Be Prepared for Emergencies

Not to be pessimistic, but if you own horses long enough, you will have to deal with emergencies. The best way to handle these situations is to be prepared. Here are some suggested items for a basic first-aid kit: Thermometer; flashlight; bandage material including padding, Vetrap, Elastikon tape, brown gauze, sterile gauze, track bandages, and duct tape; Easy Boot; Betadine antiseptic scrub; Ivory soap; alcohol or Nolvasan solution; Furacin or Nolvasan antiseptic ointment; fly spray; hoof pick; hoof knife; shoe pullers; hoof rasp; phenylbutazone (Bute); splint; sterile saline; and your veterinarian's phone number.

Your veterinarian might ask questions regarding your horse's vital signs when you call with an emergency situation. It is important to know normal ranges for your horse's vitals, and it is equally important to know how to check a horse's vital signs. Have your veterinarian show you the correct way to take vital signs.
Normal ranges for adult horses:

  • Temperature: 99-101°F
  • Heart rate: 28-44 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate: Eight to 20 breaths per minute
  • Capillary refill time: One to two seconds

Normal ranges for suckling/weanling foals:

  • Temperature: 99.5-101°F
  • Heart rate: 40-60 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate: 12-24 breaths per minute
  • Capillary refill time: One to two seconds

Normal ranges for foals less than two weeks old:

  • Temperature: 99.5-101.6°F
  • Heart rate: 80-110 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate: 12-32 breaths per minute
  • Capillary refill time: One to two seconds

There are many different types of emergencies. Following are descriptions of the most common emergencies.

Choke involves an obstruction of the esophagus. Signs of choke include green, frothy discharge from the nostrils, coughing, gagging, distress, and evidence of abdominal pain.

Diarrhea can have many causes, and can be quite serious. It can develop into colitis (inflammation of the colon), which might lead to dehydration and toxic shock. Signs of colitis include fever, red to brown mucous membranes with prolonged capillary refill time, depression, colic, and increased output of watery, smelly diarrhea.

Tying-up is a muscle disorder with many possible causes. Clinical signs include stiffness and muscle soreness. The muscles will feel firm to the touch, and the horse's urine might appear brown.

Colic is abdominal pain from gastrointestinal, as well as non-gastrointestinal, causes. Signs vary, but might include decreased appetite, depression, pawing, rolling, lying down, kicking at
the abdomen, decreased or absent manure output, distended abdomen, elevated heart and respiratory rate, and white, blue, purple, or red mucous membranes.

Eye injuries always require immediate attention from the veterinarian. Squinting, tearing, cloudy appearance of the cornea, narrowed pupil, and swelling are clinical signs that might be apparent in a horse with an eye injury.

Fractures have sudden onset and non-weight-bearing lameness. The limb is usually swollen unless the fractured bone is within the hoof.

Bowed tendons can occur during strenuous work, and the superficial digital flexor tendon is most commonly involved. Clinical signs include a warm, painful, and swollen tendon with lameness.

Lacerations and puncture wounds are open wounds that generally constitute an emergency. Lacerations should be sutured within the first six to eight hours in order to maximize the chances of successful suture placement, hasten healing, and minimize scars. Puncture wounds--penetration by nails or other foreign bodies--can be quite serious, especially if they penetrate the hoof or joint capsule.

Laminitis or founder is the failure of the connective tissues within the hoof that suspend the coffin bone, which can result in rotation and/or sinking of the coffin bone to the bearing surface of the hoof. Many possible causes have been named; clinical signs are variable, but generally include sudden lameness in one to all four feet (usually the front feet), a reluctance to move or turn, an abnormal rocked-back stance, and painful response to hoof testers in front of the frog.

Neurological emergencies could be from injury to the head or spine, or might result from an infectious disease such as rhinopneumonitis. Horses might present with an unsteady, wobbly gait; depression; circling; head pressing; weakness; or inability to rise.

Vaccine reactions can range from immediate hypersensitivities with respiratory distress, hives, edema, and shock to delayed effects such as stiff and sore muscles. Immediate reactions usually occur within one hour of vaccine administration.

Remember, if you suspect your horse might be in need of emergency care, call your veterinarian immediately. Describe the situation to the veterinarian and let him/her be the judge of just how serious the problem might be. Your veterinarian will instruct you on appropriate care for the specific emergency until he/she arrives.

More information on this topic can be found on the Horse Health page in the First Aid/Emergency Care category at, the AAEP's official web site for horse owners.

About the Author

K. Gary Magdesian, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, ACVCP

K. Gary Magdesian, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, ACVCP, is the Roberta A. and Carla Henry Endowed Chair in emergency medicine and critical care at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He serves as chief of equine neonatology and critical care in the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Davis, California.

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