Waiting for the Veterinarian
Minutes after being loaded into a trailer at the end of a trail ride, Q.T. pawed through the narrow opening between the trailer's wall and its access door. In doing so the Quarter Horse mare lacerated her right front leg. Trainer Kari Sullivan knew immediately the injury was significant, but she was miles from the nearest veterinary clinic. So she cleaned the wound with alcohol and pressure-wrapped the horse's leg with sterile gauze pads and polo wrap.
Within hours the horse was back at Sullivan's farm, where a veterinarian sutured and dressed the wound. These days all that remains from the incident is Sullivan's memory of it and a faint scar on Q.T.'s leg.
"It really could have been a lot worse, especially since it happened so far away from any veterinary help," she says.
In fact, unless a horse develops an injury or other condition with a veterinarian present, the chances of its receiving immediate veterinary care are slim. That's why it's important an owner knows how to help his or her injured horse until the veterinarian arrives.
"There are many things an owner can do, and doing those things will help me even before I get there," says Dean Hendrickson, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University.
When an owner encounters a condition that requires veterinary care, Hendrickson advises him or her to remain calm, assess the horse's condition to the best of his or her ability, and be prepared to answer a veterinarian's questions about the horse and his behavior.
"I want to know all the basics--the horse's breed, age, and gender," Hendrickson says. "I also want to know how the horse is different from the way it has been in the past."
"The best thing an owner can do with a laceration is clean the wound to remove debris and hair," says Hendrickson. "If there's severe bleeding, you've got to get pressure working right away. Use a terry towel and an elastic bandage, if you have to."
According to Mark T. Donaldson, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, keeping the wound clean is particularly important when the laceration is several hours old. "Lacerations more than eight hours old are at greater risk of infection when sutured," he says.
While some veterinarians recommend using flour or baking soda to stop severe bleeding, Hendrickson discourages owners from using either as a wound preparation. Both are drying agents that can complicate treatment, he explains.
"The mission is to keep the wound moist," he says. "That way, I can probably come in and suture it up the first time and get a better cosmetic result. If an owner feels he must put something in the wound, triple antibiotic ointment may be placed on the bandage, not directly in the wound."
He also discourages owners from administering phenylbutazone (Bute) or flunixin meglumine (Banamine) without veterinarian approval to relieve injury-related pain.
"Almost all the non-steroidal drugs we use cause platelet levels to decrease," Hendrickson notes. "That means the horse is going to bleed more. In the majority of situations, you have time, so don't do something that could impact your veterinarian's ability to help you."
If a horse exhibits signs of lameness, his owner should be prepared to describe the degree of the condition over time, as this detail could mean the difference in whether a severe lameness receives early veterinary intervention.
"If the horse was putting weight on the leg yesterday, but is not today, then it may have gone from a nondisplaced fracture to a displaced fracture," Hendrickson says, describing a severe lameness case. "Knowing the signs and symptoms can point me in the right direction so I'm prepared when I get there."
Hendrickson advises horse owners to keep a lame horse quiet and confined to the area he's in, if possible, to keep him from moving around. "The key is that we want to find out what's wrong," he says, noting that if a horse isn't putting any weight on his leg, the first thing he thinks of is the possibility of a fracture. "We don't want to exacerbate it."
If the horse must be moved, Hendrickson says to bring the trailer as close to a severely lame horse's location as possible before loading.
"Then place the horse in the trailer so that the best legs are loaded first (toward the front of the trailer, so in the case of a sudden stop the unaffected limbs will bear the horse's weight)," Hendrickson said. "Really squeeze the horse into the trailer: Don't give it lot of room ... (as this allows the horse) to lean on one of the walls."
Laminitis-related lameness (usually in a horse's front feet) also requires veterinary care. Laminitis is an inflammation of the laminae--interlocking leaflike tissues that attach the horse's hoof to the coffin bone within it. This acute inflammation can strike any number of feet on any horse due to a variety of triggers, from high-carbohydrate diets in horses with metabolic syndrome or Cushing's disease to colic to retained placenta to mechanical overload.
Beyond allowing the horse to rest, ideally in a deeply bedded stall, and trying to keep him immobile, there's not much an owner can do to help an acutely laminitic horse before the veterinarian arrives. But owners are advised not to feed or medicate a laminitic horse while waiting.
"We have seen some benefit in icing the feet--so an owner can get them in ice, if he can," Hendrickson says.
Mild colic episodes are generally gas or spasmodic colic, when a collection of intestinal gas moves through a horse's gut. Other types of colic include diet-related impactions or intestinal obstruction due to displacement or strangulation, which typically requires surgery. Regardless of the cause, the condition is painful and deserves immediate veterinary attention.
"It can be helpful to observe your horse's behavior," advises Donaldson. "Is it showing classic signs of abdominal pain such as pawing, looking at its side, rolling, getting up and down repeatedly? Or are the signs more subtle such as not eating and lying down quietly? These subtle observations can help your veterinarian make the appropriate diagnosis."
Some owners walk a horse experiencing colic, but Hendrickson recommends they use caution.
"In some cases it's good to walk a horse to keep its mind off the pain," he comments. "So if you can safely walk the horse, do it. But if the horse is violent, just leave it alone." You don't want to get hurt in the process, because if you're hurt, you can't help your horse.
He also advises owners not to administer mineral oil to colicky horses.
If possible, and without endangering yourself, move your horse to an area where he is safe in case he rolls, and remove access to any food or water. Do not administer any medications before your horse has been examined by the veterinarian.
Owners who suspect a horse has sustained a snake bite should keep the animal quiet and refrain from moving him out of his pasture, because movement might cause the snake's venom to spread.
Hendrickson warns there's no benefit to applying a tourniquet. Also refrain from applying ice.
If a horse suffers an eye injury, the best thing to do is use saline solution to keep the cornea moist, then bandage the eye or use a fly mask to keep flies off the affected area. If the eyeball itself has a foreign object embedded in it, do not try to remove the object without veterinary assistance.
If a horse is showing signs of "choke" (e.g., saliva and feed material being discharged from his nose and mouth, pawing, and retching/coughing), remove feed and water and call a veterinarian immediately.
"Choke is a term for esophageal obstruction and occurs when feed material stuck in the esophagus prevents the horse from swallowing additional food," explains Donaldson. "Some horses will be able to pass the obstruction on their own within a few minutes, but occasionally a veterinarian will be required to pass a nasogastric tube to aid the passage of feed material into the stomach."
Hendrickson advises owners to ask their veterinarians about interim emergency care techniques long before their horses actually require them. Owners should ask their practitioner for backup veterinarian recommendations in the event he or she is unavailable; to describe health conditions that are significant concerns or emergency situations; and what actions they can safely perform in each case before the veterinarian arrives.
About the Author
Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.