by Cheryl L. Detamore, D.V.M.
Horses are prone to cuts and abrasions on their legs. You might have heard old-time horsemen say, “It’s a long way from his heart; he’ll be fine.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and a lot of good horses have suffered the consequences.
Knowing when to call your veterinarian is one of the greatest challenges of horse ownership. What one horse owner considers an emergency might seem minor to another. And no one wants to gain a reputation for “crying wolf” when no real medical crisis exists. To prepare yourself for unexpected leg wounds, use this step-by-step guide to safely manage lacerations.
Because preparation is often the best medicine, it’s critical that every horse owner becomes familiar with basic equine anatomy. It’s also important to have an emergency first-aid kit convenient at all times. Keep one centrally located in your barn, another in your trailer and a portable kit for trail rides. Keep kits stocked with items to stabilize and treat wounds, including a tourniquet, hemostat (clamp-like instrument used to stop bleeding), bandage scissors, antimicrobial solution, gauze pads and rolls, adhesive wrap, cotton rolls and antibacterial ointment. Also, keep an extra tetanus-toxoid shot in the refrigerator in case of an emergency.
The first step in treating a laceration is to control the bleeding. The amount of bleeding depends on the duration, severity and location of the injury. Simple lacerations involving skin capillaries usually seep slowly and clot with compression. Severed veins, however, bleed moderately to severly. Arterial bleeding pulsates and squirts in rhythm with the pumping heart.
1. Apply pressure to bleeding areas immediately. If you suspect that a major vessel has been damaged, notify your veterinarian immediately. In the meantime, hold gauze or some type of bandaging material with your hand on affected areas of the body, or apply pressure wraps to the legs. When applying pressure, wait at least 20 minutes to evaluate your clotting progress. Doing so prematurely disrupts clotting and might necessitate starting over.
2. Inspect the wound. Once the bleeding has subsided, remove your compression and thoroughly inspect the wound. If you’re unsure whether the wound requires sutures, avoid the wait-and-see approach. All wounds have a “golden time of healing.” During this period of time, usually the first three hours after injury, treatment is most effective.
3. Clip around the wound. If you’re confident that you can handle the injury yourself, begin by clipping the hair along the hair along the wound margins. Take care to protect the wound, and sweep away loose hair; clipped hair sticks to exposed tissue and is difficult to remove later.
4. Clean the wound. The wound is already contaminated, so tap water, as opposed to sterile water and liquids, is acceptable. Rinse well with moderate pressure, resisting the urge to scrub. Abrasive treatment disrupts clots and inflicts trauma.
5. Flush with antimicrobial solution. Once visible contamination and debris are washed away, gently clean the wound with antimicrobial solution. Avoid peroxide, as it can increase bleeding and damage delicate tissues.
6. Apply antibacterial ointment. Minor cuts don’t require extensive aftercare. In fact, overdoctoring actually can impair natural healing. Apply an antibacterial ointment, such as nitrofurazone, twice daily for several days.
7. Apply insect repellent. During warm months, apply insect repellent to surrounding areas, but avoid spraying directly on the wound.
8. Monitor the wound. Keep the horse in a clean area, such as a stall or small pen, where you can observe the animal until risk has passed. Check the affected area daily for delayed healing and signs of infection, such as oozing, swelling and warmth.
9. Administer tetanus-toxoid booster. Last, but certainly not least, give the injured horse a tetanus-toxoid booster if more than three months have lapsed since his last immunization. If the horse wasn’t previously vaccinated for the disease, or the status is unknown, administer both the toxoid and antitoxin (the antitoxin offers temporary protection until the toxoid booster takes full effect), along with a toxoid booster in two weeks. Early signs of tetanus include difficulty swallowing, prolapsed third eyelid and overall stiffness. Additionally, affected horses are often sensitive to light and sound.