I’ve been taking care of horses for half a century and during that time I’ve seen hundreds of injured horses, from mild scratches to cuts that need stitches to deep-tissue lacerations, punctures and impalements. As most experienced horse owners know, some horses could get hurt even if they were locked in a padded stall.
Over the decades I’ve gotten pretty good at basic first aid for horses—knowing what injuries I can handle myself, when I need to call the vet and whether or not it is truly an emergency. I’ve nursed horses for months on end through the most horrific, seemingly career-ending injuries, and seen the horse come back to full health with barely a scar. Over the decades I’ve learned what supplies, medications and tools to keep on-hand, and how to deal with the typical injuries that horses get.
Recently, on one of the first blustery winter days, I saw the horses running around like their tails were on fire, across the fields and the through the thicket of trees. Later, as I brought the horses in for the evening, I gave each of the horses a good visual once-over, as we do each morning and evening, looking for any signs of injury or illness. It was then that I noticed the blood on Eddie’s muzzle. Once the horses were secured in their stalls for the night, I grabbed a flashlight and clean rag and headed to his stall to investigate.
With my rag damp, I wiped away the dried blood from his muzzle and discovered no injury there. Not surprising, since horses often rub or scratch wounds with their muzzles. Running the flashlight beam up and down his legs, it didn’t take me long to find the cut, up high on his right forearm. It was a jagged, one inch laceration with a puncture wound that looked like it could be deep and/or have some debris in there. No doubt, he ran into the stub of a broken branch when running pell-mell through the trees earlier.
The injury itself will often give evidence as to the cause or “mechanism of injury.” In this case, the jagged puncture and location high on his forearm were common clues to that type of injury, caused by tree branch. Looking at a wound—from minor to serious—may help you discern the cause, and hopefully eliminate it. The mechanism of injury may also be a clue as to how serious it is and/or how it should be treated. A wire cut or metal cut may have cleaner edges and a deeper laceration; a puncture wound might only have a small opening but swelling below could be a clue to a deeper problem.
Like many experienced horse owners, at my ranch we treat most minor injuries without calling the vet. But everyone that works for me knows, when in doubt, call the vet. I’d way rather have a small vet bill than a big problem later on. When I am evaluating the wound, to see if I need to call my vet, my main concerns are suturing, the potential for infection, joint damage and/or lameness. If tranquilizing is required to clean, suture, flush or drain the wound, or the wound is near a joint or involves lameness, I call the vet.
If infection is a concern and I think I might need antibiotics, I call the vet. I prefer to use oral antibiotics, even though they are more expensive, in order to reduce the number of injections the horse may need and I get that from my vet. If the wound is fresh and has clean edges and it is located in a place where stitches would hold and/or where it could be wrapped, suturing may be useful, so I call the vet.
Fortunately, on this day, it was an injury I could easily handle myself. Over the past 5 decades, I have had many opportunities to treat puncture wounds on horses. I suppose their flight response has something to do with the frequency of puncture wounds seen in horses. Equally fortunate was the fact that my horse Eddie was very well-mannered, trained to stand still when asked and very easy to handle from the ground. Tranquilizers would not be needed—just someone that would hold and distract him while I cleaned and flushed the wound.
I headed to the barn to get the supplies I needed—betadine solution, a handful of gauze sponges for scrubbing, scarlet oil, a small pail of warm water, some clean dry rags, a towel, the mastitis needle and irrigation syringe and the cordless clippers. While my assistant haltered Eddie, I laid out my supplies on the clean towel and got them ready, in the order in which I would need them.
With any wound that has fully penetrated the skin, I like to clip away the hair from the area to make it easier to clean and to prevent the hair from being matted in the wound. I use a mild diluted betadine solution (about the color of iced tea) for cleaning wounds initially, whether it is a puncture or open laceration, but the first order of business is to scrub away any scabbing, debris or matted hair that may be covering the wound and expose the edges fully.
