First Aid

First aidIt is very important to be prepared for an emergency should a horse become injured.  Taking proper steps before the veterinarian arrives can mean the difference between life and death in some cases.  First Aid means to provide the first care necessary to preserve health and safety in an emergency situation.  First Aid does not imply how to do it yourself in order to avoid a vet bill; it can however, save expense in treatment if the owner takes appropriate action to reduce the severity of the problem and avoid complications.  Some minor “emergencies” are completely treatable by the owner and will not require a visit from the veterinarian.  These are some ways to be prepared for various emergency situations.


Before an emergency occurs, the horse owner should establish a first aid kit.  The kit will include essentials needed for almost every kind of situation, and it should be located on the farm as to provide quick access.  Below are some items that should be contained in the first aid kit.

  • 1 in. and 3 in. medical tape – breathable and waterproof kinds
  • 6 in. vetrap or its equivalent (only sticks to itself)
  • 4 in. x 4 in. gauze sponges
  • wide cotton roll padding
  • bandage scissors – paramedic style (serrated, blunt nose)
  • betadine solution (povidone-iodine)
  • betadine soap (povidone-iodine)
  • handtowels
  • exam gloves
  • emergency flashlight
  • stethoscope
  • watch or kitchen timer (to count pulse / respiration)
  • triple antibiotic ointment
  • ophthalmic antibiotic ointment
  • fly repellant paste
  • wire cutters (linesman’s pliers)
  • thermometer (large animal rectal type)
  • bucket with lid and handle (carrying case and water bucket)
  • pistol with soft nosed cartridges

When an emergency occurs

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is for the owner to remain calm during an emergency.  If the owner is panicked and not thinking clearly he or she may do more harm to the animal or even become injured themselves.  A stressed horse can be very dangerous; give the animal time to settle down, and take a moment to think through the next steps that will be taken.  A deep breath and a count to ten will not compromise the situation at all.  Instead, it will likely yield a better outcome.

If the horse becomes injured, the owner must determine where and to what degree.  There may be multiple locations of injury, and each will have a different priority.  If the animal is able to rise and move, secure the lead to the nearest immovable object.  Do not tie the horse to something that could be pulled loose.  A thrashing horse swinging a broken post or tree limb is not an ideal situation to say the least!

The order in which to approach multiple injuries depends upon how likely each one is to compromise the horse’s health and safety.  Active bleeding, especially arterial bleeding (spraying blood) is of the first concern.  Apply pressure to the wound with gauze sponges or towels, or affix an absorbent bandage and allow time for the bleeding to cease.  Depending upon the size of the severed vessel, this can take 20 to 30 minutes.  The amount of pressure to apply should be enough to stop blood from spraying or flowing, but not enough to completely occlude circulation.  Clots form only as platelets leave the vessel, so circulation to the wound is necessary.

A tourniquet should be fashioned only if there is arterial spray from a limb.  It is always applied above the wound (closer to the body).  Tourniquets are very dangerous if they are too tight for too long.  Keep in mind that the rest of the limb is not receiving a blood supply while the tourniquet is in place.  If used, it should be just tight enough to slow bleeding to a trickle, and a pressure bandage at the site of the wound should do the rest. The tourniquet must be loosened every five minutes to allow circulation to the rest of the limb.  Use with great caution and only if absolutely necessary!

Never try to remove a foreign object from a wound.  This can increase bleeding substantially.  The object will be removed by the veterinarian in a controlled environment (operating room).

After bleeding stops, it is time to assess the extent of the wound.  Deep punctures and large lacerations always require veterinary attention.  If the horse is current on its tetanus vaccination, small lacerations (not punctures) can be treated on the farm with antibiotic salve.  It will be important to keep the wound clean and dry and prevent insect infestation.

Being careful not to cause bleeding to start again, the wound should be washed with saline (or fresh water if saline is not available) and dilute betadine soap (it is okay to get soap in the wound, as long as it is rinsed well).  The area should then be rinsed with betadine solution (for acute wound management) and thoroughly dried before applying loose bandage where possible.  Fly repellant should be applied around, not in, the site to keep insects away.  Be aware that betadine and even water may sting when introduced to the wound, so begin very carefully to see what the horse will tolerate.  Diluting the betadine with water first will help.

The horse’s vital signs should also be assessed at this time.  Check the animal’s gum color for a healthy pink color.  Depressing the tissue for a moment and releasing should cause the color to go pale and return to pink within a second or two.  Longer times and overall abnormal color of the gums indicates shock or some other circulatory and systemic problem.

Take the horse’s temperature with a thermometer and count the pulses and respirations with a stethoscope and watch for 15 seconds.  Multiply your findings by four to arrive at a beats per minute and respirations per minute figure.  These numbers will be very important to the vet in assessing the animal’s condition.  This procedure should be practiced before an emergency event as there is a bit of a learning curve in proper technique.

Normal vitals:

Temperature: (if mercury thermometer, be sure to shake down the thermometer first!)  100.50F +/- 10


  • adult:  26 to 44 beats per minute
  • foal:    60 to 90 beats per minute


  • 8 to 16 resp per minute (slightly higher in foals)

Report the findings to the veterinarian before he or she arrives.  They may have instructions to carry out based on the horse’s vital signs.


Overheating is common especially when the humidity is as high as the temperature outside.  If a worked horse suddenly seems lethargic or reluctant, takes a stumble, or is panting, it may be overheated.  Heatstroke occurs when the horse’s core temperature exceeds 1050F.  Check for an increased pulse rate at rest, and cool the horse immediately if the temperature is elevated.

To cool an overheated horse, get the animal to shade and circulating air.  Do not ride the horse.  Remove the saddle and blanket.  Use room temperature (not cold) water if available to drench the horse’s head, thorax, and abdomen.  If the horse’s temperature exceeds 1050F, contact the veterinarian immediately.

Broken limbs

If there is bone protruding through the skin, if the animal cannot rise at all after a period of calming, or if there is obvious displacement of the limb (pointing in the wrong direction), a veterinarian will need to be immediately consulted about surgical options and stabilization procedures prior to arrival.  More and more horses are able to recover after surgical intervention for a fractured limb, but there is still a very guarded prognosis overall.

If a veterinarian cannot be summoned quickly, or if there is no way to transport the animal, a decision may need to be made about whether the animal will suffer needlessly.  It may be more humane to euthanize the horse in certain circumstances.  The decision is certainly not taken lightly.

This is the point of the pistol in the first aid kit.  If used properly, this tool of violence can become a tool of compassion for a horse in severe pain.  Please see Humane Equine Euthanasia for information about the proper procedure.


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