Basic first aid for your horse and preparing for emergencies
Know your horse’s normal
You must know what is normal before you can determine what is abnormal. Learn to perform the vital signs tests BEFORE an emergency, and get to know the normal values for your horse.
The following are things you should check on a daily basis.
- Posture may be your first clue something is seriously wrong.
- Stretching out may be a normal routine for a horse or could be a sign of colic.
- Shifting weight from one leg to the other usually indicates pain in one of its legs.
- Refusing to move could indicate founder.
- Refusing to bear weight on a limb could indicate a severe stone bruise, foot abscess, joint infection, or fracture.
A good appetite is one of the best indicators of overall health.
If your horse eats lightly at one meal, don’t panic. Check to see if someone else is feeding the horse or overfeeding him or her at other meals. Also, make a mental note of what food is left behind.
A horse that dives into its grain at first and then stops eating after a few bites may have stomach ulcers.
Horses tend to drink an hour or so after they begin eating forage.
A few hay stems or grains in the water are no cause for concern. If the water pail is packed with hay or grain, your horse may be having trouble eating and using the water to soften the feed. This could be due to dental problems.
A normal horse will pass 8 to 10 piles of manure per day. The manure pile should have well-formed fecal balls with enough moisture so that the pile stays stacked.
- Separation of fecal balls indicates low water consumption.
- Firm, mucous-covered fecal balls is a sign the horse is taking longer to pass feces and may be due to dehydration.
- Loose manure could be from a sudden change in feed, nervousness, irritation in the gut, or heat cycles (in mares).
- Diarrhea is uncommon and could be a severe problem, contact your veterinarian.
- Extremely dry feces or lack of feces, contact your veterinarian.
When to call the veterinarian
Recognizing abnormal vital signs
|Vital signs||Normal||Call the veterinarian if|
|Temperature||99-100.5 F||over 101 F|
|Heart rate (heart rate is higher in foals)||30-44 beats per minute||over 50 beats per minute|
|Respiratory rate||8-12 breaths per minute||over 30 breaths per minute|
|Mucous membranes||pink, moist||dry, tacky or not pink|
|Capillary refill time||1-2 seconds||greater than 3 seconds|
Colic refers to abdominal pain in the horse. You should call your veterinarian if:
- Signs of colic last more than 15 to 30 minutes, are severe or do not improve with walking. Signs include:
- Looking at the flank.
- Posturing to urinate.
- Lying down.
- Your horse is not passing enough manure, has small dry fecal balls or has diarrhea.
- Your horse is not eating normally or has gotten into the grain storage.
Wounds are common in horses and most do not lead to lasting problems. Often you can readily treat wounds, but some can be life threatening. Call your veterinarian right away if the wound:
- Goes deeper than the skin or bleeds heavily.
- Exudes clear sticky fluid.
- Is over a structure that bends (regardless of size).
- Is on the back side of a limb below the knee or hock (important structures).
- Is in the frog, over the chest or abdomen, or involves the penis or prepuce.
If a nail is present in the limb or foot, check with your veterinarian before pulling it out. Puncture wounds can be the most dangerous. Size of the wound does not matter.
Lameness is another common problem that you can resolve with minimal treatment. But, sometimes lameness can indicate a fracture, severe damage to a tendon or other injury that will rapidly get worse if not treated appropriately.
Call your veterinarian immediately if:
- Your horse does not use the limb at all.
- Your horse’s toe touches with the limb.
- Your horse is lame at a walk or almost falls when walking.
- The leg moves abnormally.
Remember, even mild lameness often responds best when treated early.
Problems with the nervous system can arise due to trauma, organ problems or infections. Call your veterinarian right away if your horse has:
- Abnormal behavior.
- Muscle twitching that persists.
- A hard time walking.
- A head tilt.
- A bite wound plus change in behavior.
- Seizure activity (abnormal motion followed by dullness).
Call your veterinarian if your horse:
- Strains to urinate.
- Cannot move their back end properly.
- Has brown urine.
Horses may develop breathing problems with pneumonia, or with problems in the head that prevent them from breathing well through the nose.
Horses cannot breathe through their mouths. Call your veterinarian right away if your horse:
- Makes noise while breathing at rest (not exercising).
- Flares their nostrils at rest.
- Has rapid breathing after a wound or after an illness.
- Has bloody nasal discharge.
Due to the environment, horses can injure their eyes relatively easily. Injuries need to be treated aggressively to prevent loss of vision. Call your veterinarian right away if your horse:
- Is squinting.
- Is suddenly blind.
- Has cuts or tears to the eyelid.
How to check your horse's vital signs
Learn to perform these tests BEFORE an emergency, and get to know the normal values for your horse.
To create an accurate record of your horse’s normal temperature range:
Take your horse’s temperature twice daily for several days.
Take temperatures near the same time. A horse’s temperature is typically a degree higher in the afternoon than in the morning.
99-100.5 F is normal.
Call the vet if it goes over 101 F.
You can take a horse's pulse anywhere you can hear or feel their heartbeat.
Start by feeling an artery close to the skin. (e.g. the facial artery at the edge of the jawbone)
Press your first and second fingers gently against the jawbone. Be sure not to use your thumb, as you may pick up your own pulse
Count the number of heartbeats occurring in a minute.
