Equine First Aid: Being Prepared for Emergencies

The best way to prepare for emergencies is to try to prevent them. Perhaps the best approach to first aid is to minimize the risk of accidents, injuries, and disease. Sometimes we do foolish things with, and to, our horses.
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The best way to prepare for emergencies is to try to prevent them. Perhaps the best approach to first aid is to minimize the risk of accidents, injuries, and disease. Sometimes we do foolish things with, and to, our horses. It’s a wonder they don’t have more disasters.

I once turned out a yearling in a paddock that another horse owner had used for many of his horses. I just assumed it must be safe for mine. Was that assumption lazy? Stupid? Costly? Yes! The yearling ran straight to the center of the field, pawed twice at an exposed drainage pipe, and severely lacerated a leg on the sharp edges of the pipe.

In my practice, I often see horses with lacerated eyelids and nostrils. Such injuries come from the nails you didn’t check for before you put your horses in their stalls at the show grounds.

What’s the point? Always be aware of your horse’s surroundings. The game is to find out how your horse can get injured before it actually happens. Leave no stone unturned and no danger undiscovered around your barn, paddocks, and horse trailer. Make a habit of routinely checking everything, then remove or repair anything that looks dangerous.

Prior to an actual emergency, it is a good idea to discuss with your veterinarian horse-related emergency situations. Every vet has his or her own preferences for handling such emergencies. Also make provisions for contacting a second veterinarian if yours is unavailable when an emergency occurs.

If your horse has a severe injury or illness and needs to be transported to a referral center, or hospital, you should know where you are going and how you are going to get the horse there. Two a.m. is not the time to organize transportation! I can think of numerous situations where the transport of horses requiring critical care was delayed significantly (sometimes fatally) due to poor planning.

If you do not have a horse trailer, you should inquire about local commercial transportation or the use of a friend’s trailer. Again, you should always have several backup transportation options ready, even if you have your own truck and trailer (they seem to break down when you least expect it).

Another aspect of preparing for emergencies is knowing where you are going before you need to make the trip. I can think of times when hopelessly lost drivers hauled their severely ill or injured horses several extra miles, unnecessarily prolonging those difficult trips. Find out from your veterinarian where he or she would send your horse should a referral be necessary, then plan the route ahead of time. Mark it on a map and add detailed driving directions. Keep all the appropriate phone numbers for your veterinarian and the referral veterinarian or clinic with the map.

The Essential First Aid Kit

The preparation of a horse first aid kit for your stable is easy to make and–in an emergency–can be of great importance. Once you have assembled such a kit, make sure everyone knows this golden rule: its contents are for emergency use only. When things are used, they must be restocked immediately. When you have to apply a pressure bandage to a profusely bleeding wound, it is not a good time to discover that someone took the last elastic bandage out of the kit and used it for a non-emergency: to protect the horse’s neatly braided tail!

The most basic of first aid kits should include material for bandaging, splinting, and general wound cleansing. A variety of bandaging material should be in the kit, including some sterile pads to place over wounds after they have been cleansed (large non-stick Telfa pads work well, as do the kind of disposable diapers that come in plastic packages).

For most of the bandages applied to lacerations or under splints, you will need an ample supply of wrapping material. It is a good idea to put an entire “bundle” of clean sheet cotton and at least five packages of rolled cotton in the kit. There are a variety of commercially available elastic support bandages that can be used to apply pressure.

Occasionally, you can find large bundles of military surplus “field bandages” at an Army-Navy surplus store. They work well for a variety of equine bandaging needs. Add adhesive tape, both the medical cloth variety as well as duct tape, and small scissors to cut it.

In addition to bandaging material, the kit should include alcohol prep pads, sterile four-inch gauze pads, or sterile sponges for cleansing wounds. A syringe without the needle) can be used to flush sterile water into the wound.

You can keep your first aid supplies in a sturdy container with a lid. Be sure to put in a flashlight with strong, fresh batteries, a bottle of clean, sterile or distilled water, latex gloves, a clean towel, and a twitch you can use single-handed.

Pick out a humane twitch. The best kind to get is made of tubing hinged at the center so that it may be closed over the horse’s lip, then held closed by wrapping a cotton tie around the two handles and clipping the swivel snap to the horse’s halter ring. Such a device will quiet down the horse and will leave your hands free to cope with the emergency.

It is a good idea to consult with your regular veterinarian about assembling a first aid kit. Many horse owners ask me what drugs they should keep on hand for emergencies. It is my personal opinion that any drugs kept on hand should be used only on the advice of a veterinarian and only used after significant instruction. Depending on the circumstances, the indiscriminate use of pain medications such as phenylbutazone, Banamine, or any of the antibiotics can have severely negative consequences.

A second version of the stable first aid kit should be assembled for you to take on the road. The cellular phone is obviously a great tool when in need of emergency assistance or directions. It’s become almost a necessity when traveling with horses. I also like to make sure I have flares or reflectors.

Before each trip, I make sure that the trailer is in order. It is best to double-check the hitching mechanisms, lights, turn signals, floor, doors, and tires. Be sure to carry a spare tire, tire iron, and jacks for both the truck and trailer. Make sure that there are a significant number of lights or reflectors on the back of the trailer.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book, “Understanding Equine First Aid.”


Written by:

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, New York. He was an FEI veterinarian and worked internationally with the United States Equestrian Team. He died in 2014.

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