Nothing is worse than trying to hunt down first-aid kit supplies when your horse is ill or injured. So a little pre-planning on your part—assembling your own horse first-aid kit—will make handling these emergencies go more smoothly.
The most common first-aid situations with horses are: (1) injuries of all sorts; (2) respiratory or other infectious diseases; and (3) colic. Your first-aid kit contents should reflect these situations.
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This is item number one for your first-aid kit. Any time your horse is off feed, looking droopy, or acting out of sorts, take his temperature first. Even if he has obvious symptoms, such as a cough or diarrhea, your veterinarian will need to know if your horse has a fever.
Traditional mercury thermometers for horses are five inches long, have a heavy plastic screw-top case, and a loop at the end. A heavy string or tape can be run through the loop and secured to an alligator clip or clothespin. This is clamped to the tail hairs while the thermometer is “cooking,” to prevent it from falling and breaking if the horse forces it out. Digital thermometers can also work, but cost at least four times as much and may not be long enough to get an accurate reading on a large horse.
You can also check your horse’s pulse with a stethoscope.
There are several small sharp implements you should store in your first-aid kit. First, you’ll need scissors to trim back long hairs overlying wounds and to trim bandaging materials to fit. Then, heavy shears (medium-weight garden shears are good) or a knife strong enough to cut through a halter, cross-ties, leg straps, or blankets should be handy — in the event your horse gets tangled or hung up. Also, if your barn doesn’t keep shoeing equipment available, a sturdy pair of pliers comes in handy for pulling off loose or sprung shoes.
#3. Wound wash.
Gentle washing is the first step in removing surface contamination (dirt, plant material, hair, bedding, etc.) from a wound and reducing the number of bacteria on its surface. Unless there’s heavy bleeding that needs to be stopped first, wounds with obviously visible contamination should be cleaned by directing a stream of water above the wound and allowing it to run over the surface. Never direct water under pressure, even light hose pressure, straight onto a wound. This can actually drive debris or contaminants deeper into the wound or cut.
The initial water cleaning may result in a little bleeding. If this isn’t heavy, it’s to be expected from loosening surface clots. Ignore this, and proceed to cleansing. Betadine scrub, or another wound-disinfecting scrub made with povidone (“tamed”) iodine is a good choice, although some horses may be sensitive to it. A 2 percent chlorhexidine-based scrub is well tolerated even by sensitive-skinned horses. These surgical scrubs are widely available in farm supply stores or on the Internet.
Leave the removal of materials deeply embedded in a wound to your veterinarian, to avoid triggering heavy bleeding. If you don’t have gloves, wash your hands with the surgical scrub, including under your fingernails, for a good five minutes before touching the wound. For the initial cleansing, use either gauze sponges or just your hands to gently work up a lather on the wound. Use very light pressure only. Leave the lathered scrub on the wound for 5 to 10 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Never use cotton balls or roll cotton to clean a wound. These leave irritating fibers behind, embedded in the tissues.
#4. Topicals for wounds.
Wounds heal best in a warm, moist environment. Simply covering a wound is a good way to fight dehydration of the tissues and trap body heat. (This is why our own cuts heal much faster underneath a bandage.)
If you do choose to put a medication on the wound, what you use is largely a matter of choice. A layer of petroleum jelly on the wound-surface side of the first layer of bandaging works great in preventing the bandage from sticking to the wound. Others prefer antibiotic wound creams or herbal-based products such as aloe vera. If you use a Vaseline-impregnated wound dressing under a bandage, no other topical is needed.
On the other hand, superficial abrasions that ooze but don’t go completely through all skin layers may be best handled by a spray that will seal the tissues and protect them from insects. Sprays based on aluminum, gentian violet, and scarlet red oil serve this purpose well. If you have a large open wound that can’t be bandaged, consult with your veterinarian for the best approach.
One human product, Bactine, can come in handy with painful wounds. You can use it to desensitize tender wounds before working on them or to saturate sticking bandages before removing them. You can also use it as the sole dressing on superficial wounds and immediately eases the pain of sunburn on pink-skinned horses.
#5. Bandaging materials.
Whenever possible, injuries should be bandaged to keep them in a warm and moist environment and enhance healing. For the outer layer of bandage material, a self-adherent bandage, such as Vetrap or Co-Ban, Co-Flex, is ideal. These materials “breathe,” allow you to fine tune the pressure, and are disposable. You can use a pair of scissors or a knife (be careful!) to cut a vertical line through the bandage and open it up to remove it. Keep four to six rolls of Vetrap in your first-aid kit.
A layer between your outermost self-adhesive wrap and the wound dressing will help absorb drainage and pad the wound. Gamgee is a favorite for this. It’s a two-layered material, with a center of highly absorbent cotton wool and a synthetic outer surface that will resist sticking to the wound.
Keep at least one roll (12 feet) on hand. Gamgee can also be used to pack hoof abscesses.
For the early stages of healing of open wounds—when there is a high volume of drainage—use a Vaseline-impregnated gauze (available at drugstores) for the layer immediately over the wound. Without this, wound drainage may dry out between bandage changes and stick to even something like Gamgee.
As the amount of drainage lessens, you can switch to dry non-stick/non-adherent wound pads. Once drainage has ceased, or an open wound has granulated over to a smooth bed, this additional layer can be eliminated and the wound wrapped with only Gamgee.
- Saline vs. water. You may have read or been told that water should not be used to clean wounds because it can damage delicate exposed tissues. Saline is supposed to be preferred. However, several studies have compared saline, tap water, distilled water, or cooled boiled water in the cleansing of surgical wounds, injuries, and both fresh and old wounds. None of them found saline to be superior to plain water in preventing infections or speeding healing. However, if you’re using untested and untreated well water, bacterial counts may be higher than in municipal tap water. Keep a gallon of distilled water on hand to use as a final rinse.
- Bandage removal. In the early stages of wound healing, the tissue is inflamed and very sensitive. Traction on the wound during bandage removal is often painful. To make this easier on the horse (and you), first saturate the area over the wound well with very cold water for both ease in loosening and to provide a numbing effect. Then cut open the bandage using a pair of scissors or a knife (be careful!). Cut a vertical line through the bandage, open it up, and remove it.
- Storage solutions. Store your first-aid supplies separately from other supplies — such as grooming tools or medical supplies — yet all together in one place. They will then stay cleaner and be easier to find. An inexpensive plastic storage bin with a lid is a good choice. A covered toolbox also makes a good first-aid kit, and many prefer the handle for easy transport.
Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD, works as a writer, teacher, and internal medicine/nutrition consultant. Prior to this, Dr. Kellon has had more than 10 years experience in private practice. She also has extensive experience with performance horses. She’s based in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, where she and her husband raise, train, and race Standardbreds. Her most recent book is Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals (Globe Pequot Press).