Wound Care for the Trail Horse

by Stephanie Meyer, DVM, CVA

As most horse owners know, if we own horses long enough, sooner or later we are likely to be faced with an emergency.  Confronting a medical emergency at any time is stressful, but when you are far from home, riding on a trail, it can be disastrous if you aren’t prepared.  If you are adequately prepared with an action plan and essential supplies, you can minimize the consequences of an injury and help your horse heal as quickly as possible. 

There are many different types of wounds you may encounter while on the trail from abrasions and contusions to lacerations and puncture wounds, snakebites, and eye injuries.  Immediate basic wound care will help minimize risk of infection and prepare the wound for the best opportunity to heal. 

Prepare a first aid kit to keep in your trailer and a smaller version to carry with you on the trail.  First aid kits can be elaborate or simple and will vary according to personal preference.  Here is a list of essential items for your first aid kit:

  • Flashlight
  • Assorted sizes of gauze pads and/or Telfa dressing
  • Cotton roll (or clean standing wrap/bandage quilt)
  • Vetrap & 6” brown roll gauze (or a clean polo wrap)
  • Disposable diapers
  • Cling wrap
  • Duct tape
  • Sharp scissors (or pocket knife)
  • Thermometer
  • Latex gloves
  • Clean water or saline solution
  • Clippers (or a disposable razor)
  • Antiseptic solution (ie. diluted iodine solution or nolvasan solution)
  • Triple antibiotic ointment (Neosporin)
  • Eye irrigation solution/Eye wash
  • Antibiotic ophthalmic ointment

To be ready for an emergency while on the trail, consider carrying a pared-down first aid kit, including a few important items:

  • Clean water (for wound irrigation)
  • Clean standing wrap/bandage quilt with polo wrap
  • Triple antibiotic ointment (Neosporin)
  • Pocket knife
  • A whistle and/or cell phone (if riding alone)

If you ride in an area where there are rattlesnakes, you may be encountered with a snakebite to your horses nose/face.  Swelling of the face occurs quickly and can be life threatening.  You will be better prepared if you have two pieces of garden hose that are approximately 6-8” in length in your first aid kit.  These can be inserted into your horse’s nostrils to hold the nasal passages open until you can get your horse to a veterinarian.

Many of us have heard the saying “dilution is the solution to pollution”.  Cleaning and protecting the wound are the most important first steps and can be accomplished while on the trail if you’ve packed your first aid kit.  First, use water (or sterile saline) to clean the wound and remove debris.  Then apply triple antibiotic ointment to minimize bacterial invasion of the wound and further contamination.  For lower limb wounds, a standing wrap should then be applied. 

Some wounds can bleed significantly and controlling the bleeding is essential.  In these instances, cleaning the wound is NOT recommended.  Disposable diapers work well because they are absorbent and do not stick to wounds.  A pressure bandage can be as simple as a disposable diaper secured with a polo wrap in an emergency situation.

After stabilizing your injured horse, knowing when to call your veterinarian is your next step.  An owner can usually manage superficial scrapes and abrasions without veterinary assistance.  However, gaping lacerations that require suturing and any wound involving the eye, body cavity, or extend over joints and/or tendons (especially of the lower limbs) require immediate veterinary care.

Remember the size of a wound is not necessarily an indication of severity or prognosis for a good outcome.  When faced with an emergency situation, stay calm, implement your emergency plan then seek veterinary guidance and assistance.