Effective management of racetrack emergencies is dependent on preplanning before the first horse leaves its stall, according to Mary Scollay-Ward, DVM, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, who spoke at the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif. Preparation includes understanding the nature of racing emergencies along with an assessment on how to maximize available resources. Venue-specific concerns should be identified, as every situation is unique, and Scollay-Ward urged on-track veterinarians to develop team proficiency by collaborating on duties and establishing relationships prior to the need for implementing emergency procedures.



Dr. Mary Scollay discusses racehorse safety initiatives. (4:45 min)
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Musculoskeletal injuries, particularly of the fetlock, are the cause of 95% of racing-related fatalities; most times a track emergency is not fatal, yet it requires intervention of the racetrack vet. When considering in advance how a crisis can be avoided, a racetrack veterinarian should ask: "What can go wrong, and what can I do about it?" Along with addressing the logistics of getting an ambulance into an enclosure, he or she should ensure that ambulance and medical supplies are in proximity to where the bulk of accidents might occur on the track. On muddy days, difficulty getting vehicles to a patient could necessitate staffing additional veterinarians and vehicles on-site.

Scollay-Ward explained that no track emergency can be handled by a single person, so a team approach is essential, along with clear communication. The announcer is part of that team--he can call off a race if a horse is injured where galloping horses might be returning in about 1½ minutes, and he or she can advise and calm the crowd. There is no guarantee that only one emergency will occur at a time, so the track veterinarian should be vigilant about being prepared for additional emergencies.

Scollay-Ward emphasized that no equine injury justifies any human injury, so safety is paramount. Personnel who are likely to interact with an injured horse should be identified and trained. Security personnel should provide a safe work perimeter and prevent casual bystanders from getting in harm's way or interfering with care rendered to a horse.

At least one person should be responsible for keeping everyone present at the scene safe--this dedicated handler should stand on the side of the uninjured leg, as movement of an injured leg is not always predictable. This person's sole responsibility is to control the horse whether it is standing or down. Adequate chemical restraint is important to calm the horse and ensure safe transport to a treatment area. External stabilization with a Kimzey splint or compression boot can help prevent further structural damage.

The on-site track vet is not obligated to determine an exact diagnosis, but he or she should communicate all information that has been discussed--plus specifics of treatment--when transferring care to the attending veterinarian. Scollay-Ward notes that if there is any question that euthanasia is warranted, then it isn't. But once the decision to euthanize is made, rapid implementation is important, using barriers and sufficient blocking screens so it is not a public event.

The goal is to afford the best possible case outcome. This requires preparation, chemical and physical restraint, physical injury stabilization, effective case transfer, and follow-up to learn from each experience. Scollay-Ward's take-home message was that you can be prepared for the unexpected, and the veterinarian is the most qualified person on-site to handle an emergency.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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