With any kind of puncture, there is always the possibility of foreign matter inside the wound which can cause infection and abscessing. The critical issues for treating puncture wounds are to flush the wound daily, allow it to drain for as long as needed, and keep the outside of the wound open to allow it to heal from the inside out. After scrubbing the outside of the wound and probing and flushing the inside with the mastitis needle (a blunt ended irrigating needle), I then squirt a little scarlet oil deep into the wound to keep it draining and to help prevent infection. Every day, until it is healed, I will clean away scabbing and flush the puncture again and monitor the amount of drainage. When the drainage stops, the wound is usually ready to heal and close.
Whether or not to bandage a wound can be an easy decision—there are many places on a horse that cannot effectively be bandaged. I prefer to keep puncture wounds un-bandaged to promote drainage as it heals. Indeed, in many instances, wounds will heal better when exposed to air and sunlight but there are many extenuating circumstances with horses—how clean the wound will stay, how easily it will reopen, whether or not there sutures to protect, can the scar be minimized, will insects or foreign matter be a problem, will the bandage stay put? I like to err on the side of keeping a non-puncture wound clean and protected, so I will bandage the wound when I can.
Bandaging wounds on horses requires some skill and know-how, since mostly we are talking about legs– keeping it on without cutting off circulation and causing additional damage can be a challenge. Changing the bandage, cleaning and redressing the wound will have to be done on a regular schedule, again, by someone that knows what they are doing. I always keep plenty of bandaging supplies on hand—vet wrap, rolled gauze, trauma pads, cotton batting (necessary for cushioning to allow for circulation when wrapping legs), polo wraps and duct tape. I like to keep a package of disposal newborn baby diapers in my first aid kit, which can come in handy for wound dressing and saddle sores. A large box of disposable medical gloves, sharp bandage scissors and good clippers are must-haves.
When it comes to ointments and medications for treating wounds, I like to keep it simple and all-natural when possible, so I use a lot of Redmond First aid clay as a topical ointment when I need protection from the elements in a minor wound that will go un-bandaged. It will act as a drying agent and will form a protective layer over the wound to keep out insects and debris. For un-sutured wounds that will be bandaged and do not need to drain, I will pack the wound in the clay and it will stay moist because of the bandage and help the wound heal. I also use the clay mixed as a mud poultice for bruises and swelling on the legs and for packing feet.
Sometimes a medicated ointment is needed to prevent infection in a wound—let your vet decide what is needed, but be careful what you use, because some of the most common medicated ointments traditionally used on horses have carcinogens in them (check the label). Make sure you always use gloves when treating wounds of any kind, to protect yourself from infection and from harsh chemicals.
Keeping the “dry” supplies on-hand and plentiful is a good investment and a no-brainer—they will not expire and will be there when and if you need them, if stored well. I prefer to avoid having a lot of medications sitting around that get old and expire—I will get them from my vet when needed. Redmond First Aid ointment and pure coconut oil get the most use around my barn on a daily basis, but we also keep betadine, scarlet oil and blue lotion on hand. A smaller first aid kit will all the basics is kept in an airtight container in my horse trailer for when we are on the road.
Of course, my hope is that my first aid supplies will never be needed. But after a lifetime with horses, I know that sooner or later, one of them is going to get in a wreck. It pays to be prepared!
Sometimes it seems like a horse could hurt himself even if you locked him in a padded stall. Running and playing with other horses keeps your horse happy but may mean he occasionally gets scuffed up. Being flight animals and very social animals, means that wrecks and injuries can happen. With time and experience, you will learn how to deal with minor first aid issues and you’ll know when it is important to call the vet. When daily care and treatment is required, your vet will show you what needs to be done, but there are a few skills that are important for horse owners to have.