30-44 beats per minute (bpm) is normal.
Call the vet if it goes over 50 bpm.
A foal under 1 week old has a resting heart rate of 60 to 120 beats per minute. Foals from 1-week- to 6-months-old have resting heart rates of 40 to 60 beats per minute.
Respiration rate is the number of breaths per minute.
One inhale and one exhale counts as one breath.
Count by watching the ribs moving in and out, or by watching the nostrils dilate and relax.
8-12 breaths per minute is normal.
Call the vet if it goes over 30.
You can examine mucous membranes by looking at your horse's gums. The color of the gums can indicate your horse’s health status.
Pink and moist gums are normal.
Pale or white gums may mean your horse is experiencing blood loss.
Bright pink or red can indicate toxicity or poison.
Gray, purple, or dark blue means lack of oxygen and possibly shock.
Call the vet if mucous membranes are dry, tacky or not pink.
Capillary refill time indicates your horse's hydration status.
Press your thumb against the gum above the upper teeth for a couple seconds.
Remove your thumb, a blanched or pale area will remain.
Record the amount of time it takes for the blanched area to return to the normal color.
It should take 1 to 2 seconds for the pale or blanched area to return to normal.
If it takes more than 3 seconds, call the vet.
How to prepare for an emergency
- First aid kit
- Veterinary phone numbers
- Names/phone of friends that can assist
- Clear directions to referral center
- Trailering information
- Emergency evacuation plan
- Vet's phone number
- Regional map
- Flashlight and batteries
- Unbreakable bowl – use with clean syringe for water or saline when rinsing wounds
- Latex gloves
- Bandaging material (telfa pads, gauze, cotton sheet or roll, vet wrap, elastic wraps, tape, duct tape - best if inner layers are sterile)
- Antiseptic scrub and solution (i.e. betadine) – only use when diluted to a weak tea color and don’t use around the eye
- Sterile saline
- Hemostats – for picking out dirt and debris from wounds
- Pliers (for pulling nails)
- Splint material (i.e. 6 inch PVC split in half lengthwise)
- Eye ointment – you can use this on various wounds as well as in the eye
- Diapers or other absorbent pads – use to absorb blood or other fluids
- Clean syringe (20cc or larger without needle)
How to respond to an emergency
Think twice before:
- Phenylbutazone can hide signs that your veterinarian will use to assess the problem.
- Phenylbutazone and Banamine are dangerous when given in the muscle.
- Xylazine is bad for people.
- Interfering with
- a horse with a neurological disorder
- a stallion
- a mare during delivery
- a foal on its way out
- Colic can be fatal if a gut is twisted for 6 hours or more.
- Wounds can enter joints, tendon sheaths, chest or abdomen.
- Eyes can rupture.
- Neurologically diseased horses can hurt themselves or someone else.
- An incomplete tear or fracture can become complete.
- Foals can become very sick, very quickly.
- Keep walking the horse if possible. Walking will help discomfort and passing manure.
- Allow the horse to lie quietly if it's tired.
- Remove feed so it doesn't make the blockage any worse.
- Monitor any vital signs you know (heart rate, mucous membrane color).
- Give medications ONLY if your veterinarian approves it.
- Remove food and water.
- Keep the horse calm and relaxed.
- Clean any dirty wounds with tap water or sterile saline.
- Cover with a clean, dry bandage.
- Check to see when your horse last had a tetanus booster.
- Do not apply ointment to the wound unless directed by your veterinarian.
- Find an outdoor extension cord if x-rays might be needed.
- If the horse is unbalanced, put the horse in a stall and stay clear.
- If the horse can walk to the barn fairly well, move it into a stall near water and electricity.
- If the horse might have a fracture and if your horse is close to the barn, stay there; if your horse is out in the paddock, work on finding a way to get the trailer to the horse.
- Put the horse in a stall or in a small area by itself.
- Remove all objects accessible to your horse (including removing hay and grain to reduce the chance of choke).
- Make sure everyone leaves the stall or area to avoid injury.
- Try to decrease stimulation (e.g. avoid other horses moving by, noise, lights).
- Minimize exercise and stress.
- If it could be strangles, isolate the horse, its belongings, and its caretakers.
- Take the horse's temperature if it is used to it.
- If the barn or horse is hot, put cold water along the horse's backbone and/or chest.
- Provide clean, cool water to your horse in any emergency.
- Put your horse in a dark stall.
Urinary system (e.g. straining to urinate, discolored urine)
- Take a heart rate.
- Collect urine if they urinate.
- Don't exercise the horse.
- If blood is present, try to figure out where it is coming from (check both mare and stallion).
- Take vital signs that you are comfortable with.
- If the penis is out, apply cold water using a hose to decrease swelling.
- Wrap the mare's tail.
- Clean the mare's vulva with mild soap and water.
- Open the membranes if the foal is visible or if you see a thick red sac.
- Keep the placenta (should be passed within 3 hours).
- Milk out the mare if it’s safe to do so.
- Keep the foal quiet if it’s premature.
Reviewed in 2018