Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger Equine

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Ballinger Equine Vet Dr Eleanor Kigozi

Dr Eleanor Kigozi BSc BVMS MRCVS  150x100 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineWe all want the best for our horse or pony, but do we know what we can do in the event of an emergency or how we can help before the Vet arrives. 

Ballinger Equine give some great advice on a variety of measures.



Equine Influenza vaccine 300x200 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineEasy preventative care

The easiest and most important preventative healthcare measure for your horse or pony is appropriate vaccination for equine influenza and tetanus.

Tetanus is a very nasty and preventable disease caused by an infection with the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which is commonly found in soil, saliva, dust, and manure. The bacteria generally enter the body through a break in the skin such as a cut or puncture wound by a contaminated object. Once inside the body the bacteria multiply quickly releasing a toxin that affects the nerves, causing symptoms such as muscle stiffness and uncontrollable.

The disease will usually start with a locked jaw so the horse or pony will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to eat. The bacteria spread along nerves and eventually affect the brain. By that point the entire body starts to experience muscle spasms and is extremely painful.

If your horse or pony is not vaccinated against Tetanus and gets a cut, your vet will inject an anti-toxin. This can be expensive, lasts only a very short time and is not as effective as keeping your horse or pony up to date with their vaccinations. 

Safety First

In an emergency situation, the most important thing to remember is your safety, the safety of other people and the safety of the horse or pony. So before instinctively running towards the stricken animal, calmly assess the situation.

  • Is it safe to approach the horse?   Is the horse thrashing about on the ground, is it running around in panic or putting its ears back at you?
  • Is the horse in a safe place away from injury?Is the horse hitting its head on something, is it stuck in a fence, is it in a dangerous location such as a public road?
  • Is the horse standing? Is it laying down groaning, flank watching, rolling, thrashing about, getting up and down?
  • Can you see an injury or wound? Are there any obvious cuts or swellings? Is blood visible??
  • Can the horse walk normally? Is the horse refusing to move? Is it resting a leg or keeping it raised?

Aims of equine first-aid

  • Stop any bleeding by applying pressure. Don’t dab or wipe the source of the bleed as it will worsen the situation.
  • Clean the wound to remove dirt and contamination. A hose is ideal for flushing away debris and dirt. Then once the obvious contamination has been removed, clean with clean water and sterile swabs, using each swab once only.
  • Promote healing by applying barrier cream or fly repellent cream.
  • Restricting movement across a wound is important to prevent it reopening.
  • Reduce swelling and inflammation by cold hosing and bandaging.
  • All bandages require padding to prevent rubbing. Bandages must be applied correctly to avoid damaging the limb, must not be too tight and should ideally be changed twice a day.

Before you call the vet

If it is safe to do so, take your horse’s temperature. Standing close, and to the side of the horse, insert a thermometer gently approximately 8cm into the horse’s anus. Normal temperature range is 37.5 – 38.5 oC.

You can also count the breaths per minute the horse is taking at rest. An elevated rate can indicate stress or illness. A normal range is 8 to 15 breaths per minute.

Check for digital pulses at the level of the fetlock joints which indicates foot pain or laminitis.

Asses the wound, discuss it with your vet on the ‘phone and arrive at an appropriate course of action.

First-aid kit

It is a good idea to keep an equine first-aid kit close to hand in the tack room, lorry or car, particularly when attending shows or travelling away from home. A good first aid kit will be in a water-resistant rucksack or waterproof plastic box. You’ll need to keep it up-to-date and full. Rushing to a first-aid kit only to find the bandage or dressing you need isn’t there defeats the object of this invaluable emergency resource.

An equine first-aid kit will typically contain: bandage shears, large and small non-adherent dressings, Vetwrap™, latex or nitrile gloves, a dosing syringe for flushing wounds, chlorhexidine antiseptic scrub, a good torch, a powder barrier spray, anti-bacterial wound ointment, cotton wool, Gamgee®, a selection of different types of bandages, adhesive strapping, duct tape.

Always keep a first-aid kit in the same place and close to hand. It should be portable and not so packed with supplies that it cannot be easily carried across a muddy field at night.

Learn to recognise signs of colic and what is normal behaviour for your horse 300x200 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineColic

The presentation and signs of colic indicate pain and include:

  • Rolling
  • Flank watching
  • Pawing the ground
  • Belly kicking
  • Lip curling
  • Not eating
  • Lying down / lying flat out

Horses and ponies with colic are unpredictable and may collapse and kick out at random – so take care. Clinical signs do not necessarily correlate with the severity of the scenario and a major colic is not necessarily indicated by dramatic rolling. Colic is an emergency so call your vet and whilst waiting for them to arrive, remove all food and water. If possible, quietly walk the horse. If this proves challenging and the horse wants to lay down and roll, ensure they are in a safe environment such as a manege, away from fencing, with a lunge line attached. A field is also suitable. If a horse is rolling in a stable, the confined space can lead to physical injuries to the horse and handler. It is a common myth that rolling causes a twisted gut.

