If you're a new horse owner, there's a simple truth that you're likely in the process of discovering: a horse is an accident looking for a place to happen. Cats might have nine lives, and dogs a nose for getting into trouble, but horses are in a class all their own when it comes to needing nursing. It seems they're always coming in from the field with a knee the size of a cantaloupe after a well-placed kick from a pasture mate; or tearing their hides open on a protruding nail you swear wasn't there yesterday; or getting their corneas scratched in an altercation with a thorn bush. If you haven't memorized your veterinarian's phone number by now, trust me, you will.
If you want to look on the positive side of the equine propensity for injury, just think how it's sharpening your emergency first-aid skills. A couple of years of horse ownership makes most of us very experienced at wrapping legs, hosing wounds, and giving injections (even if the very sight of a needle and syringe used to make you faint dead away!). Along the way, we tend to acquire cabinets full of antibiotic lotions and potions, rolls of bandages in every conceivable length, size, and stretchiness, and various other bottles and daubers and jars of "stuff" for treating minor crises. Yet with all the clutter, when we do need something specific for an emergency, we often can't find it!
Some Handy Extras
Here are a few items that might not fit in your first-aid kit's container, but which are helpful to have around:
• A twitch to divert your horse's attention while you doctor his injuries.
• A clean fly mask, to protect an injured eye.
• An Easyboot or poultice boot, to keep a hoof or coronet injury clean.
• A couple of clean buckets designated only for first-aid use.
• Hoof testers, which can help you diagnose a foot-related lameness.
• Material for a splint—PVC pipe, one to two feet long, split lengthwise, can be used on top of a leg wrap to support a leg that has suffered a fracture or severe tendon strain until your veterinarian arrives. (Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to safely apply a splint before the emergency occurs.)
• A spider bandage, useful for wrapping awkward areas like knees or hocks—it consists of a large rectangle of cotton material, torn along two edges to form 20 or more little "tails." The tails are knotted or braided together to provide a bandage with some flexibility over the joint. (Spider bandages also take some skill to apply; practice on a healthy horse first.)
• A snake bite kit, if you live in an area where snakes are a problem.
• A wound cream with fly repellent properties, such as Swat.
• A tube of diaper rash cream, such as Desitin, to protect heels from the moisture that can cause dew poisoning (a.k.a. scratches).
• A tail wrap.
• "Second skin" collagen bandages—these are expensive, but get rave reviews from horse owners who've used them to protect minor wounds.
• Bute, or phenylbutazone, a mild non-steroidal pain medication that comes in pill, powder, or paste form. (Only administer medications in concultation with your veterinarian.)
• A pocket first-aid guide.
If you're comfortable with the technique of giving intra-muscular injections, it's useful to keep a couple of injectable medications on hand as well. These drugs should be administered only in consultation with your veterinarian; never try to self-diagnose. (Check with your veterinarian about their storage requirements, too—some medications need to be refrigerated.)
Two injectables that are extremely useful to have around are Banamine (flunixin megalumine), which can be used to ease the discomfort of colic, and Acepromazine, a tranquilizer that can make an injured horse easier to work with. (Acepromazine suspension, incidentally, can be administered orally; ask your vet for dosage instructions.) Again, don't self-diagnose your horse; seek your veterinarian's advice before giving any medications.
If you have injectables on your farm, you'll also need sterile needles and syringes, which you can get from your veterinarian, feed store, or pharmacy. Make sure you know appropriate dosages for these medications, what gauge needle you should use, and under no circumstances re-use syringes or needles.
One for the Barn, Two for the Road
Having all of these handy first-aid materials available at the barn is fine and dandy, but they'll do you no good if you find yourself with an injured horse at a horse show or out on the trail. So consider assembling a second first-aid kit that will stay in your truck or horse trailer, and a mini-kit to take with you when you're going on a long ride. The latter can contain just the basics, for both horses and humans—Band-Aids, gauze, a Vetrap bandage, sunblock, a hoofpick, acetaminophen, a small pair of scissors—and a cell phone.
You can assemble such a kit in a fanny pack or a small bag that can hang from your saddle dees (if you ride English) or the horn (if you ride Western).
