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Are You Ready for a Horse Emergency?


I’m a fairly new horse owner, and last week a horse at my barn hurt himself badly enough to need a vet. Now I’m worried that I won’t know what to do in an emergency (or worse yet, not even know that my horse is hurt or ill)! Can you tell me what to look for and what to do if my horse suddenly gets sick or injured and I’m the only one around?

While mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation probably won’t be necessary(!), there are some things you can learn and items you should purchase ahead of time so you’re better prepared if (when) your horse suddenly becomes sick or injured. First, in order to recognize Abnormal, you must be able to recognize Normal. And normal for one horse is not necessarily normal for another horse. Take the time now to know your horse’s normal behaviors and patterns when it comes to eating, drinking, urinating and defecating, as well as what he does when he’s stalled and when he’s turned out, so you can more quickly detect when he’s not feeling well.

You should also know what your horse’s normal vital signs are. Here is one range of normal that veterinarians use:

Temperature = 99 – 101 degrees F
Pulse = 28 – 42 beats per minute
Respiration = 8 – 16 breaths per minute

However, your horse may be at the low or high end of these ranges, or even slightly outside the range, and still be normal. Some owners go so far as to practice measuring capillary refill time, mucous membrane quality, gut sounds, digital heat and pulses, and other parameters. If you are interested in learning these techniques, ask your veterinarian to show you the next time he or she is at your barn and visit this link: How To Take Your Horse’s Vital Signs.

Your veterinarian can also teach you some basic first aid and general nursing care which you can practice on your own so you feel proficient when you need to use it. For example, do you know how to properly apply a bandage to a leg? Learn how at:

Can you administer oral medication without getting it all over you and the horse? Do you know when and how to cold hose a leg or hot pack a swelling? I get asked a lot: “what should I have in my first aid kit?” My answer is always: “only things you know how to use!” So if you don’t know how to give an intramuscular (IM) injection, don’t have syringes and needles in your kit. And if you have no interest in learning to use a stethoscope, don’t buy a first aid kit that includes one. That said, here is a pretty basic list of items you probably should have on hand:

Phone numbers: veterinarian, referral clinic, friends (especially with horse trailers)
Bandage scissors
Antibiotic ointment
Iodine or chlorhexidine scrub
Iodine or chlorhexidine solution
Cling wrap (such as Vetrap)
Gauze squares (regular and nonadherent)
Gauze rolls
Cotton roll or other padding
Leg bandages
White bandage tape
Duct tape
Syringes and needles (if you know how to use them!)
Hoof pick
Pen or marker
Tweezers and/or pliers

The best advice I can give you is to contact your veterinarian at the first sign of a problem. Let him or her decide if the situation is an emergency that must be seen right away, a serious problem that should be seen within the next day or so, or a simple issue you can handle yourself with advice over the phone. You will probably end up spending less and having a better outcome by involving your veterinarian right away!



Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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One comment on “Are You Ready for a Horse Emergency?
  1. Dana Eklund says:

    Flashlights are important, but I like headlamps even better! They allow both of your hands to be free to work, which is important especially is you’re the only one there! I’ve also lenses them to my vets when they come float teeth- it’s usually much appreciated!

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