Horses are very good at injuring themselves, as an owner you will have no doubt experienced anything from a small nick to a larger cut on your horse.
If you find a cut what should you do? Ask around your yard and everyone will probably give you a different opinion, and it’s easy to feel confused about what to do for the best.
So here’s a plan for you if your horse has a cut or wound
1. Keep calm, don’t panic and stay safe
It is easy to say, and probably pretty obvious but in the heat of the moment it is amazing how us horse owners can panic, and put ourselves in dangerous situations. You might love your horse dearly, but he or she is significantly bigger than you, can’t speak and has powerful legs, and the last thing you want to do is end up with an injury yourself.
If you find it upsetting that your horse has a cut, and it can be quite distressing to find your horse with blood running down it’s leg. If you don’t feel calm enough to cope with the cut, or you’re upset then do get someone else to help you. You won’t be able to keep your horse quiet if you’re upset yourself.
2. Move the horse to a quiet area to assess
If you find your horse with a cut in the field you need to find a quiet area to examine the wound. Ideally take the horse back to the yard, so that you can tie your horse up, have the products to clean and dress the wound. It’s tempting to have a look in the field, but this might not be the safest or more practical option. As you take your horse back to the yard you can start assessing the wound, first considering if your horse is lame. If your horse is lame calling the vet is essential, but don’t be tempted to give the horse any medication without discussing this with your vet. Legally only vets can prescribe medication, and whilst you might have some pain relief products (such as ‘bute) already on your yard it isn’t your job to decide whether to give these or not. Medication will mask the problem, making it harder for the vet to assess, and your vet may have a more appropriate pain relief or anti inflammatory product to use.
3. Assess the wound
Having taken your horse back to a stable, or quiet area of the yard you need to assess the wound. Here are some points to consider
- Is the wound bleeding?
If so what is the rate of blood loss? Horse owners are often concerned about their horse losing too much blood, but in reality horses have a lot of blood, around 8% of their body weight is blood so a 500kg horse will have at last 40 litres of blood. Blood loss from a cut can look worse than it is, but the blood flow should stop when a simple compression is applied.
It is important to think about whether the blood is dripping or gushing, and whether the blood flow would fill a cup or a bucket.
A wound that is bleeding profusely needs veterinary treatment straight away, and if you are in any doubt you must call your vet immediately.
- Size of the wound
Wounds can be very deceptive, the tiniest wound in the ‘wrong’ place can be catastrophic for your horse, and a small wound can be deeper than it appears. When looking at the cut think about the size and the depth of the wound, does it involve more than just the top layer of skin?
- Location location location
Considering where the wound is, and if any other structures are involved is probably the most important part of assessing the wound.
Wounds near/ on joints (or other synovial structures) can be very dangerous due to the risk of infection within the joint. Any cut (however small) on a joint or tendon needs to be assessed by your vet, this way they can test if the joint capsule has been penetrated. If this is the case there is a high risk of infection in the joint, and surgery may be required.
Some joints are larger than they appear (i.e. the elbow) so a wound could be on a joint without the owner realising. This is one of the many reasons that having a good knowledge of the anatomy of your horse is so important.
As part of your wound assessment do check that your horse’s Tetanus vaccination is up to date. There is absolutely no reason not to vaccinate your horse for Tetanus, but occasionally we make mistakes and miss vaccination dates, there is also plenty of misinformation about vaccinations as well. If your horse isn’t covered by an up to date vaccination then do call your vet, they can administer a Tetanus antitoxin.
Tetanus is a life threatening disease caused by a toxin released by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani. Infection from tetanus occurs when it enters the body, generally via a wound. Horses are very susceptible to Tetanus, and sadly most cases don’t survive.
5. Do you need the vet?
If you are in any doubt then it is of course best to call your vet straight away, they will be able to offer you some advice, and you can always send a picture of the wound.
Whilst each wound or cut needs to be assessed on an individual basis here are some examples of wounds that would definitely need the vet
- If the entire thickness of the skin has been broken
- If the wound is very deep and Muscle/ bone can be seen
- If the wound gapes with skin flaps present
- If the wound is anywhere near a joint or a tendon
- Horse is very lame, especially if the wound is very small.This can indicate an infection and it is essential to call your vet
- If the wound is contaminated. You may need your vet to remove a foreign body or to thoroughly clean a wound
6. Clean and bandage the wound
Having assessed the severity of the wound, and if you need the vet or not your next step is the clean and dress the wound.
Cleaning the wound will depend on the location, extent of contamination and time of year. A wound on the lower leg in the depth of Winter is going to require more cleaning than it would in the Summer months. Cleaning with saline solution and gauze swabs is the best for the wound, as it won;t dry or damage the skin. You can read why this is better than hibiscrub here.
It might be necessary to clean excess mud of the wound first with a hose, but this does depend on the location of the wound, facilities, and how well your horse will tolerate this. Remember safety first, and when do get a second pair of hands to assist you.
I have highlighted that owners need to be creating the correct healing environment for wounds, and it is a myth that wounds need to be dried out. Wounds need to be kept slightly moist in the vast majority of cases, and it is important not to use any products that would clog up the wound and slow down healing. Choose a product such as hydrogel or flamazine, which will help the wound heal up.
Ideally wounds need to be covered with a simple dressing, and as most wounds occur on the lower limb a basic bandage would be sufficient. You can watch this video about how to apply a basic bandage with Dr Chris Baldwin, which gives some very clear instructions.
A bandage needs to provide firm even pressure, help reduce swelling, remove exudate and protect the wound.
Firstly Apply a nonstick dressing to the wound, such as Melolin which will absorb any discharge from wound, but healthy new tissue won’t be pulled off when dressing changed.
Next you need an outer layer to conform the bandage and hold it all in place, so put a cover of vetrap, just be careful with the tension so it isn’t too tight.
I hope you have found this article helpful, and next time you find your horse with a cut do remember to stay safe and follow these steps. I have mentioned various first aid items, do you have these in your Horse First Aid Kit? If you’re not sure what you need in your kit then please download your checklist here.