The Farm's First-Aid Kit

Most horse owners equip their barns, stables, and trailers with an equine first-aid kit. However, most of these kits are either overstocked or inadequately maintained. Outdated drugs, contaminated ointments, and irritating medications can do more harm than good. When it comes to stocking an equine first-aid kit, often less is better.

"Most horsemen are surprised by how little they really need to stock an equine first-aid kit," said Robert M. Miller, DVM. "Most people tend to over-treat equine emergencies and often end up doing more harm than good."

Based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Miller recently retired from veterinary practice, but remains active in the industry by presenting talks on equine health. He has authored more than a hundred articles in veterinary and equine publications, and he is a former editorial staff writer for Veterinary Medicine. In 1967, he wrote Health Problems of the Horse, which was updated in 1987.

According to Miller, the most common equine health emergencies confronted by horsemen are colic, tying-up, allergic reactions, flesh wounds, strains, sprains, bruises, and, depending on where you live, snake bite. An adequately stocked equine first-aid kit will contain items necessary to treat minor occurrences of most of these injuries or ailments, or in the case of a severe situation, manage the problem until the veterinarian arrives. Miller recommended stocking an equine first-aid kit with the following items:

  • sharp wire cutters and a knife
  • bandage scissors
  • elastic wraps, cotton bandages, compresses, and adhesive tape
  • surgical or bacterial soap and/or saline solutio
  • Epsom salt
  • fly repellent
  • antibacterial wound dressing
  • antibiotic eye wash
  • rectal veterinary thermometer
  • hoof pick
  • twitch

For horse owners who trailer their horses to shows, trail rides, the veterinarian, the farrier, or wherever, Miller recommended having two kits, one for the barn or stable, the other in the trailer. Although it is possible to have a portable kit, Miller said he believes it is better to have two kits.

While one horse is off at a show, horses left behind might require medical attention. He also added that in the hustle and bustle to leave, horse owners might forget the kit. He also suggested that trail riders pack a mini-version of the kit for accidents that occur away from home or trailer.

Sharp wire cutters and a knife are a must. If there is wire or rope around, horses are going to tangle with it, he said. The wire cutters should be sharp enough to cut double twisted barbed wire. The knife also should be large and sharp enough to cut through a leather rein or a thick rope. Folding knives are great for working around horses. Many of these "Swiss Army-type" knives come in leather cases that have a snap for attaching the case to a belt or saddle.

Just as important as having these items in your first-aid kit is the need to maintain them. Regularly check to see that rust and nicks have not dulled the cutting edges. WD-40 works great for loosening up stiff cutters, knives, or scissors. It also helps prevent rust.

Bandage scissors are also high on Miller's list of items for a first-aid kit. When it comes to scissors, Miller said you get what you pay for. He suggested paying more for a "stout pair of bandage scissors" with a serrated edge and blunt end.

"I like the German stainless steel medical scissors that are made specifically for cutting thick bandages, but are strong enough to cut a penny," Miller said. "I like these better than cheaper scissors because cheaper scissors are not as sharp, don't cut as well, and you may end up pulling and tugging at the bandages which may in turn irritate the wound and/or the horse."

Miller also likes bandage scissors because of the scissors' blunt, curved end. He claims that regular scissors are not as quick to cut and also have a straight, sharp, pointed end with which you could jab the horse or yourself should the horse struggle while you're trying to remove a bandage. Scissors should also be sharpened regularly and kept rust free. Most medical-type scissors will come in their own case, where they should be kept when not in use. If you can't find professional bandage scissors, just ask your veterinarian to order you a pair or two.

Elastic wraps, cotton bandages, compresses, and adhesive tape can be used for covering flesh wounds and in the application of heat therapies like sweats, blisters, or alcohol braces. Miller said, "If there is anything horsemen should carry a lot of, it's thick bandages and dressings. Each kit should have at least one large roll of cotton, several disposable elastic bandages, sterile gauze pads, several large and thick compresses, and a couple of different sizes of bandage tape. A good place to buy inexpensive compresses and gauze is an Army/Navy surplus store. Although a store's stock may be several years old, the compresses, cotton, and bandages are usually wrapped to remain sterile for long periods of time.

"The large compresses come in real handy for large wounds with lots of bleeding," he said. "A lot of horsemen panic when they see a lot of blood, but what most horsemen consider severe bleeding is not considered severe by the vet. Most bleeding will respond to pressure applied over a compress."

In regard to elastic bandages, Miller particularly likes the waterproof, disposable type because they are lightweight, compact, and easy to pack for a trail ride.

Surgical or bacterial soap and/or saline solutions can be used for cleaning minor flesh wounds, but may be detrimental in cases where the wound is severe.

"Most people want to put something on a flesh wound immediately," Miller said. "They are even more obsessed if the wound is bleeding and bright red, but I caution against putting anything on a wound until it is thoroughly assessed and deemed appropriate.

"If a wound needs to be sutured, most veterinarians prefer to suture a clean wound, free from any contamination or medication," he added.

A surgical soap and water and/or hydrogen peroxide or a saline solution are usually sufficient for cleaning most superficial wounds. However, drenching the wound can be detrimental. Drenching can produce osmosis causing the wounded flesh around to swell. This might actually hinder the attending veterinarian's search for foreign matter that could be embedded in the wound. More severe wounds, or wounds with embedded foreign objects, should be cleaned by the veterinarian.