 Types of injury

The rule with wounds is the apparently small and insignificant ones can be serious. If in doubt, always call the vet immediately.

Acute lameness

Very lame horses are always a concern, particularly if the onset of lameness is sudden. Lameness is caused by pain which is a nervous system response designed to protect the horse to limit further damage. It is natural not to want to move a very lame horse, but most can be moved from the field to the stable and if possible, this facilitates easier examination. Stable confinement is in any case likely to be required following examination. As always, if in doubt, wait for the vet to assist. As a rule of thumb, if the contralateral limb can be lifted, the horse will be able to walk slowly with encouragement.

Causes of acute lameness include fractures, tendon injuries, trauma including kick injuries with and without wounds, abscesses, laminitis and cellulitis (infection). Sometimes the lameness is accompanied by other pain signs including increased respiratory and heart rates, sweating and lying down.

Acute lameness requires a veterinary surgeon to assess, establish the underlying problem, administer appropriate analgesia and support bandaging, sometimes with further diagnostics including radiographs.

A wound such as this requires urgent veterinary attention 168x300 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineCuts

One of the most frequent injuries you will see are cuts. If you observe blood on your pony, carefully check the animal for cuts everywhere. Cuts may be full skin thickness and may need suturing or stapling by your vet and will certainly need bandaging. And depending on their location, may be far more serious if penetrating a synovial structure such as a joint or tendon sheath.

Lumps and swellings

Another common injuries include lumps, bumps and swellings. The best way to notice these is to compare legs. Is one bigger than the other? Is one hotter than the other?

Any such differences are best examined by a vet as it can be difficult to determine the severity of an injury without diagnostic imaging such as radiography and ultrasound.



Puncture wounds

Some wounds, whilst appearing small on the outside, may nevertheless have penetrated deeply. Such wounds may involve important structures underneath (pedal bone / ribs) and should be seen by a vet to determine severity. If the puncture is on or near a joint, always call the vet.

Abrasions and grazes

Minor abrasions and grazes may not need a visit by a vet, depending on the size and depth of graze and location. A minor scrape on the bottom or neck with unbroken skin probably does not need a vet. If it is near an eye and there is broken skin the vet should be called.

All eye injuries are emergencies call the vet immediately 225x300 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineLocation of injury

 Joints : The bones and joints in horse’s legs are mostly only covered by skin and tendons unlike the body which has lots of muscle coverage. If a wound is near any joint, but especially near a joint on the legs, there is the risk that the wound may have gone into a joint cavity.  Joints contain synovial fluid for the lubrication and nutrition of articular cartilage and tendons, facilitating easy, pain-free movement of the joint.

When a wound penetrates a joint this fluid may leak out or become contaminated with bacteria or debris. This is an emergency and a vet should be called immediately. In such cases, the joint is to be flushed as soon as possible and certainly within hours. There is a risk of infection of the joint which can result in permanent damage.  

Eyes: Any injury to the eye or which affects the eyes is always best examined by your vet the same day. Damage to eyes can be difficult to reverse so the sooner the vet can attend the more likely the eye can be saved. It may just be slightly closed, but eyes are vital and in all cases constitute an emergency.

Abdomen : Injuries to the abdomen are relatively uncommon. All the important organs, the lungs, heart, intestine, stomach, liver and bladder are within the abdomen and any injury penetrating a horse’s abdomen must be seen by a vet immediately.

Some wounds are obvious and require immediate veterinary attention 225x300 - Horse Health and Equine First-aid with Ballinger EquineCalling the vet in an emergency

Have your veterinary surgeon’s contact numbers listed in your mobile ‘phone. Ensure you have the same contact details clearly marked on your horse’s stable. Explain the situation and the nature of the injury or illness clearly to the vet.

Tell the vet if you have administered first aid, what measures you have taken and whether you have given any medicine or other substance to the horse. Give clear directions and the location post-code so the vet can find you easily. Ask if there is anything you can do to prepare for the vet’s visit.

Preparing for the vet’s arrival

Ensure the vet has easy access to the injured horse. Have buckets and clean water available. Light for the vet to see is important, particularly as the evenings draw in during winter months. Follow the vet’s instructions as to what you can do to prepare for the visit.



About the vet:

Dr Eleanor Kigozi BSc BVM&S MRCVS is a veterinary surgeon at Ballinger Equine, the award-winning, first opinion ambulatory equine veterinary practice.

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