First Aid Supplies:
Make sure you have all the first aid supplies on hand that you might need, before you need them. Here’s what I like to keep on hand, readily available in my barn:
Betadine surgical scrub and Hydrogen peroxide for cleaning wounds
Witch hazel (a cleaning stringent that does not sting)
Alcohol and cotton balls (for cleaning implements and for use with injections)
Saline solution (for irrigating eyes or any mucus membranes)
Skin ointment like Corona, for minor scrapes
Medicated ointment like furason (for cuts and wounds)
Blue lotion (spray or liquid, for scrapes and small cuts)
Lubricating gel, Vaseline
4×4 sponges (or gauze pads) for cleaning and dressing wounds
Bandaging supplies: cotton, rolled gauze, vet wrap, Duct tape
Disposable diapers (infant size; great for girth sores or foot bandages)
Large syringe and mastitis needle (for irrigating puncture wounds)
Drugs (issued by vet): bute, banamine
Scrapes—losing a bit of hair but not breaking the skin happens all the time as horses bite and kick each other or run into branches or fences and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Keep the scrape clean and rub a little ointment on the skin to help encourage the hair to grow back. If there’s an abrasion but not through the full thickness of the skin, I might use Blue Lotion to help dry it up and protect the skin.
Cuts—first determine if the cut is deep enough for sutures or in a place where it needs suturing, like the face or lips. When in doubt, call the vet. To treat cuts, wash the wound with a mild disinfectant soap like betadine (diluted to the color of iced-tea). Scrub around the edges of the wound (you might need to clip away hair) briskly to encourage good blood flow and make sure all foreign matter and scabs are washed away. After it dries, use a medicated ointment like furason and keep the cut dry and clean and exposed to the air when possible. Bandaging is sometimes required to keep the wound clean, but it should be done by someone that knows how. If the wound needs sutures, your vet will give you treatment instructions.
Puncture wounds– are really common, like for instance when a horse runs into a branch and jabs a stick into his flesh. Punctures may be hard to recognize since from the outside the wound is very small but on the inside it could be big. Puncture wounds must heal form the inside out—to be kept clean and irrigated to keep a scab from forming. If a puncture wound is not kept clean and draining, it can turn into an abscess. Look for signs of a puncture wound which may be small on the outside but deep or bigger on the inside and may have debris inside. Wash thoroughly, clip away all hair from the edges of the wound and try to prevent a scab from forming over the opening. Use a mastitis needle and syringe with a mild betadine solution to irrigate the wound daily to insure that it heals from the inside out. Consult your vet if you suspect foreign matter may be in the wound or if the horse may need antibiotics.
Hoof abscesses are common in horses, particularly in wetter/warmer climates. They are characterized by sudden, acute lameness where the horse may not even be weight bearing on the affected foot and/or is pointing his toe. Always consult your vet on lameness but if it is thought to be a hoof abscess, you may need to soak the foot in warm water with Epsom salt a couple times a day for a few days, until the abscess bursts and drains—which should give the horse immediate relief of pain. In some cases, the hoof may need bandaging after the abscess comes out, to prevent further infection. Always follow your vet’s advice.
Cleaning, dressing and bandaging wounds: Usually it’s best to keep wounds clean, dry and exposed to air and sunlight. But sometimes wounds are really hard to keep clean and they may need to be bandaged to promote better healing—let your vet decide. Bandaging horses is tricky and if done incorrectly, the bandage may come off or, in worst case scenarios; the bandage could cause discomfort or further injury to the horse if it gets too tight and cuts off circulation.
Wounds should be cleaned, dried and medicated before bandaging. Only some places on the horse can be effectively bandaged and the most common place is the feet and legs. All bandages on the legs should be padded so as not to disrupt circulation and they should be wrapped well above and well below the injury. Make sure there is an even tension all the way around on the wrap—not too tight. Usually you will have to wrap all the way to the foot to keep the bandage from slipping down. Sometimes a ballistic layer needs to be added at the end to keep the bandage from ripping or being torn off by the horse. Duct tape can be handy. Consult your vet on how often the bandage should be changed and what medications to use.
