|Emergency First Aid for the Horse
Before we can discuss first aid treatment in the horse, we need to know what parameters are considered normal for all horses, and for your horse specifically, so that subtle problems can be identified early and appropriate therapy provided quickly.
Vital signs at rest:
Temperature 99.5 - 101 degrees F
Heart rate 28 - 48 beats per minute
Respiratory rate 12 - 20 breaths per minute
Exercise will increase all of the above in proportion to your horse's level of fitness and the weather conditions, so keep this in mind when taking measurements. Some horses' resting heart rates tend to stay in the 30's, others in the low 40's - this information is good to know at the time of an emergency.
Mucous membrane color and capillary refill time (CRT) can give clues to the seriousness of some problems (ie, colic, hemorrhage). These signs are used to help assess the severity of problems and monitor the efficacy of therapy. Normal oral mucous membranes in the horse are pale pink to pink, and should be moist to the touch. CRT refers to the length of time it takes the membranes to become pink again when they are pressed firmly but quickly with one finger. Normal CRT is up to 2 seconds. Prolongation of the CRT occurs with changes in blood flow to tissues which is seen with shock, severe hemorrhage, etc.. A change in color of the mucous membranes will also occur with conditions causing decreased blood flow and/or changes in oxygenation of the tissues (severe colic, severe pneumonia, etc).
So, to evaluate the above, one needs the following as part of an equine first aid kit:
- Rectal thermometer
- Watch with a second hand
- Stethoscope or practice palpating peripheral pulse to measure accurate heart rates; when listening, remember there are usually 2 heart sounds for each beat. Take time to practice when everything is calm and quiet.
Previous training of the horse to allow elevation of the upper lip to examine the mm and CRT is also quite helpful when an emergency arises.
Other characteristics of your horse should be familiar to an observant horse owner and barn manager.
Feed and water intake - does he/she eat slowly or quickly, does he/she often have hay left over or is it usually all gone? Normal water intake for horses varies with the season but is usually at least 20 - 25 liters (5-6 gallons) per day.
Manure production - how much is usually seen overnite (ie, how much is there to clean up in the AM)? Are the fecal balls usually well formed, slightly moist, slightly dry? Variations from the norm in this area can be a sign of impending colic or other problems.
Attitude and behavior - usually perky and happy to see you or normally somewhat cranky, especially in the stall? Pain or discomfort caused by many different problems will often present initially as a change in behavior or attitude.
What constitutes a true emergency?
Some wounds may look terrible or even bleed a lot, but not all of these require immediate treatment. Full thickness skin wounds in areas with good blood supply and not involving the areas listed below can be seen when it is more convenient for both owner and doctor. If suturing is necessary, better results will be seen if the area can be treated within a few hours. These types of wounds should be gently cleaned and rinsed, and bandaged if possible. If you are uncertain whether the problem your horse has is a true emergency, call your veterinarian and describe the situation. This way, even if your horse does not need to be seen right away, the doctor will be aware of the situation, and can adjust his/her schedule accordingly.
The following problems should be seen as soon as possible:
- Puncture wounds near a joint, tendon sheath, or the foot
- Lacerations that involve tendons, joints, or large vessels
- Wounds of the eye that directly affect the globe
- Lesions of the cornea accompanied by eye pain
- Severe lameness, severe reluctance to move
- Known fractures
- Dystocia, difficulty foaling
- Severe choke
- Moderate to severe colic or repeated bouts
Mild cases of choke may resolve with time and minimal treatment. Food and water should be removed and the horse should be kept in a quiet place to see if the blockage will resolve on its own. If it does resolve, no food should be given for 12 hours. Begin refeeding with soft feeds and /or pasture after this point and monitor the horse closely.
Mild colic will often resolve with time and minimal treatment. Walking and small doses of analgesics frequently result in a quick resolution of discomfort. The horse should not be fed again till he/she has been comfortable for several hours, has passed feces, and any analgesics given have worn off. Drugs should only be used with the advice of a veterinarian. If the horse becomes painful again, call your vet immediately.
Unfortunately, horses being horses, you will likely see some of the above problems at least once or more during your time as a horse owner. Hopefully, they will be mild and/or easily treated. Once you work on some of these problems with your veterinarian, you will soon know what to do, what you can do by yourself, when to call, etc. However, if your horse develops any of the problems discussed above and you have any questions at all, call your veterinarian for advice.
AEC First Aid Kit Recommendations
- First aid/bandage supplies
- 4 X 4 gauze sponges
- Clean towels/wash cloths to clean wounds
- Antibiotic wound ointment
- Fly repellent spray/ointment (not in wound)
- Sterile physiologic solution to rinse wounds
- Antiseptic solution to rinse wounds (should be diluted at least 1:9)
- Non-stick pads apply directly to small wounds
- Disposable diapers or sanitary napkins - to cover large wounds, absorb blood and exudate
- Soft roll gauze to hold the above in place
- Leg wraps - quilts/sheet cottons/rolled cotton something soft and thick to provide padding
- Polos/vet wrap - to keep the bandage in place.
- Elastic tape to seal the top and bottom of the bandage, provide more pressure or padding.
- White adhesive tape - to secure the ends
- Ace bandages used on humans - not recommended - slip easily on horses, get too tight, damaging the skin.
- Analgesic/anti-inflammatory drugs such as bute or banamine are very helpful to have on hand. They must be obtained from a veterinarian and used under his/her guidance. Antibiotics may be needed in some circumstances, the same caveats apply.
- Keep important phone numbers handy - the vet, the barn owner, the barn help, transport people, others who could help if needed.