Horse-Sense Emergencies: What Every Owner Should Keep on Hand

Way back when, Thursday nights used to be the worst evening to call friends because they were undoubtedly watching “ER,” and you were interrupting. But what happens when that emergency is not on TV but in your own barn, or worse, on the road? What do you need in your own “ER”? To find out what the doctor recommends, I asked two veterinarians, Dr. Jim Bryant of Kelowna, British Columbia, and Dr. Don Kiefer of Casanova, Virginia, what they thought every horse owner should have.

Back to the Basics

Let’s start with the basics, items that all horse owners should have in their emergency kit regardless of skill or knowledge level. These items should be kept in a separate tote, preferably a sturdy one with a lid, to reduce breakage and the amount of dirt that gets inside. Keep your emergency kits, one for the barn and one for the trailer, in a clean, readily accessible location that is clearly marked.

  • Stethoscope—A good stethoscope and an understanding of how to use it is a definite must for any horse owner. You should be able to take your horse’s pulse, its respiratory rate, and be able to listen for gut sounds. If you don’t know how to conduct these basic tests, ask veterinarians. Most will be happy to show you how as it makes their job that much easier. By knowing how to do all of these tests properly, you can often help your veterinarian determine the seriousness of the problem at hand.
  • Thermometer—You will also need a thermometer so you can take your horse’s temperature. Don’t worry about getting a fancy number with all sorts of bells and whistles—the only embellishments you will want to add are a long string so the thermometer doesn’t get lost and an alligator clip.
  • Pocketknife—My father always mandated that we carry a good, sharp knife with us at all times, and he was right. You never know when you might need to do something as trivial as cut a piece of twine or as important as cut a lead rope. Make certain that your knife has a safety lock and is properly sharpened as a dull knife can be more hazardous that a sharp one.
  • Accurate Watch with a Second Hand, or the Stopwatch Function on Your Phone—An accurate watch with a second hand to help in taking the pulse and respiratory rates is also a must. Again, you don’t need anything fancy here, just a model that will keep time accurately as you measure pulse and respiration rates.
  • High-powered Penlight—A small, high-powered penlight can be used at night to help you check your horse’s gum color. A penlight will also allow you to easily see into dark corners of stalls, tack rooms, and horse trailers.
  • Hoof Pick—Don’t forget a hoof pick. This handy tool can be safely used to clean out foreign materials lodged in your horse’s feet.
  • Hoof Knife—Hoof knives are great for cutting away pieces of the frog that are about to come off, but that doesn’t mean you should randomly saw away at the underside of your horse’s foot. When in doubt, leave the offending piece alone.
  • Nail Puller, Shoe Puller, and Hoof Nipper—A nail puller, or more specifically, a crease nail puller, is a plier-like tool with a head designed to grip the head of a horse nail to remove it from a shoe. A shoe puller, or pull-offs, does just that—it pulls shoes. This piece of equipment looks like stout pincers. And lastly, a hoof nipper is a tool with sharp pincers specifically designed to cut through hoof tissue. Use all three with extreme caution as you can do more harm than help to your horse’s foot if you aren’t careful.
  • Antibiotic Cream—Ask your veterinarian to recommend an antibiotic cream for everyday scratches and nicks. This will help to avoid infection and help your horse to heal faster.

Any of these items can be purchased at your neighborhood tack and feed store, or they can be found at a ranch supply store. None of them are fancy and exotic; instead, they focus on common sense and supplying vital information at a critical time.

→Helpful tip! Veterinarian Don Kiefer suggests that all horse owners keep a laminated cue card with a list of items to remind you of what you need to tell your vet if you call: temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, gut sounds, and gum color. Keep several of these cards in your emergency tote. Here are just a few items to help you along:

  • Depending on the horse, the normal pulse rate is between 28–44 beats/minute.
  • A horse’s normal respiration rate is between 8–16 breaths/minute. Remember, it’s the quality of the respiration, not the quantity.
  • A horse’s normal temperature is between 99°–100.5° F or 37°–41° C.

That’s a Wrap

In the regrettable but unavoidable instance that your horse scrapes itself badly or acquires a small cut while out in the middle of nowhere, then what?