For your own safety, always keep in mind that a sick or injured horse may be more dangerous or react in ways that aren’t typical for that horse—so use extra caution. Always wear disposable gloves for your own protection from chemicals, medications and infection.
make veterinary exams a breeze
Prepare your trail horse for the veterinarian with these lessons in ground manners from noted clinician Julie Goodnight
If your horse is well-trained, well-behaved and easy to work with, you’ll make your veterinarian’s job much easier and more effective. Even the best veterinarian must struggle to examine a horse that’s stomping, biting, moving away or just not cooperating.
While you might blame your horse’s “sudden” behavioral problems on sickness or pain, chances are, your ill-mannered patient hasn’t learned how to look to you for leadership and guidance. If he learns to follow your every command when he’s well, he’ll respect your cues when he’s hurt or when it’s time for an important examination.
We met up with respected trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight to find out the manners your horse should learn to make veterinary exams a breeze. She believes you must be your horse’s “captain” at all times to gain and maintain his respect. If he knows that you’re the herd leader, he’ll look to you for guidance in any situation, even when he’s uncomfortable, hurt or fearful.
Goodnight has witnessed many horse owners handle their horses during veterinary visits. She’s seen the bites and kicks that could’ve been avoided. “While most veterinarians love all horses, most have a few favorite clients—it’s just human nature,” she says. “When your horse is well-mannered and you know how to handle him properly, you’ll make your vet’s job easier. He or she will enjoy working on your well-trained partner.
“Proper training might also boost your horse’s chance for a healthy outcome,” Goodnight continues. “Your vet will be able to thoroughly examine a horse that stands still without fidgeting and allows touch. Plus, the best-trained horses often don’t need mechanical restraints or extra sedatives for veterinary work, which can save you money and save your horse from potential sedative side effects.”
While your vet wants to do what’s best for your horse and will perform the necessary examinations, diagnostics and treatments no matter how your horse behaves, he or she will appreciate your mannered horse and will gain respect for your horsemanship.
Here’s how to teach your horse four lessons in ground manners: hold still; accept touch; place each step; and match your pace. (Note: As you teach your horse these lessons, always stay safe; if you have any problems, ask a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor to help you.)
Connect the lead rope to the halter with a knot rather than a metal snap to allow your horse to feel a correction without causing undue pain.
You’ll need: A rope halter (to place pressure on your horse’s poll and sensitive facial areas); a long lead rope (at least 12 feet long, so you can command your horse from far away) with a knot to connect it to the halter instead of a metal snap (the knot will allow your horse feel a correction without causing undue pain); leather gloves; flag or whip/longe whip.
Before you begin: Choose a time to work with your horse when he’s fed, rested and wants to move. “Begin your practice when other horses are leaving the arena or your horse is next to be turned out,” Goodnight suggests.
Lesson #1: Hold Still
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need your horse to stand still for examinations, injections and other procedures. If your horse stands still with his nose in front of his chest, he won’t interrupt your vet’s work by nudging or biting.
“You have to have a relationship with your horse,” notes Goodnight. “You have to have authority over him even when he’s scared, agitated or hurt. You might think you can hold him up close and keep him still, but you’re just not strong enough. You need to make him want to stand still.”
Training technique: Select a point several yards away where you’d like him to stand. Walk him to that point, and say “whoa.” Step away at a 45-degree angle from where his nose is pointing, so you’ll be in front, but safely off to the side if he does move on.
Once in place, point your toes toward your horse’s nose. Allow the rope to drape, holding it near the end. Stay still as long as he keeps his feet in place and doesn’t move his head from side to side. If he does, it’s time for a correction. Note that the lesson will go more quickly if he realizes his mission and can associate what he does just before a correction comes.
Start the correction by waving the lead rope up and down about one foot so that the movement travels through the rope and affects the halter knot. Make one correction, then allow your horse to lower his head and stand still again. If he picks up a foot or turns his head to the side, correct again. Be consistent with your corrections until he learns the new rule.
