Planning for the Worst While You're Away

Take the steps to provide the best treatment possible for your horse and your situation, and decrease the stress on yourself and the veterinary team in the event of an equine emergency.

Please turn on your imagination for a moment and put yourself in the following scenario: You're returning home from a relaxing vacation. Your plane lands, you power up the cell phone for the first time in days, and the display flashes with a dozen voicemails.

Ignoring the flight captain's instructions, you start to listen while the plane taxis to the gate: The first few are from your farm sitter (who doesn't know much about horses to begin with), asking if they should call the vet about one of your horses that isn't acting right. Then a couple of messages from your regular veterinarian stating that things aren't looking good and the horse needs to be referred to a surgical facility ASAP. Then a message from the local equine veterinary referral center stating that your horse has been evaluated and needs emergency colic surgery. The last voicemail is from your farm sitter again, explaining that your prized mare had to be euthanized because nobody was available to consent for and finance the surgical procedure.

Nobody seems to think that a serious emergency will ever happen on their farm, yet this year alone I have attended horses in at least a dozen emergency scenarios where the horse owner could not be contacted. These situations were messy to say the least. They were extremely frustrating to everyone involved (farm hands, managers, veterinarians, etc.), and a few of the clinical outcomes were less than ideal.

We all realize that owning a horse is a 24/7 responsibility. But because most of us simply can't be available 24/7 in case something unexpected happens to a horse, here are a few precautions that you can take to ensure that your horse will be cared for in a manner that you will have deemed appropriate should disaster or sudden illness strike.

These are general guidelines--it's up to you to implement a specific plan that will fit the needs of your horses and/or your particular farm's management.

1. Make a list of the horses that you own and/or are financially responsible for. Now take some time to look through that list and decide how much veterinary care you would be willing to provide for each horse in case of an emergency. This might be a difficult process, but going through this exercise at your leisure might allow you to make decisions with less emotional involvement than you would experience if the horse was already ill or injured. Many horse owners have a hard time thinking clearly and communicating their wishes effectively while watching their horse bleed profusely or thrash around in a stall. This also might be a good time to decide on whether to purchase insurance plans for any of them.

Every horse holds a different value to their owner. Whether that value is monetary, emotional, performance-based, or a combination of those, you will have to assess each horse's value to you and translate that into how much you would be willing or able to spend in an emergency.

Don't forget that it will be necessary to update your emergency plans on a regular basis as your financial situation, the physical location, and/or the value of your horse(s) change over time.

A note about pregnant broodmares: Rarely, dystocia or colic emergencies in actively foaling or late-term mares will demand the difficult decision of whether to attempt to save the life of the mare or the foal. Given that situation, try to think about how you would direct the veterinary team in terms of which life you would deem most important if both were at risk.

2. Make a phone call to your preferred referral center.

I am unaware of any equine referral centers that will admit a patient without the owner's contact information and a deposit. A phone call to a nearby referral center (make sure they are available for colic surgery 24/7) to open an account and put a credit card number on file could mean the difference between prompt veterinary care and hours wasted trying to track you down while necessary medical procedures are delayed.

Mary Ellen Guardi, who has served as front desk supervisor at Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital (Ocala, Fla.) for 14 years, does receive phone calls from owners to open emergency accounts.

"Usually people will call if they go out of town, just in case something happens to their horses while they are away," Guardi said. "Typically we will open the account under the person's name and put a credit card number on file. Some horse owners will specify a dollar amount limitation on the services that we can provide if their horse needs emergency veterinary care and they cannot be contacted."

Should you horse need to be referred, also consider transportation: Is there a safe and functional truck/trailer on the property? Make sure that arrangements can be made for emergency transport from farm to hospital. Do all of your horses have the paperwork required by your state (Coggins, etc.) to be legally transported in order to get to your preferred referral center?

3. Make sure the decisions and instructions that you made are easily accessible. Post the info on a stall card or make sure it is easily visible in the barn office. No amount of preparedness will help you if the person(s) attending your horses are unaware of your wishes.

Faith E. Hughes, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, has an easy system of her own.

"When I leave town, I provide the farm sitter with a list of my horses and put them into one of three categories: 1. Can undergo surgery; 2. Can be admitted to the hospital and treated medically but no surgery; 3. Can only be treated on the farm and should be euthanized if they are in severe uncontrollable pain," Hughes said.

Other important information to have on hand includes insurance information (the company name and policy number), the name of the horse's primary veterinarian, which referral center you would prefer to use, and whether you have an account/payment information on file with that referral center (include the name that that the account is under: did you open the account under your name or under the name of the farm?).

Also remember your horses that are living off the farm. Sending a horse to a trainer? Make sure to provide your trainer with the same key information about how you would like your horse treated in an emergency.

Take some time to think about the items outlined above and prepare a plan for emergencies. This will not only facilitate the referral process, but can also improve the quality of care that your horse will receive. A common example of this would be a colic situation in which the horse is in uncontrollable pain and an emergency exploratory laparotomy is necessary. In a case like that, there may be a greater chance of a successful recovery the sooner the horse can be induced and prepared for surgery. Time spent sorting out payment or trying to find an absentee owner is time wasted during the potentially critical moments leading up to colic surgery.

Every emergency is going to present different challenges. No amount of preparedness can absolutely account for every situation. Simply do your best to think about these issues ahead of time: you could be taking the steps to providing the best treatment possible for your horse and your situation, and decrease the stress on yourself and the veterinary team in the event of an equine emergency.

Suggested information to include:

Horse's name:

  • Breed:
  • Year of birth:
  • Gender:
  • In foal?
  • Breeding date:

Is referral hospitalization an option for this horse (include dollar limits)?

Is emergency surgery an option for this horse (include dollar limits)?

Other special instructions in the event of an emergency (i.e. do not perform surgery without verbal consent from owner)?

Owner name:

  • Address:
  • Telephone numbers:
  • Trainer Name and contact information:
  • Designated emergency contact/transport provider:

Primary attending veterinarian:

  • Address:
  • Telephone numbers:

Preferred Referral Center:

  • Address:
  • Telephone number:
  • Name of account on file:

Equine Insurance Company Name:

  • Address:
  • Telephone numbers:
  • Insurance policy number(s):
  • Policy expiration date(s):
  • Type of policy (i.e. mortality, major medical):

For more, see our Emergency Planning Workbook.  

About the Author

Jeremy Campfield, DVM

Jeremy Campfield, DVM, graduated from the University of Florida in 2008. He then completed an equine-exclusive ambulatory practice internship at Peterson & Smith in Ocala, FL in 2009. Currently, he works at a central California equine practice.

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