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Equine first aid – do you know the basics?

Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley explains how you can help your horse in a crisis, before the vet arrives.

No matter how well you manage your horse, accidents can still happen. So, it is important that you feel prepared and know how to provide equine first aid in a crisis. 

Being able to identify certain problems and provide adequate equine first aid while awaiting the vet can help minimise suffering for both you and your horse. It will also reduce the likelihood of any complications that could result from delay.

What’s normal?

It’s important to have a good sense of what your horse’s normal parameters are – and there are some great horsey apps to help you keep track of this. ‘What’s normal’ not only refers to your horse’s general demeanour and behaviour, but also their vital signs, including their temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate and effort. 

Watch our video to find out more about checking your horse’s general demeanour.

How to take your horse’s temperature

An increased temperature is often the first sign something is amiss, and being able to tell your vet what your horse’s temperature is and how abnormal that is for them can be a really useful indicator of the severity of the situation. A normal horse temperature is 37.5–38.5°C (99–102°F) and knowing how to take your horse’s temperature is essential.

Watch our video to find out more about taking your horse’s temperature.

How to check your horse’s heart rate

Taking your horse’s pulse will tell you their resting heart rate, and the easiest place to do this is under the jaw. Normal heart rates can vary from 24 to 40 beats per minute. Usually ponies tend to have higher heart rates than larger horses.

Watch our video to find out more about checking your horse’s heart rate.

How to assess your horse’s respiration

Respiratory rate and effort can change with allergic responses, pain or an increased temperature where it is an effort to help cool the horse down. A horse's respiratory rate is normally between eight and 12 breaths per minute. You can assess your horse’s respiratory rate and effort by watching their chest and nostrils.  

Watch our video to find out more about checking your horse’s respiratory rate.

How to dress a wound

If your horse has a wound, you first need to assess the damage. If it is bleeding profusely, apply direct pressure with a clean pad to reduce blood loss and then call your vet. If the wound involves a joint, call your vet immediately. 

If neither of these apply, check how bad the wound is – is it full-skin thickness and does it involve muscle, joint or bone? If it is – or if you’re unsure – you should call your vet. Whether or not you have decided to call the vet, clean and dress the wound as soon as possible to prevent infection.

Watch our video to find out more about dressing a wound.

How to deal with an injury to the foot

Injuries to the feet are different to wounds, but it’s important to know how to deal with a foot injury. It could be that your horse has stood on a sharp object that has penetrated the sole of their hoof, or they have overreached and cut themselves. Hoof abscesses also require treatment in the form of a poultice

Watch our video to find out more about treating a foot injury.

Watch our video to find out more about poulticing a foot.

Horse lameness – what to do

If your horse is severely lame or showing signs of laminitis, you should call your vet immediately. Mild lameness can be harder to recognise, so knowing how to tell whether your horse is lame is a useful skill as veterinary advice will differ depending on the likely cause. If you are at all unsure, it’s always best to seek advice from your vet.

Watch our video to find out more about assessing subtle lameness.

How to spot colic

Colic is one of the most common reasons for an emergency callout. If you notice your horse exhibiting any of the following signs, call your vet:

  • Change in demeanour – your horse could seem subdued or distressed
  • Pawing or scraping the ground
  • Turning to look at their abdomen
  • Getting up and down frequently and/or rolling
  • Frequently attempting to urinate
  • Rolling
  • Increased pulse and high temperature

Equine first aid kit essentials

Every horse owner should make sure they have access to a full equine first aid kit at the yard, but also be confident about how to use it. Check you know the basics, such as how to apply bandages or poultice a hoof – if you don’t feel confident, now is the time to practise.

Watch our video to find out what you need in your equine first aid kit.

When to call the vet

If your horse is distressed, appears to be in considerable pain or is in a potentially life-threatening situation, you must call the vet immediately. 

The severity of some situations can be more difficult to assess. In these instances, you should watch your horse carefully. If their condition is either not improving or deteriorating, call the vet. 

Understandably, some horse owners do not wish to trouble their vet or incur avoidable charges, but the cost of treatment is likely to be significantly lower if the horse is treated early. Horse insurance should help you to cover the cost of any unexpected veterinary bills.

Preparation is key 

To make an emergency situation less stressful, you should also have an emergency travel plan for how you will get your horse to the vet, as well as a list of emergency contact numbers. This list should include your vet and farrier, as well as a personal emergency contact. 

Is there something about equine first aid that you’re unsure of or would like to know more about? Get in touch via our Facebook page and let us know!