First Aid for Horses: Knowing Normal from Abnormal

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Equine First Aid by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from

For horse owners and others who care for horses, recognizing the differences between what is normal and what is abnormal about them forms the basic foundation for good animal husbandry and veterinary medicine. Using your powers of observation can be very important for the early recognition of subtle abnormalities.

One of my favorite stories concerned an elderly physician who entered an examination room to see a patient. After a congenial introduction, handshake, and general question on "how do you feel," the physician proceeded to sit down and write a page and a half of physical examination findings before continuing to evaluate the patient. The surprised patient asked the doctor to explain what he based his initial findings on, since he had not touched him. The physician said he noted such things as body posture, "nature" of the eyes, and manner of speaking--right down to observing that the patient was a smoker by the nicotine stains on his fingers.

I liked that story when I first heard it. It made sense. So from that day on I attempted to improve my powers of observation, both as a veterinarian and as a horseperson. In addition, I used the story to urge my students, clients, and others who spend time with horses to observe them closely, to get more in touch with the animals.

Once your powers of observation have alerted you to a potential problem, it is time to obtain some more objective information about the situation. The best place to start is with a simple physical examination. I believe that all horse owners or caretakers should be able to perform a basic physical examination.

Providing this kind of basic information can be very helpful to the veterinarian when you call to describe a horse's injury or other health problem. When you first call your veterinarian about a problem, providing basic information is often a great help in prioritizing the emergency. For example, if your horse has a cut and has bled a seemingly substantial amount, you may panic, but if the horse's heart and respiratory rates are low, the level of emergency might not be as high as the panic provoked by the sight of all that blood. On the other hand, if that same horse has a heart rate over 120 beats per minute and its gums are pale, the level of emergency is significantly higher.

A physical examination of a horse should be approached in a methodical manner and include both a "hands-off" observation and a "hands-on" evaluation. After you read over the basic methodology for doing a physical examination, I'm sure your favorite horse will be a willing and patient subject on which to practice. Be sure to save the notes you make during the examination. Later, if the horse is ill or injured, you and your veterinarian can compare its condition against the examination made while the horse was healthy.

Although taking many of the basic measurements are straightforward and easy to do, it would be useful for you to follow up with a demonstration, or lesson, from your veterinarian in order to fine-tune the process. Such a demonstration will give you a good opportunity to ask your veterinarian what specific information you should gather before calling for help in an emergency.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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