  • Medicated Soap or Betadyne Scrub—Any wound should first be cleaned thoroughly using medicated soap or Betadyne scrub. This will help you to flush out any foreign objects as well as reducing the chance of possible infection.
  • Sterile Fluid—In case you aren’t near any water, keep a sterile bag of Ringer’s fluid or an aerosol can of sterile saline on hand, especially if you suspect the wound involves a joint or tendon sheath. Even if a wound is not in a critical area, don’t discount water’s benefits. Clean, cold water is a great way reduce contamination or to help reduce swelling.
  • Gauze Sponges—Gauze sponges, either 3×3 or 4×4, can be purchased in sterile packages. After you have thoroughly flushed a wound, place a covering layer directly over the wound to absorb any fluids that may seep out.
  • Roller Gauze—Brown or white roller gauze should be used on top of the gauze sponges, continuing around the injured leg. Roller gauze doesn’t necessarily supply any support, but does hold the gauze sponges in place.
  • Vetwrap—To help the bandage stay on the leg and avoid slipping, the last layer should be some type of light, easy-to-use vet wrap.
  • Cotton Quilts and Wraps—If Vetwrap or elastic wrap is not available, clean cotton quilts and polo wraps will also work well for a wrap. These are common, everyday items in a barn or trailer, but they afford an injured leg an extra layer of padding and supply pressure over a large area. Don’t underestimate the protection they can provide.
  • Blunt-Tipped Scissors—Blunt-tipped scissors remove a bandage safely. Because they don’t have a sharp point, you don’t have to worry about exacerbating the injury or stabbing yourself or your horse.

→Helpful tip! Invest the time in having your veterinarian show you how to wrap your horse’s leg correctly. If properly done, a good wrap can aid circulation and improve healing while protecting an injured leg. However, if done incorrectly, either too tightly or too loosely, you could cause further injury or bow a tendon.

Good Medicine

The most controversial part of basic medicine is the prescriptions themselves. There have been recent crackdowns on pharmaceutical sales to non-qualified personnel, and this is not all bad. If you do not know what you are doing with these products, you can make a bad situation worse, possibly even killing your horse or injuring yourself.

  • Ask Your Veterinarian—Without question, your first step when considering prescription medications is to do what Dr. Bryant says: “Go to your veterinarian and discuss what he or she thinks you should have. He or she will more than likely know your medical limitations and how competent you are in dealing with emergencies.”

Ok, now that you’re talking to your veterinarian, what prescriptions do you ask her about?

  • Antibiotics—Antiobiotics are now available in both injectable and oral varieties. If you don’t feel comfortable giving an injection, then a similar oral antibiotic may be a better option for you. Don’t forget to read the manufacturer’s directions so that you administer the proper dosage.
  • Sedatives—If your horse has an accident that causes it severe pain, it might be a good idea to have some type of sedative or tranquilizer on hand. However, use caution when considering the use of sedatives. Before administering any medication, you should always consult with your veterinarian.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent—A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent could go in the kit as will. But consider what Dr. Kiefer says: “It can make them look too good. You will only be treating the symptoms, not the true problem.”
  • Syringes, needles, and a catheter-tip syringe— If you are going to administer medication, then you need to proper tools to do so. Don’t forget to have different sizes of syringes and different needle gauges for administering injectable medications on hand. You may also want to invest in a catheter-tip syringe for administering oral medications. And finally, don’t forget the alcohol swabs to disinfect the injection site. Even your horse appreciates good hygiene.

Once again, all of the above-mentioned suggestions are at the discretion of your veterinarian. If he or she doesn’t think that you should have prescriptions on hand, respect that opinion. After all, he has not only your horse’s safety but also your own in mind.

→Helpful tip! If your veterinarian does recommend that you keep certain prescriptions in your emergency kit, follow a few, simple guidelines:

  1. Usage of prescription medication must be used under the care of a veterinarian.
  2. Keep all medication in a safe place that is away from small children.
  3. Store all medications according to their instructions. This may include refrigeration or a cool, dark place.
  4. Keep syringes, needles, and catheter tips in their original, unopened packaging. This will keep them sterile.
  5. If you are at an event that has drug testing, be aware that these are prescription items and will show up in a drug test. Know the event’s guidelines, and keep your horse’s health foremost in your mind.
  6. Observe the expiration dates on any medication. Ask your veterinarian for the best way to dispose of medication that is past its useful date.
  7. Do not use any of the medications on yourself. Remember, you are not your horse.

