A Guide to Horse Illnesses and Injuries

New horse owners should be aware of possible injuries and illnesses that can effect even the most well-cared-for equine. Horses are fragile animals, and ignorance to treatment options can be deadly.

If you have just purchased your first horse, then you might not be familiar with the various injuries and illnesses that our equine friends can sustain. They might look big, and they might seem indestructable, but horses are actually incredibly fragile animals that easily develop any one of numerous maladies, some of which can result in death. If you aren't trained to look for the warning signs of problems such as colic, thrush, absesses, equine infectious anemia, and the infamous west nile virus.

To get your started, here is some vital information that you should know about your horse. Data is based on a 1200 pound healthy animal.

Resting Heart Rate: 30-40 beats per minute

this can be taken by feeling along the jaw line for a major artery, or along the inside of the back legs

Resting Respiration: 16-20 breaths per minute

Temperature: 99.8 degrees (99.5 - 101.6 is within normal limits)

this needs to be taken with a rectal thermometer; use vaseline to make the process easier and stand clear of the hind legs.

After you have prepared your horse's stall, fed and watered him, and set up routines for riding and grooming, you should next head to your local pet store and stock up on supplies. Keeping regular stores of basic medical supplies will ensure that you are taken care of in a pinch, and if something were to happen, you have the items necessary to take control of the situation until the veterinarian arrives. Here are some of the supplies you should acquire:

  • 2-3 rolls of vet wrap (comes in a variety of colors)
  • 2 sets of standing bandages (inner and outer)
  • clean towels and rags
  • a pair of sturdy scissors
  • medical tape, electrical tape, and duct tape
  • 4-6 pieces of sheet cotton
  • 4-6 pieces of sterile gauze
  • 1 jar of furacin ointment (NOTE: this is a known carcinogen, so handle only with rubber gloves)
  • a gelocast
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • rubbing alcohol
  • polo wraps (one set of four)
  • a thermometer and vasoline
  • betadine
  • poultice preparations
  • baby diapers
  • epsom salts
  • 2 bottles of thrush buster

Keep this equine first aid kit handy in case of emergency. I keep mine in the feed room where it is easily accessible, but tack boxes or lockers and tack rooms work just as well.

Now that you are prepared, you need to know how to use the above equipment. I am going to explain in as much detail as possible how to treat minor injuries and illnesses, but my advice is not an adequate substitute for a veterinarian's assistance. If a situation arises that you are not capable of dealing with, you should call your vet immediately to seek further instruction. Although house calls are slightly expensive, they are worth the cash for your horse's health.

Absesses - An absess is a small point of pressure that develops in your horse's hoof. It can be caused by incorrectly placed shoes, running on hard ground, or standing in sodden soil or grass. These things happen, and although they are quite painful for your horse, they can be treated easily. If your horse has been favoring one leg, and there is no heat in the pastern or cannon, this could be indicative of an absess. Call your veterinarian, and while you are waiting, soak the hoof in epsom salts. Fill a large bucket with warm-hot water, pour in one cup of epsom, and place the hoof inside the bucket. If your horse won't stand for this, you can also use a heavy-duty pastic bag that you duct tape around the coronet band. After the hoof has soaked for twenty minutes, remove the hoof from the water. Take one of your baby diapers, pour a few tablespoons of epsom salts in the center, and pour betadine over that. Pour betadine directly on the hoof, and then wrap the diaper around the hoof. Use duct tape to secure it. This will help relieve the pain and pressure until your vet arrives.

Colic - Colic is the equine equivilent of a stomachache. Horses have very sensetive digestive systems, and any number of causes can instigate colic. Symptoms include lying down, looking around at the belly, uncomfortable shifting in the stall, refusal to eat food, and kicking at the belly. If you notice these symptoms, look at your horse's gums and press on them with your thumb. If they blanch white for more than three seconds, your horse is dehydrated. You can also check skin elasticity by pulling your horse's skin away from his body. If it doesn't return to normal within three seconds, then he is dehydrated. You can also check his temperature, heart rate, and respiration to determine whether or not they are within normal limits. If you suspect colic, call a vet immediately.

Cuts - Small, surface cuts are not a big deal, and do not require veterinary attention. Most can be treated with furacin ointment and left open to ambient air. If it is under the girth area or anywhere near will tack will rub it, don't ride the horse until the cut has healed. Horses have very thick skin, and small cuts will not mean much pain. If, however, a cut is spurting blood, then the horse has probably nicked or spliced an artery. This is a situation that will require a vet. Press clean towels or bandages against the laceration and secure it tightly in place with vet wrap. Vet wrap is self-adhesive, but you can use electrical tape or duct tape for added insurance. Do not release pressure until your vet arrives, and resist the urge to look underneath the bandage. Staunching the flow of blood is your top priority.

Ant Bites - If ants have found their way into your horse's stall, they can wreak havoc on his body. They climb up the legs and bit everywhere they can find, which can leave your horse in considerable distress. If you find lots of small, raised bumps all over your horse, ants are probably the culprits. Crush up six tablets of children's Benadryle and give it to your horse in his next feeding. Clean out the stall entirely and kill any beds in or around it. Call your vet if problems persist.

Common Cold - Horses catch colds just like we do, and usually via the same methods: contact with a sick horse, left cold and wet after exercise, and not cooling down properly after workouts. If your horse exhibits a runny nose, wattery eyes, coughs, or sneezes, then make sure to keep him warm. Add an extra blanket if it's wintertime, and use a heat lamp for added warmth.

Thrush - Like absesses, thrush is caused by standing on wet ground, and is not a serious health threat if treated properly. If your horse is slightly lame, or if you notice a sharp, unpleasant smell emanating from the bottoms of his hooves, then he probably has thrush. You will also notice a flaky white substance on the bottoms of the hoof. Apply four or five squirts of thrush buster to the infected hooves twice daily until the smell and lameness are gone.

Splint - Bone splits are caused my running on hard ground or pavement, and are most commonly found in young horses whose bones have not yet fully formed. Splints require stall rest for your horse (6-8 weeks), and daily hydration of the leg. Symptoms include extreme tenderness in the cannon bone, heat, swelling, and inability to put wait on the leg. Call your vet immediately if you suspect a bone splint so that other maladies can be ruled out.

Broken Bones - Obviously, you have no way to handle this situation on your own, and if you find that your horse has a broken bone, call the veterinarian immediately and advise him or her of the situation. Whatever you do, don't get the gun! Some boken bones - such as broken cannon bones - can be healed over time. It will be your decision whether to put up the money for your horse's healing; sometimes it's worth it, and sometimes it isn't.

If you are concerned about the future medical bills of your equine pet, I advise that you explore insurance options. There are lots of companies nation wide - like Markel Insurance - that will offer insurance for your horse. Monthly payments are very low, and they might save the bank in a sticky situation.