Ask an equine vet: Q&A with Gil Riley

Ask an equine vet: Q&A with Gil Riley

As horse owners, many of us wish we had a direct line to our vet. Whether we want to ask them what to put in our first aid kit or how to treat small injuries safely at home. We catch up with Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley to get these answers and more!

A good equine vet is like the perfect horse — once you’ve found one, you never let them go! The best vets are a fount of knowledge, but we don’t always get the chance to ask them everything we’d like. From the diagnostic tools he rates the most, to when horse owners should call the vet, Gil Riley shares more about his life as an equine vet and his five top tips for giving your horse the very best care.

Gil Riley on life as an equine vet

What’s the best thing about your job?

Making people happy and making a positive difference to their lives. And of course, it’s also lovely to make horses better. It’s a double whammy – by addressing the horse’s problem, you’re actually making the owner’s life better. That’s what drives me to give my very best on every occasion.

What’s the most frequent injury or condition you end up treating?

Colic. This is because what seems like a mild case can end up becoming serious or require surgery very quickly. That’s why clients are wary of giving colic any leeway and if a horse has colic, they call the vet.

In terms of lameness, a big one that we’re seeing at the moment is laminitis. This may be due to lockdowns, when many horses weren’t doing as much or were turned out more and put on weight as a result.

Symptoms of laminitis include increased heat in the hoof, a clear digital pulse but, most importantly, lameness, often profound. So owners should watch out for these symptoms and call their vet if they’re worried.

Petplan Equine recently looked at equestrian apps that make rider’s lives easier. What treatments, therapies or technologies make your life easier as a vet?

We’ve had it for about 15 years now, but definitely MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). It’s capable of imaging all forms of tissue and is the most valuable technique when it comes to seeing vitally important structures in the horse’s hoof capsule. In the past when using only X-rays, we couldn’t see any of these. Many horses were diagnosed with navicular when in fact they had a soft tissue injury within the hoof that we simply couldn’t see.

Digital radiography gives us the incredible penetrative powers of X-rays and we get astonishing images within a fraction of a second. It has allowed us to address a lot of horses with back issues that previously would just have been labelled as bad-tempered. Now we know the horses are in pain due to conditions like kissing spines, spondylosis and osteoarthritis.

The Equinosis Q with Lameness Locator is also very useful when used alongside our abilities as vets. It uses three sensors: one on the head, one on the pelvis and one on the right forelimb. It helps us pick up very subtle lamenesses and assess responses to nerve blocking. We can then accurately locate and image the area that the pain is coming from, which helps us develop an appropriate treatment plan.

What’s the most challenging condition you’ve ever treated?

Colitis can be devastating in horses. It’s an inflammation of the large colon and can develop as a result of stress, from small redworm or from an infection like salmonella. Symptoms include lethargy and loss of appetite, colic, diarrhea and severe dehydration — horses may also have an elevated temperature. It can be fatal, but it’s also incredibly satisfying if you manage to turn it around.

Grass sickness can also be incredibly challenging, but chronic grass sickness can be treated (while acute and sub-acute cases are fatal). Current research points to a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria found in the soil, as the possible cause. There are efforts to develop a vaccine which is very positive news.

What concerns you most when it comes to horses and owners?

Although most horse owners do take riding and road safety seriously, traffic on the roads not behaving responsibly and courteously towards horses is a big worry. And the failure of drivers to understand that horses have just as much right to be on lanes and roads as they have. Lots of drivers use quieter lanes to avoid busier roads and take corners too quickly. Commonly, I’ll see horses that have been scared or involved in minor collisions on the road.

What are you looking forward to most about this year?

My clients getting back out competing and enjoying their leisure time again. It will be wonderful to see everyone getting back in the saddle at competitions, which we’ve all missed out on.

Gil’s 5 top tips for giving your horse the best care

1. How can horse owners tell when a condition needs immediate veterinary attention and when it’s safe for them to attempt their own first aid?

It comes down to pain levels. If your horse is in distress or pain, you shouldn’t be attempting anything on your own. Owners know their horses better than anyone. So if your horse’s pain is persistent and unremitting, call for a vet.

If your horse has a wound that doesn’t look too serious, and there’s no lameness associated with it, you can wash it out and treat it appropriately. But if the wound is on or near a joint, call your vet. A small puncture wound on a joint can be life-threatening. If it goes into the joint and isn't flushed out, within 24 hours the joint will be so infected that the infection may be impossible to clear.

2. What essentials should every horse owner keep in their first aid kit?

  • Hydrogel (attracts bacteria out of a wound, stops it from breeding and hydrates at the same time to optimise healing)
  • Wound pads
  • Cotton wool
  • Soffban (a non-adhesive padded bandage)
  • Vetrap
  • Elastoplast

3. Which injury or condition do horse owners most commonly miss?

Puncture wounds to joints, like the carpus and hock, are easy to miss. These are generally associated with profound lameness and for the small size of the wound, the horse will seem disproportionately lame.

Some small puncture wounds can also affect the digital tendon sheath. These appear in the same area where you commonly see windgalls, which usually indicate excess production of synovial fluid. Windgalls are often harmless but if they’re associated with a puncture to the tendon sheath then, as per a joint puncture, this is a life-threatening situation and an emergency.

4. What’s the most important thing for people to look out for when they’re buying a horse?

The old adage “horses for courses'' applies very well here. It’s tempting to look at a horse, decide you like it, buy it and then decide what disciplines you want to do together. Instead, it’s better to decide what discipline you want to follow and then find a horse that can fulfil that for you.

5. What can horse owners do to make their vet’s life easier?

Call your vet when you have a question! This can help both you and your vet to avoid an emergency callout if it’s not necessary. Most veterinary practices would much prefer that you ring them and ask your question, so owners should please do this when they’re unsure. With the advent of WhatsApp, sending a picture and asking for advice may be an option too.

Thanks to Gil for sharing his extensive knowledge. Maybe he’s given you some ideas for how to update your first aid kit, or helped you discover more about the amazing technology used by vets to help our horses. What top tips have you picked up from your own vet? Share them with us on Facebook and give your vet a mention!