Basic first aid for treating wounds in horses
All horse owners need to be able to treat minor injuries. If you cannot stem a bleeding wound, or suspect arterial bleeding, seek immediate veterinary advice.
Horses are more delicate than they look
Whether it’s a knock going over a jump, a nasty cut from tangling with barbed wire fences, or a kick from another horse, open wounds and bruising are something most horse owners will face at one time or another.
Unlike a dog or cat, you can’t bring your injured horse to the hospital. And if you are located a long way from our hospital it may be some time before we can get a vet to your property. These factors mean that horse owners need to be able to recognise the degree of severity of an injury and be able to apply common sense first aid to minimise damage and prevent infection.
For minor injuries first aid may be all you need. In most cases, however, it should be a temporary measure until the vet arrives. For any injury to a horse we suggest that you always call the hospital for advice on how to proceed.
Warning: When facing an injured horse, do not approach the animal unless you can do so safely. The horse will be in pain and confused, which can make him dangerous. It doesn’t help the horse, or you, if you end up in hospital with a fractured skull from a flying hoof. Stay calm. If you are panicked your excitement will be picked up by the horse and may make things worse. Step back and assess the situation carefully. Ask yourself: what do I need to do make it safe for me to help my horse?
Try to move the injured animal to a familiar, quiet place. Being somewhere he knows will help calm him down.
Is it arterial or venous?
Profuse bleeding can be very distressing but it can often look worse than it is. The average 500 kilogram horse has more than 26 litres of blood pulsing through his system so he can afford to lose a couple of litres without serious effects. Your job is to first assess the severity of the bleeding, and then to slow it down.
Arterial bleeding — where the blood is bright red and spurting from the wound — is much more serious, and much harder to control, than venous bleeding, where blood tends to seep and run. If you suspect arterial bleeding you need to seek immediate veterinary assistance.
To slow the rate of venous bleeding you can apply a clean cloth, folded several times to make a thick pad, over the source of the blood. You must apply firm, continuous pressure until the bleeding slows or stops. With a deep laceration or cut this can take some time so you are usually better to use a bandage or tape to hold the pad firmly in place. If the wound is located in a part of the body where you can’t tape a pad in place you’ll need to hold the bandage firmly in place until the bleeding stops.
Too much padding or too loose a pad will not allow you to apply adequate pressure. A thick towel wrapped around a cut on the leg will not help; you need to improvise a pad that can be held firmly in place. But not so tightly that it may impair circulation where the injury is on a leg. If you think the bandage or tape holding the pad is very tight around the leg, loosen it off and change it every 10 minutes to allow circulation to the rest of the leg.
What kind of cut are you dealing with?
You must first decide if what you are dealing with is a ‘deep cut‘ or a ‘full skin thickness cut.’ Each needs different treatment.
A skin laceration/cut may be quite deep without fully penetrating the skin to the tissue below. Deeper layers of the skin can be white to pink, and look very similar to tissue, so it can be difficult to decide if you are facing a full skin thickness cut or not. One simple way is to remember that, with a cut that does not penetrate the skin all the way to the tissue beneath you will not be able to pull the edges of the wound apart.
Depending on the site of the injury, a ‘deep cut’ wound might be as shallow as 3 mm or as deep as 7 mm where the skin is thickest, but even the deepest of these wounds do not normally require stitches and antibiotics, a good spray with Centrigen to deter flies will usually be sufficient. A full skin thickness laceration does require stitches.
Stitches not needed
For a laceration which does not fully penetrate the skin, clean gently and thoroughly with soap and water and apply Centrigen — which deters flies and has anti-bacterial agents — twice a day. Non-prescription anti-bacterial products do not last long. The hospital can prescribe a more long lasting medication.
If the wound is on a lower leg or any area which will get dirty or muddy apply a clean bandage.
‘Deep cut’ wounds do not require sutures but they should be carefully monitored to be sure the wound is healing properly without infection.
When soft tissue is exposed
Wounds which do fully penetrate the skin, exposing underlying soft tissue, need more involved treatment and usually require a vet. The wound may need sutures, although this will depend on a number of factors. As long as it is being monitored and cared for properly, a contaminated or badly traumatised wound may heal more quickly if left open. A sutured wound is unable to drain, which may lead to ascending infection.
Always clean and bandage a wound
Wounds should be flushed out with clean water to remove any dirt. A garden hose with a spray nozzle is ideal, as long as it’s drawn from a clean supply, i.e., not from the creek. The wound should then be bandaged.
If the wound is likely to need stitches, do not apply any medications or creams until a vet can examine the injury. Some products can interfere with the medications we may need to use to treat your horse, and prevent us using the most appropriate treatment. If veterinary help is more than a couple of hours away, consult the hospital for advice on what might be best to dress the wound with.
High risk of infection
Beware of puncture wounds, usually caused by penetrating sharp objects such as wire. They will often look like a minor injury while, under the surface, infection is raging. They can quickly become infected, with the first signs of problems — usually pain and swelling — only showing up 24 to 72 hours after an accident. A puncture wound seals rapidly, leaving the infection nowhere to go but to spread to surrounding tissues. Always have a deep puncture wound examined by the vet, who will open the wound, check for foreign bodies and clean and drain the wound to avoid infection.
Injury to underlying structures
Any wound or laceration has the potential to have also affected deeper underlying structures, particularly full skin thickness lacerations. For example, a lower limb injury that has penetrated into a joint capsule or tendon sheath can mean what looks like a routine cut may actually be more serious, potentially affecting the performance of the horse for life.
Any deep wound to areas around joints and tendons should always be examined by a veterinarian.
Reduce the swelling
If your horse suffers a kick or a hard blow that does not break the skin the area around the injury will be swollen and hot. Hose the area and apply an ice compress for a minimum of 30 minutes. Ask the hospital for advice on medications to limit swelling and pain.
One area where bruising is particularly serious is to the back of the thigh. The large muscle masses found there are prone to forming scars from deep bruises, which can affect the gait of the horse for life. Special veterinary care to quickly reduce the inflammation will be needed in these cases, together with controlled exercise during the following 60 to 90 days.