Illustration by Jessica Young
week my veterinarian and I were discussing what she thinks
all horse owners should know,
in order to assist their vets in the diagnosis and
treatment of common horse ailments.
vet is Natalie Broomhall, and I happen to think she is
wonderful. We decided to limit the discussion to triage
and diagnosis, with an action plan for some common horse
health symptoms. Here are ten basic things my vet thinks
the average horse owner should know, regarding their
Never be afraid to ask questions.
You should have a relationship with a vet, so that you can
call him or her and ask questions comfortably. Yes, time is money,
but like a family doctor, some amount of veterinary phone triage
is important. Some horse owners feel that calling the vet should
be the last resort. This is usually based on the idea that calling
a vet means money spent. In fact, my vet would rather I call when
I have a question, rather than assume or guess.
Keep an emergency phone list of "back-up" vets,
in case your veterinarian is unavailable in an
vet lists other vet contact numbers on her answering machine, so
that owners have
choices, in the event that she is unable to respond quickly. She
is a one-person operation, thus
her company name, One Woman Veterinary Service. She cares about my
horses almost as much
as I do, and she prefers that I have good back-ups available for
an emergency when she is not available. Ask your
vet who they recommend you call when they are unavailable, and
keep those numbers by the phone where they can be easily found.
You should know how much water your horse normally drinks
in a day, and how much manure you should expect to see since
the last stall or paddock cleaning. Water intake and manure
production are good
indicators of how well your horse’s digestive system is working.
As you can guess, my vet is not a big fan of automatic waterers,
because they prevent observing a horse's daily water intake.
Stock vital health and first aid supplies for your horses.
Many horse owners have first aid kits for humans, but few have them for their horses.
Do you have the right equine first aid medications
and materials and know how to use them? BAEN has a list of
suggested equine first aid kit supplies posted at www.bayequest.com/firstaidkit.htm.
Bute (Phenylbutazone) and Banamine
are the two most important prescription drugs to have in your
equine first aid kit. But as
important as having these medications, is knowing the correct
dosage, how to administer them, and when to use them. And if you
don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask your vet. The fact that
they are not sold without a prescription suggests that these
medications do require some basic understanding of their usage.
Acquiring them and knowing when and how to use them is
reason for developing a good relationship with your
5. Owners knowing
how to take their horse's temperature is very important to my vet.
Many people know that a
horse’s normal temperature is between 99.5 and 101 degrees
Fahrenheit. But do you know how to take that temperature? You may
want to ask your vet to show you the first time. Start with
a thermometer well-lubricated with petroleum or KY jelly,
and shake it hard to reset the mercury. Digital
thermometers are great as shaking is not an issue. Insert the
thermometer (bulb first) into the horse’s rectum, holding it
tightly. Sliding your free arm under the horse’s tail first
will test your horse’s initial reaction and will move the tail
out of the way. After one minute remove and read the temperature.
Fevers (over 101 degrees) should always be immediately
reported to the vet.
Learn to read your horse's pulse and respiratory rate.
The normal resting pulse rate of a horse is 30-40 beats per
minute. It may take some practice to find the pulse. Reaching
under the jaw and pressing lightly back towards the closest edge
of the jaw you will find a large artery. You can also use a
stethoscope, if you have one. It may help to have a vet show you
the first time. Count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply times
four for the pulse rate. Respiration is best observed from a safe
distance behind the horse, watching for the rise and fall of the
ribs. A complete out and in movement is one breath. Count for one
minute. Horses normally take 8 to 20 breaths per minute.
Two other important equine vital sign tests to learn are
the hydration skin-pinch and the capillary-refill test.
The skin-pinch is just that. It is easily performed by taking a
pinch of skin just over the point of the horse’s shoulder and
counting how long it takes for the skin to return to a
normal flattened state.
If it takes 2-3 seconds for it to flatten, your horse is probably
dehydrated. The capillary-refill test is just as easy to perform.
Press your thumb against the horse’s gum for a moment and then
release it, counting the number of seconds it takes for the
whitened gum to return to
a normal pink color. One or two seconds is normal. Any longer
suggests dehydration or a stressed
horse. Before taking this test take a good look at the color of
the horse's gums. A chalky white color or yellowish color, dark
red or purplish color is something to be concerned about.
Normal, healthy gums are good and pink. Being able to
communicate this info to your vet can be very valuable.
“Eye issues” are always worthy of a vet call.
Swelling, drainage (especially thick white to thick green or
yellow drainage), rapid blinking, squinting, cloudiness in the
eye, or redness are all worthy of concern. I will usually
thoroughly flush out the eye with sterile water and apply
Terramycin (an antibiotic ointment sold over the counter at most
horse supply stores) for most symptoms, but I call the vet if I
don’t see immediate improvement. The eyes are very fragile and
these symptoms usually mean serious problems or results if left
If it’s cut, clean it. The most important treatment for
lacerations is washing of the wound.
Do not cover a dirty wound:
covering or bandaging the wound to keep dirt out is futile
with dirt already present. Bandaging is for the stoppage of
bleeding and is important if blood is flowing. If blood is not
flowing, spend more time cleaning the wound than bandaging. If the
wound is clean then cover it. Keeping the wound moist with
ointments is helpful. Powders
should not be applied to fresh wounds. Your vet will only have to
clean these powders out, since they are designed to stop proud
flesh, not to heal a fresh wound.
In fact, powders hinder the immediate healing process,
making them counterproductive for an early laceration.
Be mindful of all potential warning signs to colic.
Most important, be aware if your horse is not eating. This
warrants an immediate call to your vet.
Don’t wait, hoping your horse will change its mind and
begin eating. Your vet will be far happier to arrive and find a
healthy horse in your stable than to find they have a serious
problem that could have been drastically reduced by early
intervention. Major agitation, sweating (when they have not been
worked), pacing, groaning, kicking or looking at their sides,
constantly getting up and down, or repeated rolling are also signs
of colic. It is good to know how to check for decreased gut sounds
(ask your vet where you should listen).
Watch for any major mood change in your horse, either more
active or more docile. Any of these symptoms or signs is worthy of
a vet call.
importantly, do not delay in calling the vet for any problem that
has the potential of escalating, such as lameness, coughing,
discharge in the eyes, a laceration, a changing mood or dietary
these symptoms don’t independently constitute an emergency, they
certainly warrant a call to your vet. Keeping your horse's
vaccinations and worming up to date will also make your vet's job
easier and your horse healthier and happier.
vet may have different ideas of what is important for you to know.
All the more the reason to have a conversation and learn the
things he or she would like you to know and agree upon a good
tactical plan for emergencies that may arise.
Here's to a long and healthy partnership between you and
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