How to Treat a Wounded Horse When No Vet Is Available
All too often I have asked a cowboy about a favorite horse, only to be told that it passed after it went out on the trail and got injured. Some injuries occur when riding a rough trail, some occur when working, but most occur just because of bad luck. If an injury occurs and there is no vet is available, there are still many things you can do, like basic first aid.
Deal with bad luck by being prepared. All riders should carry a first aid kit and learn how to use it.
What to Do When Your Horse Gets Injured
Before you even get started on the wound, figure out if your horse is okay and can be worked with. Roll down the skin below the eyes and check the mucus membranes. They should be pink. (This is something you should check all of the time to see whether or not your horse is anemic.)
If your horse is in shock, it is probably hypovolemic (the fluids are no longer moving around in the blood vessels) and he will need massive amounts of fluids to survive. Is there anything you can do?
- Stop the bleeding so that he does not lose more fluid.
- Talk to him calmly in a soft voice so that he calms down.
- Throw a blanket over him to keep him from losing his body heat as he cools down from the shock.
- If he has any severe injuries that you are not able to fix (like broken bones), try to move him around so that he does not have to put weight on them.
If your horse is not in shock and you are able to work with him, the first thing to do is to figure out the type of wound you are dealing with and how it needs to be treated. If it is a cut on the neck, body, or a wound on one of the legs, get some help and take care of it right away. If there is major damage, like a branch through his gut or his intestine hanging out after a fall, you can try antibiotics, but there is not much you can do without surgery.
Get Some Help When Working With an Injured Horse
Most wound treatments are going to require some help. If no vet is available to sedate the horse for treatment, at least have someone hold his head while you are working with the injury. You might need to twitch him, or some horses will do okay if you distract them by tapping the center of the forehead over and over. It is annoying, and they tend to focus on the tapping more than on what is happening to their wound.
Ask a companion to help before getting started. If you upset the horse and cause him to thrash around, it is going to be even more difficult to work with him after you find someone to hold.
How to Stop Bleeding and Clean a Wound on a Horse
Some wounds will bleed badly, and if you slow it down, you can save the horses life.
Stop the Bleeding
- If the blood is seeping out, pour some raw honey on top of a bandage and compress it against the wound. The honey will help clotting and also has some antibiotic effects.
- If you see blood pumping out of a wound, this is more serious. A horse that is bleeding out in this way will eventually die of shock. Use hemostats to reach in and grab the bleeder. Even if you do not have suture to tie it off, you can crush the tip and leave the hemostats on there as long as possible.
If you do not have hemostats, which you should in your first aid kit, use needle nose pliers. Do not let the horse continue to bleed out from a severed vein. If he does not die, he might get too weak to get better. If he is too weak to move back to your home for daily treatment, he may end up dying from a preventable secondary infection.
Clean the Wound
- Clean the wound after you have stopped the bleeding. If the wound is on one of his legs, the best thing to clean it with is lots of water. If you are in an area with a pump, you can use a hose to wash the wound out before disinfecting it. (Do not spray it hard. If there is a sprayer on the end of the hose, take it off and just let the water wash out the wound.)
- Sterile saline is even better, but some people will not use enough, whereas with tap water, they are more likely to use even more than is needed.
- Flush the wound until it is so clean that nothing else is coming out, and then flush it for 5 minutes after that.
- Provide a tetanus shot. This vaccination is really cheap, so hopefully, it is up to date. If your horse has not been vaccinated in the last six months or so, a booster is called for. It is not going to be in your first aid kit but should be given as soon as possible.
How to Disinfect the Wound
After you have cleaned out everything you can from the wound, disinfect it before wrapping. The best solution that most of us keep in a first aid kit is povidone iodine. I mix up my iodine in a spray bottle so that I can flush the wound without using too much pressure.
The other thing that must be done in many areas is to treat to kill any screwworms. They are not found in all countries, but if present, they do eat live flesh and will quickly eat dead and live flesh. This can cause permanent damage on your hose. If you have a screwworm problem where you live, find the best product available at your local feed store and keep it in on hand at all times.
Effective Antibiotics for Horse Wounds
It is hard for me to recommend antibiotics because they are not always needed, and some products may not be available in different countries. In some places, these antibiotics are only available to vets or horse owners by prescription. I would suggest you talk to the people working in your local feed store to find out what is available for horses over-the-counter. You may also be able to buy antibiotics elsewhere, so be sure to speak with your local pharmacist.
- Penicillin: A first good choice for a leg or flesh wound is to treat with procaine penicillin. You can usually buy the antibiotic in dry form so that you can carry it in your first aid kit. It has a really long shelf life when dry, so only mix it up just before using. (Your horse will need anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 units per kilogram every day. It does sting, so make sure that you have someone holding and distracting the horse when you give this.)
- Penicillin/Dihydrostreptomycin/Piroxicam: This is a Merck product, so it is available in many places. Like normal procaine penicillin, it does sting when injected, but this product has a long shelf life even when mixed and has a non-steroid anti-inflammatory that may be helpful for some wounds.
