by Sandy Tasse, DVM, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Saratoga
Horses are prone to getting bumps, bruises, and lacerations because their main instinct when scared is flight. When the flight instinct takes over, a horse will seemingly run over and through anything to get away. Sharp or metal objects can be particularly harmful for a horse to run into, often causing large lacerations. If turned out in a field with other horses, fights amongst themselves can also cause considerable damage and even fractures of bones. While it is impossible to bubble wrap your horse, prevention can be key. But left to their own antics, horses can get injured even when in a safe area. Here is a quick guide to when you should call your veterinarian for a wound. Keep in mind that calling your veterinarian for ANY injury is never the wrong answer!
Certain locations on the horse’s body can be more detrimental to not have a laceration treated properly. Generally the limbs need veterinary attention due to only a thin layer of skin covering very important tendons needed for the horse to move soundly. Also, a laceration near a joint, rather than over a long bone, can also cause a joint or tendon sheath infection that could affect the future soundness of the horse. Also lacerations involving the tendons on the back of the leg can be more detrimental than the ones on the front of the leg.
The larger the laceration the more likely your veterinarian will need to see it. Also the larger it is, the more involved it will be to suture closed. Some very large lacerations may not even be able to be sutured, but you should always have your veterinarian confirm that. The larger it is, the more likely it will leave a scar as well. The larger the laceration, the more likely it will bleed more or even cut through small arteries. If the wound is bleeding, you should try to apply pressure to help with clotting until your veterinarian arrives.
Any laceration that is deeper than the skin should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Minor abrasions that are not all the way through the skin will leave little for your veterinarian to do, since they cannot be sutured. Puncture wounds that can extend much deeper than you realize, should be evaluated by your vet, especially when the opening is close to a vital organ or if the horse is showing any systemic signs (ie. breathing hard from a punctured lung).
If your horse is lame, this can indicate that the laceration is involving a joint or tendon sheath. This should be seen by your vet so that antibiotics can be given to avoid further infection of a joint or tendon sheath.
If your horse has a significant amount of swelling by the wound, the wound feels very warm, or the horse has a fever (rectal temp 101.0 or above), this can all indicate infection and should be seen by your veterinarian.
There are a few things you can do for a wound when you first discover it, whether you are waiting for your vet to arrive or not. Cold hosing can reduce soft tissue swelling and heat/pain and cleaning with a disinfectant like Nolvasan or Betadine can help prevent infection. If the wound is on a limb where a bandage can be applied, you could do that as well to help keep it clean. Wounds on the body are often impossible to wrap, but since they are farther from the ground, they are less likely to get dirty unless the horse rolls. You can also apply an antibiotic cream, such as neo/poly/bac (Neosporin). Try to avoid using any colored or thick/gloppy cream that will obstruct your veterinarian from examining the wound. Also refrain from administering any antibiotics you may have sitting around from another horse, unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Giving the wrong dose of antibiotics could be worse than giving none at all. Also, as stated above, if the wound is bleeding profusely when you discover it, you can apply pressure with a towel or cloth. These simple items can be kept in a first aid kit in your barn.
Now that we have technology at our fingertips, it may also be wise to take a photo of the wound that you could send to your veterinarian if there is any question on whether they need to examine the horse. Another thing to keep in mind is if your horse is up to date on his/her tetanus vaccine. Other than for very minor scrapes, the tetanus vaccine will be boostered just because horses are very sensitive to tetanus.
For the most part, stay calm and try to give an accurate description to your vet if you are not sending a photo. Sometimes wounds that initially appear small can become a problem if they are into a joint or if a foreign body is lodged inside (ie. piece of wood from a fence), so don’t be surprised if your veterinarian recommends they examine it, even if you think it appears minor.