5 Rules for Equine Emergencies

There are hundreds of different emergencies you may encounter with your horses, and dozens of ways to handle each of those. However, there are a few important ways to conduct yourself, and ways to prepare ahead of time which are important regardless of the type of emergency you encounter. 

Know your horse

The worst thing that can happen in an emergency is that you don’t realize it’s an emergency. Your horse is rolling around frantically and you don’t know if he does that all of the time. Your horse is standing with his hind legs stacked up underneath him, and you think that he’s probably more comfortable that way. Your horse is breathing heavily after coming in from the pasture, and you think that perhaps he’s more out of shape than you thought. At this point in emergencies, it’s not necessarily about knowledge or veterinary expertise (although they certainly help); it’s about you, the owner or trainer, knowing your horse.

You see, if you recognize what is normal, you’ll know what is not normal. How much does he eat, and how quickly does he eat it? When does he normally rest? How does he behave around other horses? What’s his normal respiratory rate, pulse, and temperature? When a horse begins acting abnormally, this should be a red flag for you that something may be wrong.

Plan ahead

Mentally preparing for an emergency is a difficult step in horse ownership, especially if you’re asking the right questions. Here’s a run down of what you need to think about:

Fill out a stall card and have it laminated and on your horse’s stall. Your barn likely has its own stall card you can use. Here’s the information we at Irongate Equine Clinic want to know:

  • Horse: Name, Age, Sex, Breed, Color/Markings
  • Owner: Name, Contact information
  • Alternate: Alternate name and contact information so we know who to call when you’re unavailable for any reason. Everyone calls to let us know who we should contact when they’re out of town for three months, but no one calls to tell us that they’re going to see Star Wars for three hours.
  • Insurance: If your horse is insured, provide the insurance company contact information. This may affect the way your veterinarian approaches an emergency.
  • Normal vitals: Here’s our reference document for Normal Health Parameters for horses in general. As you can see, each category can have some variation. Often, a certain horse will run pretty warm and have a higher temperature than the average. That’s important information for your veterinarian to know when determining the next step in your horse’s care.
  • Feeding: The feeding schedule is typically more important for the barn manager and anyone feeding your horse while you’re gone, but it’s helpful to a veterinarian as well. For example,  if your horse is stressed and has nasal discharge, and we see that she is fed pelleted grain every night, it’s a quicker jump to choke.
  • Special instructions: If you’re following the first law of equine emergencies, you know already know your horse and all of her eccentricities. Let everyone know if she needs a heavier blanket below a certain temperature, if her best friend that keeps her calm is Rosie the goat, or if she’s partially blind in one eye.

 Another easy one: have your veterinarian’s phone number on your phone, by your home phone, on your stall card, hanging on your fridge – everywhere! In fact, just memorize it.

 Consider how far you will go for your horse, economically. This is a difficult task to complete as a horse owner. There is no right answer, and it can be dictated by your own financial situation, your horse’s level of training, his age, and your emotional attachment to him. What you need to avoid is having to make this decision when you’re already in a very emotionally stressful situation – while your horse is colicking is not the time to decide whether or not he should undergo colic surgery. A routine colic surgery costs around six thousand dollars, and a simple puncture wound repair could be anywhere from two to five thousand dollars. Don’t wait until you’re in an emotional and stressful situation to decide how much money to spend on your horse’s health.

After you’ve spent some time thinking about all of these heavy items, we want you to fill out an Emergency Consent Form. This document has invaluable information for our veterinarians. Fill it out. Send it in. You’ll be happy you did.

Have emergency supplies

You can buy enormous emergency kits online for hundreds of dollars, but you could also build one yourself and have all of the necessities. You don’t want to have to use them, but when you need the supplies, you’ll have them. As a rule, if you raid your emergency kit, remember to replace the items you use. Sure, vetrap is helpful in wrapping a tail before a show, but it’s even more helpful when your horse has a laceration and you need to stop the bleeding. Here are the supplies you should have on hand. Most of these items are non-perishable, but be cautious about any injectables that may freeze in these long Wisconsin winters. Remember that your supply box may change depending on what kind of ride you’re going on, if it’s a kit to stay stationary in a barn, or if you’re in a different part of the country with risks that we don’t have in Wisconsin (ie. Rattlesnake bites). Be flexible, and contact your veterinarian if you’re unsure.

  • Thermometer – glass or digital is fine. Even cheaper thermometers are good, as they get to the general vicinity of your horse’s temperature. Half a degrees difference isn’t going to matter too much.
  • Stethoscope – being able to listen to your animal allows you to have a much more interesting discussion with your veterinarian when on the phone. You can tell us about the GI sounds, the heart rate, etc. You can purchase a relatively cheap stethoscope for $10 – $20, or go for a higher end one that will be more comfortable and last for a longer time.
  • Bandage material –
    • Leg wraps (bath towels, washable quilt wraps, sheet cotton)
    • Vetrap or track bandages (polo wraps are okay)
    • “QuickClot”, telfa pads, gauze
  • Knife, scissors, syringes, twine, duct tape, gloves
  • Drug supplies to consider – just don’t use them without consultation without your veterinarian. These products will often expire, so limit the amount on hand.  
    • Anti-inflammatory (Banamine/Bute/Equioxx)
    • Triple antibiotic eye ointment – you can’t use regular triple antibiotic ointment on eyes, but you can use the triple antibiotic EYE ointment on the rest of the body. Two birds, one stone.
    • Sedation

Don’t wait to call

We already told you that if you know your horse, you’ll know what’s an emergency. In that vein, to everyone at Irongate Equine Clinic, if you think it’s an emergency, it is an emergency. Think about it this way – phone calls are free. And the veterinarians would most certainly rather have a conversation with you at 2pm about your horse than an emergency visit at 10pm. So give us a call and talk to us about what you’re seeing and what you’re worried about. The words you’ll use to describe the situation will be more helpful than you may think.

Safety first!

Remain calm, remain effective. You are your horse’s advocate – she needs you to be calm, cool, collected … and uninjured. If you get hurt while trying to help your horse, you’re no help at all. So don’t panic, and use common sense.

As you know, horses are flight creatures. The way they act changes when they sense danger or are in peril, so remember that the horse that you know and love is not the same horse that is lying on the ground during emergencies. Approach your horse with caution, and only if they’re calm. If your horse is agitated, thrashing around, or otherwise out of control, stand at a distance and calmly assess the situation. Horse people are, in general, very proud and stubborn. We’re an “army of one” and fiercely independent. Don’t let the desire to help your horse immediately interfere with your common sense – request help from peers and your veterinarian, and keep yourself in a safe space. You can learn a lot by looking and really seeing what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to stand at the side and assess the situation calmly.

Want to know more?

TheHorse.com has a great blog about equine emergencies entitled “The Horse 911: What’s Your Emergency?“. It tells stories of real-life equine emergencies, and how you can avoid similar situations.

Have you been in emergencies that you would like to share? Questions that you have about emergencies you or a friend experienced? Questions about how to react in a certain situation? Contact us, or write in the comments below!

By Howard Ketover, DVM