Learn first aid for hoof emergencies in one of the most inconvenient environments you and your horse will encounter – out on the trail.
Accidents happen. And hoof injuries tend to elicit the most anxiety and worry from horse owners, because they remind us of that all-too-common adage – no hoof, no horse. They can occur at any time, but can be of particular concern when you’re out on the trail, far from the barn’s first aid kit, the cold hose and your veterinarian’s number.
Cuts, abrasions and puncture wounds are the most commonly seen injuries out on the trail or during the regular roadside hack. The best advice is to pack a basic emergency kit whenever you are out on the trail, although I’m sure we’ve all gone off for a “quiet hack down the road” with no thought of packing a first aid kit. If nothing else, at least pack a hoof pick for any ride – fold-up picks fit nicely into a pocket, or can be safely tied to a saddle.
Cuts and Abrasions
The equine foot is a highly vascular structure, and cuts or abrasions to the coronet band or heel bulbs will often produce a lot of blood and can appear quite alarming. However, bleeding helps to naturally cleanse a wound, so take a deep breath and let the blood flow for a little while before attempting to stop it. If you are near a clean water source, standing the horse in running water can be beneficial as it cleans without abrading healthy skin, slows the blood flow, helps ward off swelling and lessens sensation and pain. Be aware that some water sources can harbor bacteria that are best kept out of an open wound – common sense must prevail.
If you do carry a small first aid kit, it is a good idea to pack a small spray bottle containing a tea tree oil mixture. This will address immediate concerns about infection. If the cut appears deep, is fairly large, or if there are loose flaps of skin, the hoof should be wrapped for the walk home. A quick interim “hoof boot” can be made with gauze, vet wrap, and of course, duct tape!
These are something you definitely want to try and avoid. Foreign bodies such as nails, fencing staples, broken glass, sharp flints or broken wire, can all pose a hazard. Punctures that penetrate the hoof’s horny sole or frog and enter the sensitive tissues below can vary from trivial to fatal, depending on the depth and follow-up treatment. If nothing else, be sure to have your horse’s tetanus shots up to date!
So, what if you are out riding and pick up a nail or foreign object from the trail? Clean and examine the foot as thoroughly as possible. If you were at home, it might be best to leave the puncture object alone until your vet arrives. Generally, this is not a feasible option when out on a trail, some distance from the barn. It may be necessary to remove the item in order to make the trek home without causing further damage. If you do remove it, keep it to show your veterinarian later. Again, tea tree oil applied directly into the puncture can help keep the wound clean, and a gauze/duct tape wrap will get you home.
Little else can be done on the trail, but a call to your vet is recommended as soon as you return to the barn. Deep penetration wounds are susceptible to infection, in which pus and gas will build up in the hoof. If the pressure builds up within the hoof and no drainage is provided, the pus may eventually run under the sole and up the white line before bursting out at the coronary band. Depending on the nature and placement of the object invading the foot, your veterinarian may suggest x-rays to see if there is any damage to the internal structures and hoof bones.
Hoof Protection For All
Barefoot horses that enjoy the benefit of natural hoof care, including proper trimming, a healthy environment and good nutrition, will grow a strong hoof with over ½” of hard callused sole, a solid rubbery frog and often a ¼” thick strong hoof wall. Certain wounds can still occur, but are less likely. A naturally barefoot hoof has excellent sensory receptors in the frog and sole, so the horse can often avoid serious injury by immediately detecting dangerous footing.
Shod horses, or those subject to improper trimming methods and compromised hoof mechanism and form, are generally more susceptible to injuries on the trail and elsewhere. Riders of such horses are strongly advised to carry an emergency hoof boot in the event of a lost shoe. That said, an extra hoof boot should be included in anyone’s first aid kit!
A small utility tool, such as a leatherman, may also be useful if your horse has shoes. Shoes that are only half off are more of a concern than a shoe that is lost entirely. A leatherman can often be used to pull any remaining nails, or to nail a loose shoe back on. Once again, duct tape is your friend. Wrap the hoof wall and shoe in a figure eight pattern, but avoid taping above the coronet band unless you’ve put a layer of vet wrap down first – the hair will get stuck to the duct tape and can cause problems during removal.
While accidents can and do happen, a little precaution can help you avoid many trail injuries and prepare you to effectively deal with those that do occur.
Johanna Neuteboom is a professional barefoot trimmer and natural horse care advocate, living and working in the Muskoka region of Ontario. For more information on her services, visit barnboots.ca.