Next, face your horse with your feet pointed toward him. He shouldn’t move at all. Your physical presence and your leadership should keep him still. If he moves, lead him back to where he started. If you allow him to move, for instance, one step toward the gate, you’ll reward him for moving, rather than standing still. He should stand just where you tell him, until you cue him otherwise.
“You’re really teaching your horse to ground tie,” Goodnight says. As your horse begins to figure out his ground-tying lesson, back up even more, and lay a portion of the rope on the ground between corrections.
Lesson #2: Accept Touch
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need to look in your horse’s mouth, ears, eyes and other sensitive areas during routine exams or if your horse becomes ill, sore or injured. If your horse isn’t used to having his sensitive parts touched, he might pull away and make an exam difficult. Here, we’ll focus on the mouth to prepare him for oral exams and dental work. “I’ve taught several of my horses to accept this pressure in their mouths so well that my vet doesn’t need to sedate before teeth floating,” Goodnight notes.
Training technique: Your horse needs to learn that if he accepts touch, the touch will soon go away—that it’s easier to stand still and accept the touch instead of fighting.
Don leather gloves, stand at your horse’s left side, and place two fingers at the left corner of his lip. He should open his mouth slightly. Move your fingers slightly back and into his mouth, avoiding his front and back teeth. He’ll most likely shake his head and pull away from your touch, but keep your fingers in place no matter where he pulls you.
Watch for an instant of relaxation. As soon as your horse lowers his head or stops resisting, pull your hand away. Keep the pressure until he accepts it, then remove your hand immediately. Repeat the process until he allows you to open his mouth from both sides without resistance.
Use this same technique to teach your horse to accept your touch on other parts of his face and body.
Lesson # 3: Place Each Step
How it helps your vet: If your horse needs a flexion test during a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to pick up and hold your horse’s foot and leg without resistance or leaning. If your horse needs a radiograph (X-ray) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he’ll have to place his foot on a small plate. Many horses are taught how to pick up their feet, but not how to hold them up or put them down with finesse. Your horse needs to trust you to hold his foot, then gently place it down onto any surface.
Training technique: Have a helper hold your horse, or tie your horse to a sturdy post. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing his hindquarters. Place your left hand on his left shoulder, and lightly move it toward his fetlock. With your thumb and index finger, gently squeeze the tendon just above his fetlock joint.
When your horse picks up his foot, lift it so his lower leg is parallel to the ground, then hold that position. If you feel him squirm or pull away, maintain your hold, moving with him until he relaxes.
When your horse relaxes and accepts the foot hold, gently lower his foot to the ground, and place it in a precise spot. Don’t let go or drop his leg. If you do, he’ll learn that he can place his foot wherever he chooses, not where you or your vet needs it to be.
Repeat this exercise several times on each leg. When your horse understands that you’ll put his foot down when he’s relaxed, experiment with new foot-placement locations. Pick up his foot and place it on a block, piece of paper, a flat rock—whatever you can find that may mimic an item in your veterinarian’s clinic.
Lesson #4: Match Your Pace
How it helps your vet: During a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to see your horse’s movement at a walk and trot. If your horse is pokey while you lead him, clinic staff will have to work extra hard to get your horse to move at an even cadence. If your horse moves smoothly and at the speed you request, your vet will likely be better able to see a change in stride and pinpoint the lameness.
Training technique: Work in an arena or other area with flat, consistent footing. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing front, holding the lead rope about a foot from the halter. You don’t want to pull your horse forward, you want your horse to learn to match your step and follow your lead.
Walk forward a few steps, leading your horse at a walk, keeping his head just behind your shoulder. Then jog in an animated way to cue your horse to pick up the trot. If he does so, increase your pace. If he moves at your pace without lagging behind, allow him to rest as a reward. Then repeat the exercise until you know he’ll respond well to your trot cue.
If your horse is sluggish, ask a helper to jog along behind your horse waving a flag or whip/longe whip to prompt your horse to go forward. (Make sure your helper stays off to the side and out of your horse’s kicking zone; remind him or her to avoid actually touching your horse.)
