Knowing basic first aid and having a well stocked kit can make all the difference in an emergency situation. Robinson Animal Healthcare talks us through the essential items that every first aid kit needs and also some basic knowledge that every horse owner should know.
We all hope that we will never need to break open the first aid kit or put skills that we have read about into practice, but if the worst happens and your horse suffers an injury, are you fully prepared?
Correctly administered, first aid can have an important influence on the eventual outcome of an injury. What you do and how quickly, can have a dramatic impact on healing time and recovery. In order to respond effectively it is vital that you have access to a well-stocked first aid kit whilst at home, on the yard and when away at competitions. Deciding what to stock in your kit can be confusing with the vast array of choice available.
Must Have Items
The following items should be a base from which to start building up your first aid kit:
- A wound hydrogel, such as Vetalintex, is great for fast and effective treatment of small cuts and grazes, so always keep a tube handy at competitions and around the yard.
- A selection of wound dressings. The correct dressing for a particular wound should maintain a moist environment at the wound interface and absorb excess exudates, which will encourage the wound to heal more rapidly and reduce the risk of infection and scarring.
- A cold compress is ideal for instant cold therapy following a knock or strain. You can also use them to cool the legs down after a big competition.
- A veterinary licensed poultice containing an antiseptic to clean and prevent re-infection, which when it reacts with water, draws out any infection and creates a clean area for the wound to heal.
- Cohesive bandages to secure dressings quickly and easily, without restricting movement or cause sweating.
- Absorbent high quality cotton wool enclosed in a non-woven or gauze cover, which is used to promote wound healing by insulating, cushioning and protecting wounds from external trauma.
- Antiseptic washes are ideal for cleansing areas prone to mud fever or rain scald and removing dirt and contamination.
- A decent pair of blunt ended scissors are essential for cutting bandages and dressings to the required size and also for safe and easy removal of bandages.
- Cotton wool for cleaning the area surrounding wounds and for protecting areas when used as padding.
The first aid kit should be stored in a suitable container that is rodent-proof and kept in a prominent position on the yard that is accessible to everyone. During winter, the kit may need to be stored in a heated room to prevent certain products from freezing. Regularly check the sell-by-date on the packaging as any product that contains an active ingredient will have a limited life span and will need to be replaced regardless of whether it is used or not.
Immediate First Aid
Irrespective of the type of injury, the quicker you discover it, the quicker it can be treated. This makes a huge difference and horses should be regularly checked over especially when they come in from the field.
A fresh wound, despite not looking contaminated, can become infected within as little as six to eight hours.
In the immediate first few minutes after discovering an injury, there are a few initial steps to follow to stay safe. These steps will allow you to calmly assess the situation and help to prevent any further problems:
- Ensure that neither you nor your horse are in any further danger and make the area as safe as possible.
- You need to then assess the wound or injury and decide if veterinary assistance is required immediately.
- Prioritise – profuse bleeding, fractures, burns and suspected poisonings all need immediate attention.
- Always remember to keep calm and get help if necessary.
It is not always necessary to call the vet to treat minor cuts and grazes, which is where the contents of your first aid kit become essential.
Minor wounds will usually stop bleeding within a few minutes and if treated appropriately, should not cause undue concern. More serious arterial bleeding will require emergency attention and pressure should be applied instantly to stop the bleeding. This can be done by holding a pad of non-woven veterinary dressing, such as Gamgee, over the wound and applying pressure for at least ten minutes. If blood begins to seep through, place another pad on top. Never remove the first pad as this will disrupt the clot formation and bleeding will continue. Once the bleeding has started to slow down, the pads should be securely bandaged in place.
Clean all open wounds as soon as possible (even minor wounds) with a saline solution or a level teaspoon of salt per pint of previously boiled water. If necessary, clip the coat and clean around the wound area. Avoid spraying water directly onto the wound as this can force any contamination further inside. Assess the wound and if unknown, try to discover the cause as there may be a foreign body hidden below the wound surface. Do not poke about in the wound, as this will cause infection. Flush the wound with saline solution before covering the affected area with a non-adherent dressing if necessary.
