Whether your horse is at home, in the trailer, on a trail ride or at a competition, there’s never a “good” time for an injury. But because accidents can and do happen, you should know ahead of time what to do when your horse gets hurt.
Many times, you won’t see exactly what happened and the wound can be hours old before it’s discovered. You arrive at the barn in the morning only to find your horse was injured sometime during the night. Or you show up to feed in the evening and see that your horse was hurt in the hours since you last saw him.
First Things First
If you aren’t present when the injury occurs, it’s not unusual for a wound to be caked with blood and debris when you discover it. In order to prevent bacteria from moving deeper into the wound and causing infection, it's important to clean any wound as soon as possible.
Anytime there’s blood spurting from a wound or bleeding that won't stop, you must take steps to prevent severe blood loss. The rate at which blood is lost can actually be more important than how much blood is lost. Even a "superficial" laceration to a leg can result in dangerous blood loss. If an artery is cut, blood will spurt with each heartbeat. If a large vein is cut, the wound will ooze continuously.
Using clean, absorbent material, such as a large towel, apply firm, direct pressure to the wound for several minutes.
“Soak the towel in clean, cool water and then apply it to the wound,” advises Sam Crosby, DVM, a veterinarian since 1994 whose equine practice is based in Arcadia, Oklahoma. “If the injury is on a leg, wrap it around; if the wound is on the body, just apply continued direct pressure. Wetting it first makes the towel like a cold compress; the cold and the pressure together will help slow the bleeding."
Continue applying firm, direct pressure with the towel or other absorbent material until the damaged blood vessels have time to build a clot. Clotting for some wounds can take 30 minutes or longer.
Remain calm because your horse will pick up on your anxiety and become more upset. Do your best to keep him quiet, but if the horse is bleeding, do NOT administer a tranquilizer such as acepromazine. “It lowers blood pressure and if the injury is significant, the horse can actually bleed out and die,” cautions Crosby.
If you think the horse might have lost a significant amount of blood, especially if he appears to be in shock (weak, wobbly, very pale gums, whites of eyes ghostly white and totally opaque), maintain pressure or apply a pressure bandage and get a veterinarian on the scene immediately.
Clean It Well
Once any bleeding has stopped, it’s important to thoroughly clean the wound.
“The first step for home care is always to clean the wound and clean it well. You can use an iodine-based product or liquid dish soap like Dawn. You want to use running water from a hose or a large syringe to knock loose any debris and flush out the wound,” says Crosby.
Even a seemingly insignificant injury can turn into a serious problem, depending on its location.
Cold, not warm, water is best, and make sure it’s clean. Water from the horse tank won’t do! Don’t spray the wound with force; a steady, light stream of water works best. While you’re cleaning the wound, observe it closely, noticing its size and depth, and whether or not there is a skin flap.
Once the wound is clean, press a soft, clean towel over it to remove excess moisture, but DON’T rub. If there are flaps of skin, press them into place, but do not cut them away.
Now it’s time to take advantage of technology and put your smartphone to use.
“Anytime a horse has an injury, I tell my clients to take a photo on their phone and text or email it to me,” says Crosby. “This immediately gives me a better idea of what they’re facing and if I need to come, or if I can tell them how to care for it themselves. Many times, a client can’t describe the injury well over the phone. I’ve been called to many ‘emergencies’ that weren’t as bad as the horse owner thought, but if you have any doubts about a wound, get the vet there to examine it further. I once pulled a three-inch-long plywood splinter out of a horse’s shoulder and the entrance hole was so small, the owner never expected that.”
Even a seemingly insignificant injury can turn into a serious problem, depending on its location. Puncture wounds should always be considered serious because of the possibility of infection, and any wound over a joint or tendon sheath requires prompt veterinary attention.
“Many injuries on the lower legs can involve a joint, so it’s important to have your veterinarian come out. You should always call the vet to treat any injury to the knee, hock, fetlock, coronary band or heel bulb,” Crosby emphasizes.
“A joint is a confined space and if the joint membrane is penetrated, bacteria is usually introduced, so infection is likely. An injury that penetrates a joint can be a life-or-death situation, so it should always be considered an emergency. Any infection in a joint immediately starts destroying cartilage, so immediate care is necessary to prevent permanent lameness.”
If the injury is such that a veterinarian is summoned, keep the wound moist until he/she arrives. Apply a wound spray or antibiotic ointment to the cleaned wound, and cover it with a single layer of gauze pads held in place with a bandage or tape. If the wound requires sutures or staples, keeping it covered until the veterinarian arrives will help prevent the skin from shrinking and drying.
For scrapes, abrasions and minor lacerations that don’t require a veterinarian’s care, keep the wound clean as it heals and apply a wound treatment according to label directions to encourage healing. If the weather is warm and flies are present, you will want to apply a fly repellent made specifically for wounds around the injury—not directly on the wound—to help prevent infection from germs spread by flies.
Any time your horse has an injury that breaks the skin, check his records to see when he last received a tetanus vaccination.
“If it’s within the last six months, you should be fine, but if it’s been longer than that, a booster is recommended,” Crosby notes. “You always want to keep your horse up to date on his annual tetanus vaccination just in case of injury.”
Even if the wound required veterinary attention, antibiotics may or may not be prescribed. “This depends on the severity of the injury and its location,” explains Crosby. “We don’t use antibiotics to treat every injury because we don’t want horses to develop resistance and have the antibiotics lose effectiveness.”