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If you own horses long enough, sooner or later you are likely to confront a medical emergency. There are several behavioral traits that make horses especially accident-prone: one is their instinctive flight-or-fight response; another is their dominance hierarchy or the need to establish the pecking order within a herd; and a third is their natural curiosity. Such behaviors account for many of the cuts, bruises and abrasions that horses suffer. In fact, lacerations are probably the most common emergency that horse owners must contend with. There are other types of emergencies as well, such as colic, foaling difficulties, acute lameness, seizures and illness. As a horse owner, you must know how to recognize serious problems and respond promptly, taking appropriate action while awaiting the arrival of your veterinarian.
When a horse is cut or bleeding, it's obvious that there is a problem. But in cases of colic, illness or a more subtle injury, it may not be as apparent. That's why it's important to know your horse's normal vital signs, including temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR), as well as its normal behavior patterns. You must be a good observer so that you readily recognize signs of ill health.
There will be variations in individual temperature, pulse and respiration values. Take several baseline measurements when the horse is healthy, rested and relaxed. Write them down and keep them within easy reach, perhaps with your first-aid kit, so you have them to compare to in case of an emergency. Other normal readings to take note of include skin pliability; the color of the mucous membranes of gums, nostrils, conjunctiva (inner eye tissue), and inner lips of vulva; and the color, consistency, and volume of feces and urine.
Signs can include anxiety or discomfort; lethargy, depression or a horse that's "off-feed"; presence or absence of gut sounds; evidence of lameness such as head-bobbing, reluctance to move, odd stance, pain or unwillingness to rise; bleeding, swelling, seizures, paralysis or "tying up" (a form of muscle cramps that ranges in severity from mild stiffness to life-threatening illness).
No matter what emergency you may face in the future, it is a good idea to mentally rehearse what steps you will take to avoid letting panic take control. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare:
1. Keep your veterinarian's number by each phone, including how the practitioner can be reached after-hours.
2. Consult with your regular veterinarian regarding back-up or a referring veterinarian's number in case you cannot reach your regular veterinarian quickly enough.
3. Know in advance the most direct route to an equine surgery center in case you need to transport the horse.
4. Post the names and phone numbers of nearby friends and neighbors who can assist you in an emergency while you wait for the veterinarian.
5. Prepare a first-aid kit and store it in a clean, dry, readily accessible place. Make sure that family members and other barn users know where the kit is. It is a good idea to also keep a first-aid kit in your horse trailer or towing vehicle, and a pared-down version to carry on the trail.
If you find yourself in an emergency, time is critical. Don't be concerned with overreacting or annoying your veterinarian. By acting quickly and promptly, you can minimize the consequences of an injury or illness. The following tips will help to ensure the best possible outcome for your horse:
1. Keep the horse as calm as possible.
2. Move the animal to a safe area where it is unlikely to be injured should it go down.
3. Get someone to help you, and delegate responsibilities, such as calling the veterinarian, retrieving the first-aid kit, holding the horse, etc.
4. Notify your veterinarian immediately. Be prepared to provide specific information about the horse's condition, as mentioned above, and other data that will help your practitioner assess the immediacy of the danger and instruct you in how to proceed.
5. Listen closely and follow your equine practitioner's instructions.
6. Do not administer drugs, especially tranquilizers or sedatives, unless specifically instructed to do so by the veterinarian.
Many accidents and emergencies can be avoided by simply taking the time to evaluate your horse's environment and removing potential hazards. Assessing your day-to-day management and making routines safer will also help to prevent accidents. Being prepared, aware and having a plan of action in the event of an emergency is critical to your horse's health and well-being.
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