- Tetracycline: If you do not have access to penicillin, you can also use tetracycline at 10-20 mg per kg.
- Oxytetracycline: This antibiotic is another option for some bacteria that do not respond to penicillin. Use it at about 4 milligrams per kilogram.
If your horse has a serious wound that cannot be bandaged, you should still try administering antibiotics. The cost of giving your horse a little help in his fight against infection is pretty minor, and if it does not work you are not out much.
In some places other antibiotic options are available. Find out what is for sale locally by asking at a feed store.
Supplies for Wrapping a Wound
Some wounds cannot be closed, and if no vet is available to suture a wound, it may need to be left open. Wrapping the wound correctly out on the trail can be really hard, depending on where the body was injured, but it is important to keep the dirt and dust out of your horses wound as soon as it happens. If you are going to move your horse to a stall or dry lot and there is dust, this step is even more important.
- For a neck or body wound, just apply a square pad over the wound and use medical tape on all four sides to hold it down.
- For leg wounds, many of the articles and videos available on the internet recommend a heavy wrapping that is not practical in many situations. In areas affected with screwworms, these bandages need to be removed twice a day to check for infestation. Vetrap, Elasticon, and roll cotton are not available everywhere, so if wrapping a knee, a cannon bone, or an injury to the hock, a much lighter bandage can be used.
How to Wrap a Wound on a Horse
- Start above the wound—at least as high as the width or your roll gauze—as you should not be surprised if this slips later on.
- Roll the bandage down the leg. Overlap about half of your gauze roll each time you go around.
- When you get down to the level of the wound, apply your moist bandage right over the clean and disinfected wound. This bandage needs to be something that will not stick to the horse and hurt when it comes off, so use a foam pad or calcium alginate.
- Roll the cotton down to the lower leg and then keep unrolling it until it is back towards the top. (If you do not have roll cotton, you can also use a clean diaper so that the gauze will not be too tight over the wound.) I like to split the end of the gauze roll at this time and tie the ends together. Be careful to not make it as tight as a tourniquet.
- If you have access to elastic bandage (like vetrap), start at the bottom just below where you have tied your gauze roll closed. Wrap the elastic bandage down the leg.
- Once the elastic is applied, I like to use some medical tape to hold everything up. The first loop should go around the upper leg, with half stuck to the roll gauze and half to the horse's hair. The next loop goes on half to the medical tape below, half to the horse's hair.
- If the medical tape comes loose later, you may need to apply another roll.
- If flies are a problem in your area, spray a repellent on the outside of the bandage to discourage them from landing and annoying your horse.
Don't Wrap Too Tight
Precautions should be taken when wrapping a wound. Incorrect wrapping that is too tight may result in reduced blood flow and irreversible damage.
This is not the method that I use but it does give you some idea of how hard it is to wrap some leg wounds.
How to Prevent Proud Flesh
Proud flesh is the granulation tissue that develops over a wound that is not closed. It can be mild or in some cases so severe, that the skin cannot even grow back and the wound will never heal.
The most common treatment for proud flesh is surgical removal. I realize this is not always possible or even what a lot of people want. As an alternative, steroid creams work some of the time, but the best way to deal with proud flesh is to prevent it before it happens.
- The best way to prevent proud flesh is by keeping the wound clean and moist. Clean out the dirt as soon as the injury happens and disinfect right away.
- When healing begins, use coconut oil each day to moisturize the damaged skin before applying the best bandage that you have available. (I keep my coconut oil in an spray bottle so that I can apply it from a few inches away. If the morning is so cool that it becomes thick, it will not come out and it has to be warmed up. The melting point is 24 degrees C (about 76 F), so all you have to do is hold the bottle in a warm place like your underarm for a few minutes.)
Some horses are a lot more prone to this problem and will develop proud flesh no matter how well their wounds are taken care of. The only treatment available for a horse like that is for it to be sedated, have the proud flesh removed, and then to start from the very beginning.
Follow-Up Care for Your Injured Horse
Depending on the severity of the wound, you can expect this to go on for quite a while. A degloving injury over the knee will open up every time the horse runs, so healing time is normally months, not weeks.
If you do not examine and treat the wound every day, the wound can become infected with bacteria or maggots. Tie your horse up and apply some dilute iodine each morning, then spray on some coconut oil to control the development of proud flesh. Spray the edge of the wound with a fly-prevention product.
Make Veterinary Care a Top Priority
Horses are expensive to purchase, expensive to take care of on a daily basis, and terribly expensive to treat when suffering from an injury.
If you do have a vet available, consider your horse's needs and call them immediately. A vet can treat your horse correctly the first time and you can follow up as needed.
- Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery, 2nd Edition, Kenneth W Hinchcliff and Andris Kaneps, 2014, Saunders
- Equine Wound Management, 2nd edition, Ted Stashak DVM, 2008, Wilet-Blackwell
- The Merck Veterinary Manual, Fifth Edition, Otto SIegmund, Editor, Merck & Co. Inc.
- The Complete Equine Veterinary Manual, Tony Pavord, MRCVS, David & Charles.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.