Ask your horse to move on again, with your helper to reinforcing your trot cues. As soon as your horse moves forward easily, allow him to rest as a reward. Make sure he stops on your command or when you stop, not when he thinks it’s time.
Continue to trot your horse up and down the work area until he’ll stay at your speed without the prompt. When he’s cooperative, trot him in circles to make sure the change of direction doesn’t slow him down. You’ll get a good workout, while your horse gets ready for potential lameness exam
We have seen you a number of times at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo and love the way you work with horses. We desperately need your advice. We have a 2 year old filly who weighs in at about 1000 lbs. We have done all kinds of groundwork exercises and desensitization exercises with her. She is golden…until its time for immunizations. She will not tolerate a needle. She is getting hurt in the process, as are the people around her. We even tried snubbing her (tying her to a post and squeezing a gate against her). I thought she was going to break her neck or tear the barn down. We are running out of options. If we don’t come up with a solution very soon we will have no other option but to put her down. Please help!
Many horses become needle shy, especially if they had to be given a series of shots when they were young, due to an injury or sickness. Once a horse has made a negative association, there is nothing you can do to erase it, but you can replace it with a different association. The problem with a needle shy horse is that you cannot really practice, since you would not want to give a horse a shot unnecessarily. We try to avoid giving shots to any horse if we can. For instance, if your horse needs an antibiotic, spend a little extra money and give it by mouth. We rarely give penicillin injections anymore, in an effort to avoid the emotional injury, soreness and potential for abscess or allergic reactions. While there are certain medications that can only be given by injection, I do not see why you would have to put a horse down if it is needle shy. I would simply not vaccinate the horse or give it injections if it could not be done safely and take your chances with the results. To desensitize the horse or to replace this unwanted behavior with another, you can try this routine. First, use an alternative site for IM injections like the chest. Second, set up a series of cues or stimuli that are far different from what normally happens with an injection and use pattern conditioning. See articles on my website for an explanation of pattern conditioning. We did an episode/DVD about how to give your horse oral medications that will show you a similar process, too. It’s called “Bad Medicine” and was taped in Martha’s Vineyard. Seeing the process will help you understand just what to do.
For instance, you might start by doing a circular massage of the area where the injection is to be given, followed by giving the horse a treat. Use the exact same approach, routine and technique every time and repeat this step over and over until the horse knows the routine and is eagerly awaiting the treat. You may even want to give some visual cues or verbal cues at the same time. Your goal is that when you go through these antics the horse will be thinking about the treat that is coming and not about the shot. Then add another step, which may be pinching up the skin, followed by a cookie (only give the reward when the horse gives the response you want-to stand still and accept what you are doing). Repeat again and again. The next step might be to add wiping the spot with alcohol, followed by the cookie; repeat. Then perhaps you’ll approach with the syringe and needle, but not give the shot, followed by a cookie. Eventually the horse will develop a pattern of behavior that keeps him relaxed and willing during your preparation for the shot and he will be very happy about the whole thing because he has associated it with food. At some point, you’ll be ready to try the injection (but only give an injection that is necessary and try to minimize them). Go through all of your antics so the horse is thinking about the cookie and not the needle. The actual stick that the horse feels is very minimal, at least with a smaller needle, like the size used for vaccinations. When a horse is needle shy it is an emotional reaction and not really a reaction to pain. If you use a small gauge needle and a quick stick, the horse won’t feel much at all. Ask you vet to show you good injection technique that will minimize the stick the horse feels on another horse. Avoid excessive confinement or force whenever you are doing something potentially frightening to a horse because that will only increase the horse’s fear. Also, realize that your horse may have made an association with the fear of needles and your vet. Your vet has an appearance, smell and demeanor that your horse recognizes. So you may not be able to let your vet give injections. Take your time to make new associations with this horse and above all else, make sure that you are safe. If you can’t give an injection, look for alternatives or take your chances that the horse will contract whatever disease you are vaccinating for. Good luck and be patient and safe.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host