Equine Wound Care Done Right

How to manage leg lacerations that require bandaging

The dribble of blood down your horse’s leg certainly puts a damper on your morning riding plans. Taking a closer look, you see the culprit is more than a scrape, as the wound extends into deeper layers of the skin just above the fetlock. It doesn’t look bad enough to need sutures, but you do want to keep it clean and help it heal. So, aside from postponing that ride a few days, what do you do?

First and foremost, call your veterinarian or text a photo of the wound so he or she can gauge its severity. Wounds near joints risk contaminating the surrounding synovial structures and warrant professional evaluation. Otherwise, your veterinarian can guide your next steps.

Here we will take an in-depth look at wound care—specifically for when the injury is on a horse’s leg.

Cleaning a Wound

If you have a horse that is accepting of you touching and probing a wound, then you might be able to remove debris and contamination simply with a good cleaning job.

“Any lavage (washing or flushing out) is fine, even if you just use tap water,” says Erin Denney-Jones, DVM, owner of Florida Equine Veterinary Services, near Orlando. “Sterile saline with or without (the antiseptics) Betadine (povidone iodine) or chlorhexidine solution is great, but usually all an owner has available is a garden hose to spray the wound.”

When using antiseptic solutions, it’s best to dilute them because full-strength concentrations are toxic to the tissues you’re trying to treat. For dilution, add 20-25 milliliters of chlorhexidine or 10 milliliters of Betadine per quart of water. 

“Don’t use hydrogen peroxide, as it is known to displace and kill cells and also causes pain when applied, so a horse could become quite reactive,” says Denney-Jones. “Peroxide has a good role for cleaning blood off the leg (not directly on the wound) or from clothing.”

Once you’ve removed the bulk of contaminants, you can then gently clean the wound with antiseptic soap (chlorhexidine or povidone iodine) if your horse allows. It is important to rinse thoroughly to prevent the soap from damaging the skin’s keratin cells.

Conversely, if your horse has a hissy fit if you even attempt to look at his wound, then you’d be safer just spraying it with a hose or waiting until your veterinarian can tend to it. No wound is reason to risk getting hurt.

Check your records to be sure your horse received his most recent immunization against the life-threatening disease tetanus within the past year. If you don’t know your horse’s immunization status, have your veterinarian boost the vaccine using tetanus toxoid.

We’ll continue this article assuming your horse is willing to allow you hands-on access to his wound.

Bandaging the Wound

Once you’ve cleaned the wound as best as possible, let it air dry while you gather your bandaging materials. Denney-Jones recommends bandaging all wounds that are more than an abrasion or a scrape and located below the knees or hocks to help reduce swelling. A bandage serves several purposes:

  • Protection from contamination and insects;
  • Tissue support;
  • Stability; and
  • Warmth.

All these ingredients help create an optimal environment for healing. While it’s difficult to impossible to speed up healing, there are many ways to slow or compromise it. The objective is to “do no harm.”

​“My go-to bandage (if the wound is contaminated) is to use a wet-to-dry application,” says Denney-Jones. “Using dilute Betadine or chlorhexidine, lightly soak gauze, place that directly on the wound, and then wrap appropriately. At the bandage change the damp gauze debrides the wound, which is then wiped gently to remove moisture or discharge. The tissue then looks clean and ready for a new bandage application.”

Another technique involves applying water-soluble antiseptic salves and a nonstick dressing to the wound, covering it with padding, and applying sticky bandage material to hold it all in place.

In some cases, such as in wet, rainy, or snowy environments, it helps to apply a double bandage to keep the inner layer dry and contaminant-free for as long as possible. This means applying a bandage over the wound, then applying another, less-bulky bandage over the first one.

Denney-Jones practices in a subtropical climate, which is much more humid than where I reside in Colorado and makes for unique differences in wound ­management.

“Our warm and moist environment favors bacterial and fungal growth, which interfere with wound healing,” she explains. “We also have a problem with pythiosis (a skin infection) if a horse ­immerses a wound in a pond or lake when they go for a drink. The nickname for the skin problem is ‘Florida leeches,’ although it is (caused by) a fungal organism that is more aggressive than summer sores (habronemiasis caused by skin deposits of Habronema stomach fly larvae) and difficult to treat. With that in mind, if a wound is bandaged or if there are any open sores, it is best to keep those areas clean and dry and lock the horse away from water sources such as ponds and creeks.”

​This article continues in the June 2020 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issueincluding this in-depth feature on how to manage leg lacerations that require bandaging.

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