Some caustic dressings, such as tincture of iodine, might actually kill the raw flesh surrounding a wound and can delay the healing process. Tincture of iodine, however, is good to have for treating ringworm, thrush, or hoof punctures, he noted.

"There is no need or haste to put a bunch of gook on a wound," Miller stated, "especially not greases or oils. They're the worst. Let your vet do the doctoring, even if it will be several hours before he can get to your horse."

Rubbing alcohol is good to have around for cleaning the skin and hair around an injection or suture site. It should not be used to clean a wound. "How did it feel the last time you cleaned a wound of your own with rubbing alcohol?" Miller asked rhetorically.

Epsom salt is an excellent warm water soak for drawing pus and infection from abscesses and injuries. Prepare an Epsom salt soak by dumping in as much salt as the warm water will dissolve.

Antibacterial wound dressing should be on hand for minor flesh wounds and can be in powder, spray, ointment, or liquid form. Miller likes the results he gets with Furacin, which comes in liquid, powder, or ointment form. He said Furacin is an antibacterial ointment and prefers that horsemen use an antibacterial ointment, rather than an antibiotic ointment, as a topical medication.

"I don't recommend horsemen use antibiotic ointments, dressings, or powders," he said with conviction. "These products do not belong in a first-aid kit for casual use unless prescribed by the veterinarian."

The only time a horse owner should use an antibiotic medication is if it is an eye wash, Miller added. While an antibiotic eye wash is good to have on hand for minor eye irritations, Miller is adamant that horse owners should not put anything in a horse's eye without a veterinarian's approval and instruction. He also feels strongly that horsemen should contact a veterinarian immediately upon discovering an eye irritation or injury. Although eye problems are rare in horses, they do happen. Barbed wire, tree limbs, and kicks from other horses are the most common causes of eye injuries.

"I don't believe in horse owners panicking and calling the vet for every little problem, but when it comes to eye injuries, if you don't call the vet right away, you sure better know what you're doing," he said. "Many eye problems start out as a simple bloodshot eye or profuse tearing, but those symptoms can have a much more serious impact. You will know you have a real problem where the eye turns blue or milky in color."

Fly repellent wipe or spray for the body and a wipe or stick for the eye area are not items most people think of when stocking a first-aid kit, yet they are important to have on hand. External parasites such as flies, gnats, mosquitoes, ticks, ear ticks, or mites can cause discomfort and loss of condition for a horse, but they also can carry disease. Not only are fly repellents great for a horse's comfort, but they also can be used to ward off external parasites that might further irritate an injury or infection by laying eggs in an open wound. Many brands also deter mosquitoes, which can carry encephalomyelitis.

Rectal veterinary thermometers are usually a mainstay of most kits, but not everyone knows how to read one, Miller said. A normal temperature for a horse can range from 99.5-100° Fahrenheit, but a few fifths above or below is considered within the normal range. The great Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Preston Burch once said, "A horse's temperature is a pretty good indicator of his state of well-being."

A hoof pick is another item that most people don't think of when they start pulling together a first-aid kit for barn or trailer, but its value is self explanatory. A twitch comes in handy for restraining uncooperative or anxious animals, but only as a last resort, according to Miller.

Although you can't stock a first-aid kit with ice, Miller recommended having ice available, or at least knowing where you can get it quickly in case of injury.

"Nothing beats ice for treating sprains, strains, or bruises," Miller added. "You can use ice packs, ice boots, or ice and water in a bucket, but don't use dry ice. It can cause frost bite."

Whether an injury or ailment needs veterinary treatment will depend on the attending individual's knowledge of first aid and comfort in managing the problem. Miller is quick to add that if there is any question as to the severity of an illness or injury, call the veterinarian. His opinion is that it is better to be safe than sorry.

But what do you do if you can't get immediate veterinary attention?

"This is where horsemen have to take responsibility and educate themselves about common injuries and ailments before they happen," Miller said. "Horsemen must be very detailed in explaining a problem over the phone so the vet can advise them as to what to do until he or she arrives. If, however, the owner does not know what symptoms to look for, or how to explain them, there may be a misdiagnosis, which results in more harm than good."

Tying-up and snake bite almost always need veterinary attention. Tying-up can cause severe renal damage, which can lead to death. If you think your horse is suffering from tying-up, Miller recommended not moving the horse. If you're on the trail, he said, leave the horse and walk for help if you have to. There is little horsemen can do once tying-up has occurred, however, a veterinarian will have a variety of drugs for treating this ailment.

A horse bitten by a poisonous snake should not be moved. Moving the horse will only increase the speed with which the venom races through the body. Although most horses will survive a snake bite even without treatment, they should receive veterinary attention to lessen the swelling and pain associated with snake bite, as well as any potential complications, noted Miller. Although a tourniquet can be used to slow the venom's spread, applying one incorrectly can do more harm than good. Miller recommended that horsemen ask their veterinarian how to apply a tourniquet before one is needed.

Miller's last recommendation for stocking an equine first-aid kit was to inventory kits regularly. Throw away expired and contaminated medications, ointments, or preparations. Toss out anything that you are not 100% sure as to what the product is or what the product is used for. Also, check to see that scissors, knives, and wire cutters are clean and sharp, that lids and caps are on securely, and that animals and children do not have access to the kit.

"A lot of the minor first aid we use on horses is nothing more than human first aid," Miller said in conclusion. "Just use the same common sense in applying first aid to your horses that you do with your family."

About the Author

Aleta Walther

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More