When Should I Call My Vet?

Now you know what you should have on hand in case of an emergency, but under what circumstances do you need to contact a veterinarian immediately? (I hate to ask, “When should you panic?” because the last thing you should do is panic. Ask your mother—she’ll say the same thing.) The first thing to determine is what constitutes an emergency.

  • Colic—Colic is a potentially dangerous intestinal disease that may require abdominal surgery. If you suspect that your horse is experiencing colic, call your veterinarian immediately and be prepared to take your horse to the vet clinic.
  • Severe Wounds—Wounds that bleed severely, are characterized by a “puncture” or are deep, mandate immediate veterinary attention. This is also true for injuries that are over sensitive structures such as tendons, joints, tendon sheaths, and the abdominal or chest regions.
  • Non-Weight-Bearing Injuries—Leg injuries that cause severe pain, such as a fracture, and do not allow your horse to support its weight or put pressure on require immediate attention.
  • Ataxic Injuries—Ataxic injuries involve loss of muscle coordination and are very serious. Call your veterinarian.
  • Injuries to the Head and/or Eyes—Just as in humans, a horse’s head and eye areas are extremely sensitive. Again, this warrants an immediate call to your veterinarian.
  • Foaling Difficulties—A mare experiencing foaling needs immediate veterinary attention.

→Helpful tip! Use these signs to help you determine if your horse is colicing.

  • Your horse has little or no gut sound when you listen to its belly with your stethoscope.
  • Your horse may often stretch or kick out. It may also look at its belly, often trying to bite or kick at it.
  • There is little sign that your horse has urinated or defecated within the past few hours.
  • Your horse may get up and down frequently.
  • Your horse may appear to be in pain, often sweating or rolling.

Who Can You Call?

Once you have determined that you have a full-blown emergency, how do you go about finding a veterinarian when you are far from home? If you have the luxury of time, call your home veterinarian and find someone he/she recommends. If you cannot reach your home vet, call the American Association of Equine Practitioners at 1-800-GET-A-DVM. The AAEP has extensive listings of qualified equine veterinarians across the country. And lastly, don’t underestimate the power of talking to people around you. The show or race office or even fellow competitors will often have a listing of veterinarians in that area.

The Common Sense Approach

It’s funny how many of the vets that I talked to mention common sense, not just when dealing with emergencies but in working with horses in general. Dr. Dane Frazier: “Good basic medicine is good common sense.” Dr. Jim Bryant: “Common sense can’t be replaced.” Dr. Matt Randall: “Common sense is something we all need more of.” There seems to be a theme here, and with good reason. Common sense is by far the most important addition to any emergency kit. It will help you to act rationally at a critical time, but most importantly, it helps you to prepare for an emergency before one actually happens.

So, to wrap up, here’s a quick list of things to double-check that your emergency kit has or a checklist with which to go shopping:

Must Haves

  • Stethoscope
  • Thermometer (with long string and alligator clip)
  • Pocketknife
  • Accurate watch with a second hand
  • Hoof pick
  • Hoof knife
  • Medicated soap or Betadyne scrub
  • Sterile fluids or Ringer’s solution
  • Gauze sponges, 3×3 or 4×4
  • Roller gauze, brown or white
  • Vetwrap
  • Cotton quilts and leg wraps
  • Common sense!

A (Very) Good Idea

  • High-powered pen light
  • Blunt-tipped scissors
  • Nail puller, shoe puller, and hoof nipper
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Alcohol swabs

Ask Your Veterinarian

  • Oral or injectable antibiotic
  • Sedative or tranquilizer
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent
  • Different sizes of syringes
  • Different needle gauges
  • Catheter-tip syringe

That’s it, a quick and dirty list of things you must have in your emergency kit, items that are a good idea to have in your emergency kit, and some things to talk to your veterinarian about. So don’t leave home without it!

Special thanks to Jim Bryant, DVM, of Kelowna, British Columbia; Don Kiefer, DVM, of Casanova, Virginia; and Chris Gregory, CJF, FWCF, of Lamar, Missouri. I originally published this article in the Quarter Horse Journal, I’m thinking some time around December 2006.

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