From Sterilization to Stitches: Handling Horse Wounds

From Sterilization to Stitches: Handling Horse Wounds

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

What to do when you find a wound

Wounds are tricky. What appears to be a tiny, unoffensive knick to the knee could actually be a serious puncture wound, while a swath of missing skin—and enough blood smeared about to look like a crime scene—might just require a quick vet check to ensure there are no complications. For these reasons and more, it’s important that you be comfortable and familiar with what steps to take and when to call the veterinarian if you find a wound. 

We’ve asked two veterinarians to weigh in on the do’s and don’ts of wound care, from discovery to recovery. 

Step One

When you first notice your horse has sliced or slashed some part of his body, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, exhale, and assess the situation, says Alexandra Tracey, DVM, Dipl. ACVS-LA, of Palmetto Equine Veterinary Services, in Townville, South Carolina. Note the wound’s location—this is usually the easy part. To minimize contamination, hold off on inspecting the depth and extent of the injury if it’s not immediately obvious; your veterinarian can evaluate this when he or she arrives. 

If the horse is actively bleeding, apply pressure by hand using a clean towel or, if it’s a limb wound, apply a clean, snug, adequately padded bandage or wrap. Clean the area very gently, says Tracey, to gain a clearer sense of what structures are involved. If you get too aggressive, you can do more harm than good. 

Tracey recommends using a mild antiseptic to clean the wound, such as chlorhexidine surgical scrub or povidone iodine or betadine scrub, if available. Gently rinse with hose water or clean water from a bucket, if there’s not a lot of bleeding. Just be careful not to drive debris deeper into the wound by being overly aggressive in your cleaning. You might also dab the area gently with a gauze square to remove obvious debris, says Tracey.

Dean Hendrickson, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, professor of surgery at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, says clean, cool water works very effectively to remove blood and debris. After flushing the area with water, he recommends applying a hypertonic 20% saline dressing, which you can concoct by adding ½ cup of salt to 1 quart of water. 

“The hypertonic saline dressing helps to debride the wound and remove bacteria,” he says. “Almost all wounds have some sort of contamination. I’m pretty much against lotions and potions—the things people commonly put in wounds—and really try to stay away from those.”

Pick Up the Phone

Once you’ve assessed the situation, it’s time to decide whether to call the veterinarian or to take a wait-and-see approach. “I always encourage my clients to err on the side of getting me involved,” says Hendrickson. “If the wound is over a part of the horse that bends (i.e., a joint), you should call the vet; it’s so important we know all that’s going on with the wound right away. If you miss something like a joint, tendon sheath, or bone, it could mean the difference between function and nonfunction of your horse.” 

Echoing that sentiment, Tracey says, “I can’t say enough about treating a wound while it’s fresh, so I can clean contamination out and get everything started back in the right direction. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘wait-and-see,’ unless it’s a scrape or something that doesn’t need to be closed.” Tracey recommends calling the veterinarian right away if the horse is bleeding; if a joint, tendon, ligament, or bone might be involved; or if the horse is not bearing weight on a limb. 

Regardless of the wound type, relay as much information as possible when you call the veterinarian so he or she can respond with the appropriate treatment plan. Tracey encourages her clients to send photos of the injury, as well.

This article continues in the May 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue to learn the next steps in helping your horse heal, plus important complications to watch for.

About the Author

Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA

Freelance journalist Natalie DeFee Mendik is a multiple American Horse Publications editorial and graphics awards winner specializing in equestrian media. She holds an MA in English from Colorado State University and an International Federation of Journalists' International press card, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. With over three decades of horse experience, Natalie’s main equine interests are dressage and vaulting. Having lived and ridden in England, Switzerland, and various parts of the United States, Natalie currently resides in Colorado with her husband and two girls.

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