Wound care for your horse

Accidents can and do happen – these basic wound care tips for treating your horse will help you be better prepared. 

Injuries, wounds and lacerations can be frightening for both you and your horse. Learning about basic first aid wound care will give you the tools you need to come to your horse’s rescue if he gets injured.

Knowing your horse’s anatomy

To begin, familiarize yourself with the basics of equine anatomy. A detailed study is not necessary, but attention to detail is essential.

  • Look at your horse and take note of obvious blood vessels. Some of the more prominent vessels are on the upper legs, chest and abdominal areas.
  • The location of these vessels, combined with the nature of horses (especially when panicked), makes them particularly vulnerable to injury.

How do I know if I need to call the vet?

When it comes to wound care, a veterinarian should always be called to examine the following:

  • Gaping wounds or areas where patches of skin are peeled away or missing. Even if you suspect the wound cannot be sutured, a vet can assess complications and make treatment recommendations.
  • Older wounds with devitalized tissue. Dead tissue may need to be removed to facilitate healing. A professional should always perform this initially, but further debridement can be performed at home as directed.
  • Lacerations to the face, which should always be sutured to prevent infection and to preserve esthetic appearance.

What can I do while waiting for the vet?

Control the bleeding:

  • Apply pressure immediately to bleeding areas. If you suspect a major vessel has been damaged, call your veterinarian while you apply compression. When applying pressure, do not assess your progress before 20 minutes of compression are up. Removing pressure will disrupt the clotting cascade and may necessitate starting over.
  • If the material you placed over the bleeding is saturated, quickly add more. It is okay to add layers, as long as the bulk doesn’t make it difficult to apply direct pressure.
  • While you can hold compression in place on areas of the body using your hand, you can apply pressure dressings relatively easily to the legs. Wrap them snugly, but not too tight. If swelling occurs below the bandage, loosen immediately.
  • Severed blood vessels on the feet and lower extremities often bleed profusely, especially if the horse is moving around. Keep the horse as still as possible. Apply a pressure bandage over the wound. If you are unable to keep your horse from moving in order to apply a dressing, a slow stream of cold water from a hose directed at the wound can assist in clotting.
  • If gauze or other material is stuck to the surface of the wound, do not peel it off! Bleeding can resume. Saturate the material with water to facilitate removal.

Use a tourniquet

Apply a tourniquet to the tail and extremities in emergencies only.

  • A tourniquet can be made of many different materials, but a strip of cloth, roll of gauze, or piece of rubber tubing work best.
  • Place the tourniquet “above” the wound, between the injury and heart. Tighten it by hand or use a stick as a lever. Loosen the tourniquet briefly every 20 minutes and massage the area to prevent tissue death.

What should I do if I think I can care for the wound?

Here are some tips for at-home wound care:

  • Clip the hair away from the margins of the wound, taking care to protect the wound and sweeping loose hair away. Clipped hair sticks to exposed tissue and is difficult to remove later.
  • Clean the area. The wound is already contaminated, so tap water is acceptable. Resist the urge to scrub. Abrasive treatment will worsen trauma and disrupt clotting. Lavage with pressure is most beneficial. A water hose with an adjustable spray nozzle works well; use moderate pressure.
  • Once visible contamination and debris have been washed away, gently clean the wound with an antimicrobial solution. Do not use peroxide, as it can exacerbate bleeding and damage delicate tissues. Povidone iodine or chlorhexidine are the most commonly used antimicrobial solutions. You can use either solution undiluted on intact skin. When cleansing delicate or exposed tissues, dilute them with water.
  • Don’t forget tetanus immunization.

Stocking your equine first aid kit

Have an emergency first aid kit convenient at all times. Make sure it is well stocked, easily accessible and centrally located. Keep a first aid kit in multiple locations, including the barn and trailer, and put together a portable one for the trail. A well-stocked first-aid kit should include:

  • Items to stabilize and treat wounds, including a tourniquet, hemostat, bandage scissors, antimicrobial solution, gauze pads and rolls, elastic adhesive wrap, cotton roll, and an all-purpose healing salve like MeliHeal or a wound spray like such as Banixx
  • An Easyboot for injuries to the foot
  • A roll of duct tape to secure and waterproof bandages
  • Additionally, don’t forget to keep an extra Tetanus toxoid on hand in the refrigerator.

When is a bandage necessary?

Bandaging is not usually necessary for proper wound care, as long as the wound is kept clean. Applying a topical antimicrobial twice daily for several days should suffice. However, when bandaging a leg is necessary, it is vital to follow the appropriate wrapping protocol:

  • Apply a nonstick pad to the area and secure with gauze.
  • Pad the leg with cotton, and wrap with cohesive bandage. Always wrap front to back and inside to out, overlapping the material evenly. Elastic wraps have a cumulative effect when layered, so avoid stretching the material as you go. Improperly wrapping a leg can result in damage to tendons and other soft tissues.
  • Unless otherwise instructed by your vet, assess the wound and apply fresh dressing daily. Any bandage or wrap that appears overly tight or sagging should be removed immediately.

Are puncture wounds a big deal?

Puncture wounds may not appear significant, but they can result in a serious infection. This is because bacteria are deposited into underlying tissues and then become trapped as the skin heals.

Because certain bacterium, such as the causative agent of tetanus, thrive in this kind of oxygen-deprived environment, it is imperative that the injured horse receives a tetanus toxoid booster if more than three months have elapsed since the last immunization. If your horse hasn’t been previously vaccinated for the disease, or the status is unknown, both toxoid and antitoxin (the antitoxin will offer temporary protection until the toxoid takes full effect) should be administered, along with a toxoid booster in two weeks. Early signs of tetanus include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Prolapse of the third eyelid and generalized stiffness
  • Those affected are often sensitive to light and sound, and adopt the “sawhorse” stance.

Because the incubation period for the disease varies, it can take days or weeks to develop. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect tetanus in your horse.

If you’re in doubt about a wound your horse has suffered, get your veterinarian to look at it as soon as possible. In the meantime, following the wound care tips in this article will help keep the wound clean, prevent complications and promote healing.