Non-adherent dressings should be used on open or infected wounds accompanied by high levels of exudates whereas low to medium exudating wounds can be dressed with low adherent dressings. It is important that as a dressing is removed, it is done so easily without causing trauma and that it does not leave any foreign particles behind. All dressings must be non-toxic, non-allergenic and suitable for the wound type as no single dressing is appropriate for all wound types and all stages of healing.
Bandages should be used to keep dressings in place, protect and keep wounds clean, provide support and as an aid to reduce inflammation. When bandaging, apply an even pressure and overlap the bandage by 50%. Take care not to over stretch the bandage as this will be uncomfortable and tight on the horse.
Always bandage from the top to the bottom, from the left to the right on the near side and right to left on the off side.
Remember! Never bandage the horse’s leg without padding, the bandage should never restrict circulation as this can affect the healing process and cause serious damage. Always ensure the bandage does not restrict movement, especially at the knee or hock. For wounds in such places use a figure-of-eight bandage that crosses at the front.
Poor bandaging technique can be detrimental to your horse’s health, causing pain, sores and swelling, and in severe cases long term damage. It may sound dramatic but when you consider the underlying structures, such as the superficial digital flexor tendons, which are close to the surface, it is easy to see how an overly tight bandage can affect blood supply and movement.
A wound that is contaminated and infected should be poulticed to help draw any debris and infection from the wound. Take great care when poulticing an open skin wound, as some poultices encourage proud flesh – which is the production of over-exuberant granulation tissue. The wound should be washed with a saline solution and then dried ready to apply the poultice. The poultice needs to be held in place with a secure bandage, and the horse needs to be kept stabled for as long as a wound needs poulticing. Poultices should be changed twice daily for two days and then daily after that.
Cold therapy is ideally used immediately after an injury occurs and then subsequently for the next 48 hours at regular intervals. Due to the frequent nature of its use, cold therapy involving water may lead to cracked heels or other skin problems, particularly in winter when cold hosing is not ideal. Bruised or tendon strains require cold therapy immediately to reduce heat and swelling.
When to Call the Vet
The vet should always be called if a wound is spurting blood (arterial bleeding), requires stitching, has a foreign body embedded in it, or the wound appears to be badly infected. If the horse has a raised temperature, there is excessive swelling or the horse has not been vaccinated against tetanus, these should also be taken very seriously.
If your horse appears anxious, depressed or dazed and the mucus membranes are pale, he may be suffering from shock, especially following blood loss. Keep your horse quiet and calm, not too hot or cold until the vet arrives.
Knowing the vital signs and what is normal can also help provide the vet with valuable information before they reach your yard.
- The horse’s resting pulse should be between 35 and 40 beats per minute, and is a useful aid to diagnosis. An abnormal resting pulse rate can signify infection, dehydration, stress, pain and an erratic heartbeat. When a horse is in pain the pulse rate will usually rise considerably.
- The respiration rate is the number of breaths a horse takes per minute or how often they breathe in and out. The normal resting rate of a healthy adult horse is around 8 – 16 breaths per minute. There should be gentle movement in the nostrils and limited effort noticed in the rise and fall of the flanks.
- Temperature is one of the most useful guides when accessing a horse for illness, with a rise indicating a possible infection, such as an abscess and a fall in temperature being symptomatic of blood loss. For a healthy adult horse, the temperature should be between 38°C and 38.4°C.
- Serious injuries should always be attended by a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible, but knowing basic first aid and having a well-stocked kit will make all the difference in an emergency.
Meet the Author
Robinson Animal Healthcare is a long established manufacturer of animal first aid woundcare and absorbents, including brands such as Animalintex and Veterinary Gamgee. These products have been tried and tested, and offer complete solutions to everyday first aid requirements for riders and veterinary surgeons.