Any first-aid kit should include a sturdy card with emergency phone numbers—your veterinarian, your farrier, the closest veterinary and human hospital, a horse rescue or ambulance service (if there is one in your area), the fire department, and the police. It's important to have an inventory, as well, that you can tape to the inside lid of your kit. Type a list of every ingredient in the kit, so you'll be able to see at a glance if it contains what you need. When you use up an item, cross it off the list—then be sure to replace it! Otherwise, over time, you'll end up with a mostly empty container that will do you no good at all in a crisis. (Remember, too, that many drugs and ointments have expiration dates. Write those dates on your inventory checklist to make sure you're not keeping vials of useless medications.)
A final caution: even the best-equipped first-aid kit is intended only to help you deal with minor injuries and health problems. You should not expect it to cover major medical crises. Any situation you can't quickly and confidently treat, consult your veterinarian immediately.
Stocking Your First-Aid Kit
A barn’s first-aid kit, with all the essentials in one place, is a great idea for any horse owner. Stored in a conspicuous spot, it’s at your fingertips the moment you discover the latest equine injury. You can buy a prepackaged first-aid kit designed for horses (see the web site addresses at the end of the article for some companies that offer these kits), or you can assemble one yourself for relatively little money and a lot of peace of mind. Store your kit in an airtight, waterproof container to keep the materials sterile and ready to use—a large fishing tackle box or sewing box, with lots of little compartments, are options, or you could use a tight-sealing plastic kitchen container (the transparent kind will let you see at a glance whether it contains what you need). Get some bright red tape and mark the lid with a cross that will let even a stranger in your barn know its contents, then stock it with:
• A rectal veterinary thermometer—the plastic digital kind is safer around the barn than a glass one, and gives faster readings.
• A pair of safety scissors (with rounded ends so you don’t accidentally cut into your horse if you’re snipping off a bandage).
• Another pair of small, sharp scissors, for suture removal.
• A stethoscope (inexpensive ones can be purchased through medical supply stores or pharmacies for less than $30).
• Self-sticking bandages such as Vetrap.
• Gauze squares at least three inches by three inches (where horses are concerned, larger is better!).
• Vaseline or another type of lubricating jelly (for the thermometer and for protecting the tender skin of your horse’s heels from chapping if you have to cold-hose a leg injury for several days).
• Medical adhesive tape.
• Gauze bandage such as Kling.
• Some type of cold pack, for days when cold hosing a new injury just isn’t possible—chemical packs that create "instant cold" are available, although in a pinch you can use a bag of frozen peas from your freezer.
• Stable bandages and quilts.
• An antiseptic wound cream (yellow furacin ointment is a popular choice) and a spray-on wound treatment such as furazolidone or Topagen.
• Hydrogen peroxide—its bubbling action is useful for cleaning dirt out of fresh wounds and for dealing with thrush (a fungal infection of the hooves), but don’t use it routinely on a healing wound as it will inhibit the healing process.
• An antiseptic scrub such as Betadine (povidone-iodine, or "tamed" iodine) or Nolvasan (chlorhexidine).
• Latex gloves.
• A flashlight to help you see wounds in a gloomy stall at midnight.
• A bottle of saline solution—useful for cleaning out wounds in delicate places like around the eyes. A bottle of contact lens saline solution with a squirt nozzle is perfect.
• A roll of sterile cotton.
• Pre-moistened alcohol swabs (you can find these at your pharmacy, individually wrapped)—good for cleaning small wounds or creating a cleaner site for injections.
• A bottle of rubbing alcohol, for sterilizing instruments.
• Forceps or tweezers, for removing splinters, ticks, or other nasties.
• Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)—mix with warm water to soak an abscessed foot.
• Iodine shampoo—good for various skin conditions, as directed by your vet.
• A quick-to-apply poultice such as Animalintex (which can be used hot or cold).
• Thick sanitary napkins (the obstetrical pads you can get at a hospital or pharmacy are good) or disposable diapers, for applying direct pressure to a bleeding wound.
• A hoof pick—you can never have too many.
• A farrier’s rasp and nippers, for removing a shoe if you need to (ask your farrier if he has cast-off ones he can donate to your cause).
• A hoof knife.
• Duct tape—useful in any emergency, and especially good for hoof wraps, as it’s water-resistant, moldable, and fairly durable.
Along with all of these items for treating your horse, it’s also an excellent idea to keep a first-aid kit designed for humans in your barn. These are readily available in pharmacies, or you can assemble your own. Some of the items in your equine first-aid kit, such as tweezers, medical tape, and gauze, can do double duty, but you should have some antibiotic cream, sunblock, Band-Aids, and aspirin or acetaminophen for minor aches and pains—plus any allergy medication that your barn residents might require.
About the Author
Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.