The most common emergency amongst horses is a laceration (severe cut). Given the many miles of barbed wire fence used in Western Canada to contain our animals, it is only a matter of time before a horse injures itself on one or more of these sharp objects.
Most horses will sustain a laceration on a leg and most leg wounds can be easily managed if the appropriate first aid steps are taken.
First, check for any major blood loss — as a senior surgeon once told me, ‘bleeding you see, hemorrhage you hear’. If the blood is flowing or squirting so quickly you can almost hear it or it looks to be pooling into a mound on the ground, call your vet immediately.
In the meantime, apply steady and constant pressure over the wound — this will help control the rate of blood loss until your vet can arrive. Try to keep the horse calm and quiet to keep the heart rate controlled.
A stack bandage (heavy layer of bandaging) can be applied tightly over the wound. Often the blood will soak through the bandage, so apply another and continue applying pressure. Most bleeding (even arterial) will cease with bandaging and pressure.
Second, keep the wound clean. There is a term in wound medicine called the golden period. This is the time it takes for an open wound to become too contaminated with bacteria to be sutured closed. This time period is about six to eight hours after the initial cut occurs.
Horses tend to have wounds close to the ground, which complicates the problem, as there is generally an abundance of fecal material nearby.
Having a wound attended to within the golden period will lead to better outcomes for your horse.
In the meantime, cold hosing the wound will help to decrease contamination. Typically 15 minutes will suffice. Overuse of running water can cause waterlogging of the tissue (tissue will turn gray), which should be avoided. Once the wound is clean, apply a clean bandage until the vet can arrive.
Last, don’t put anything on the wound that you wouldn’t put in your eye. Too often wounds are managed with topical ointments, solutions and sprays which are highly toxic to healing cells. Don’t apply anything without your vet’s approval.
Some general advice about wounds: usually lacerations on the front of the leg are better than the back of the leg (due to location of the flexor tendons); lacerations over joints are serious; and lacerations higher on the leg take less time to heal.
Chris Bell is an equine veterinarian and surgical specialist who operates Elders Equine Veterinary Service, with clinics in Cartier and Winnipeg. See www.eldersequineclinic.com