aid kit. If you run out or none is available, flush wounds with water from a hose or use contact-lens saline solution. The goal in flushing with clean liquid is to wash away bacteria that might otherwise cause infection, so use plenty of fluid when flushing a wound and let the excess pour away from your horse.
Some puncture wounds are more serious than others, either because of their depth, size, origin or location on the horse’s body. A puncture wound in dense muscle is less worrisome than it would be on the chest, belly or lower leg, where it could compromise your horse’s internal organs or his running. Any time the wound is on the abdomen or chest, get in touch with the veterinarian. Assuming the wound is on the upper leg or hip and has nothing still inside, you can check the severity of the wound by measuring its depth, then clean and bandage the wound.
If the wound is bleeding but not very deep and has nothing left inside, slow or stop the bleeding by pressing on the spot with sterile gauze pads or a clean towel. If the bleeding has already stopped, clean the wound by flushing it out with plenty of sterile saline. If there is no bleeding, you can also see how deep the wound is by inserting a Q-tip, but obviously, if your horse objects, leave that to the veterinarian. In some cases, the object that caused the puncture may have pulled out, leaving some ragged skin or torn tissue that protrudes into the wound. In this case, don’t try to remove anything; just flush it with sterile saline and wrap it in dampened bandages.
If the puncture has made a nasty hole in your horse, you may feel that cleaning the wound will push the dirt or debris deeper rather than washing it away. If it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to effectively rid the wound of debris by flushing it out, wait for your veterinarian to come. In deeper puncture wounds or in cases where the object is still in the wound, the veterinarian will probably X-ray the area before trying to remove the foreign body. If you try to take it out yourself, you’re more likely to cause more damage than the original wound. Other cases where a veterinarian is definitely indicated include wounds that are more than an inch or two in depth, or wounds that don’t want to stop bleeding.
Abrasions usually occur when a horse falls and skids, skinning her hip, leg or shoulder. If the wound is a simple abrasion, you can probably take care of it yourself, but check to make sure there are no punctures, lacerations, broken bones or other more serious damage before treating the skin damage.
Assuming there is no other problem, clean the abrasions by flushing with lots of saline to remove the dirt, grass or other particles. Apply a disinfectant like dilute Betadine solution, which will kill bacteria left on the wound. Be gentle with the skinned area; don’t scrub it. Just wash it down tenderly to avoid causing further pain to your horse and more damage to the skin. Your horse will be sore for days (and there may be some bruised muscles contributing to her discomfort), and it may be a few weeks before large abrasions are sufficiently healed to get your horse back to her regular schedule. Hose the area with cool water for pain relief and to diminish swelling, and if your horse seems uncomfortable, you may want to get a prescription for an anti-inflammatory from your veterinarian. After hosing, apply ointment made of vitamin E or your favorite ointment to help the area heal and keep it protected from dirt. If you’re worried about scarring, your veterinarian may be able to treat the abrasion with laser light, which has been shown to prevent or reduce scarring.
Lacerations usually (but not always) need to be treated with antibiotics to prevent infection, so you’ll probably contact your veterinarian in all but the most trivial cases. In general (for humans and horses), antibiotics should not be used unless absolutely necessary to treat an existing infection. Common allergic reactions and the possibility of developing a resistance to antibiotics should be thoroughly discussed with your veterinarian before giving any kind of medication to your horse. Any time there is a cut on your horse’s leg, it’s important to pay attention to the possibility of it causing problems with ligaments or tendons. If your horse suddenly goes lame, check for small lacerations you may not have noticed right away; sometimes even a cut that looks like a superficial skin wound can make your horse temporarily lame. Being alert to this possibility means you’ll reduce your horse’s chances of becoming permanently lame due to infection or tendon damage.
Put a standing wrap on your horse’s other leg to help it support the additional weight when your horse favors the injured leg. Look at the wound while you pick up your horse’s leg and flex it normally. You will able to see the depth of the wound better than when your horse is standing still. You might be able to see that a tendon or ligament has been cut, although the laceration looked simple when you started. Call the veterinarian; your horse may need stitches and will probably get a course of antibiotics. The tendon sheaths, even when the tendon hasn’t been injured directly, are susceptible to bacteria, which causes pain and swelling. Omitting to treat with antibiotics can cause lameness, even once the cut itself has healed. Your veterinarian will decide about pain-relief options and advise you as to how long to rest the horse in her stall, and when and how to start exercising her again.
Lacerations involving flaps of skin
If you find your horse with a large amount of skin torn partly off or down the face, side or hip, call your veterinarian. Your horse will need stitches and will probably require tranquilizing before a professional can take a good look at the wound.
If your horse is taking it all in stride and won’t knock your head off for trying to help, you may be able to flush the wound with sterile solution before the veterinarian arrives. By doing so, you’ll be limiting the potential impact of bacteria and reducing your horse’s chances of infection. Obviously, if your horse is really upset and doesn’t want to be touched, it’s not worth trying to change his mind. Talk to him, and be as comforting as you can until the veterinarian arrives.
Once the sutures are on, you may have to do little until the healing is done, or you may have to deal with weeping wounds and daily bandage changes. If the wound is dripping for a while, you may want to protect the skin that’s being dripped on with a layer of petroleum jelly. Be sure to get full instructions for bandage and wound care from your veterinarian.
Injury near a joint
If your horse suffers a wound over the knee or another joint, you can flush the wound with saline, but you should contact your veterinarian right away. The veterinarian will determine whether the injury has affected the joint and may use X-rays or other methods to check on the severity of the wound. Your horse may require sutures and will probably have a course of antibiotics to prevent the wound or joint from becoming infected.
Your horse’s first-aid kit
NOTE: If your horse does any traveling, you should have two first aid kits: one in the stable and one in the trailer in case an injury occurs away from home.
• Bath and hand towels for applying pressure to slow or stop heavy bleeding
• Rolls of gauze bandage and gauze squares for dressings
• Surgical tape and duct tape (for keeping things where you put them)
• Wrapping bandages
• Leg wraps
• Spray bottle
• Petroleum jelly
• Large syringe for wound flushing
• Sterile saline solution
• Betadine or other disinfectant