Equine First Aid for Owners

Almost nothing is scarier than finding your horse with an injury or illness and not knowing what to do. Assemble an equine first aid kit and have with you in the barn and on the road.

Important Observations

First, it's important to recognize normal physical exam findings:

  • Equine heart rate: 30-40 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate: 12-20 breaths per minute
  • Rectal temperature: 99.5–101.5 F
  • Capillary refill time (time for pink color to refill after pressing on gum): 2 seconds. It is also important to note membrane color (pink, pale, grey, yellow, purple, red)
  • Presence or absence of gut sounds

Other Important Observations

  • Urination/defecation – has it changed, or is it different than usual?
  • Fecal consistency and quantity
  • Food and water intake – is the horse eating and drinking more or less than usual?
  • Signs of distress, such as restlessness, pawing, circling, getting up and down, looking at abdomen, kicking at abdomen
  • Signs of depression and lethargy, such as having her head down, not aware of surroundings
  • Evidence of lameness
  • Respiratory distress and/or difficulty breathing
  • Bleeding or swelling
  • Nasal discharge
  • Ocular discharge and/or squinting

Stocking Your Emergency Kit

We recommend that all horse owners have these items in an emergency kit on hand for unexpected surprises.

  • Clean towels or rags
  • Diapers or maxi pads
  • Non-stick pads
  • 4 x 4 gauze
  • Clean quilt leg wraps or roll bandages
  • VetWrap and Elasticon
  • KY jelly (for dirty wounds)
  • Mild soap (Ivory)
  • Thermometer and stethoscope
  • Phenylbutazone (Bute) – powder, paste, or tablets
  • Banamine – paste or injectable
  • Sedation tools – IM or IV use
  • Veterinarian's phone numbers


Equine colic is a relatively normal condition in the digestive system, presenting with abdominal pain. Colic typically occurs with gastrointestinal pain but is occasionally seen with pneumonia and/or pleuritis, and in ovulating mares during their heat cycle.

Equine colic may be simple gas colic or stomach/intestinal ulcers or as serious as twisted or trapped bowel requiring surgery.

Clinical Signs of Colic

  • Change in urination/defecation
  • Change in fecal consistency and quantity
  • Decrease food and water intake
  • Signs of distress (restlessness, pawing, circling, getting up and down, looking at abdomen, kicking at abdomen)
  • Signs of depression, lethargy (head down, not aware of surroundings)
  • Physical exam findings may include:
  • Increased heart rate: >48 bpm
  • Increased respiratory rate: > 20 breaths/minute
  • Rectal temperature typically normal
  • Capillary refill time may be increased, gum color may be pale or dark in color
  • GI sounds may be increased or decreased

What to do?

  • If clinical signs and physical exam findings are relatively normal – remove feed and walk your horse for 15 minutes, then monitor over the next 30 minutes for changes – call your veterinarian if your horse worsens.
  • If clinical signs and physical exam findings are abnormal – call your veterinarian and walk your horse if possible
  • Your vet may ask you to give Banamine, a drug that acts to control pain, while you wait for him/her.

Eye Emergencies

Horses are prone to eye emergencies due to the prominent position of the eye in their heads, their flighty nature, and the normal bacteria and fungi of the tear film. Affected eyes can deteriorate quickly leading to blindness and eyeball removal.

Call your vet if the following symptoms are present in your horse's eye:

  • Swelling around the eye or of the eyelids
  • Excessive tearing or cloudy drainage present
  • Squinting/holding the eye closed, especially in sunlight
  • Red conjunctiva (tissue inside the eyelids)
  • Cloudy or blueish appearance to cornea

Wound/Laceration Care

When you find your horse with a wound or laceration, what should you do?

First, get another person to help you – injured horses may strike or kick. Move the horse to a stall or quiet well-lit area, apply pressure to the wound stop bleeding.

Assess the wound, and call your vet if:

  • Excessive bleeding is present that doesn't stop with pressure
  • A deep puncture wound is present
  • If the skin is completely torn/sliced through, especially if underlying bone or tendons are visible
  • The wound is over a joint
  • The wound is very dirty, or contains pieces of wood or debris
  • Your horse is very lame
  • Your horse appears to be in shock or unresponsive
  • If you are unsure of the severity of the wound
  • If your horse will not remain calm for you to examine and is endangering you

For minor abrasions you should gently clean the wound and surrounding leg with soap or disinfectant and warm water.  For lower leg wounds, a bandage should be placed to keep the area clean. 

Additional points:

  • If your horse presents with a nail in the foot it is best if you can avoid pulling it until your vet arrives – he/she can x-ray the foot and determine what structures the nail is in.
  • Your vet will booster your horse's tetanus if the wound warrants it and it has been greater than 6 months since the last tetanus booster.
  • Following your vet's recommendations regarding bandaging and stall rest will help your horse heal faster.
  • Over-scrubbing of wounds after the first day will slow healing by removing normal granulation tissue.

When to Call Your Veterinarian

  • Any time an eye is involved (tearing, swelling, lacerations, cloudiness, or squinting).
  • If your horse is acting colicky.
  • If your horse is having difficulty breathing.
  • If a laceration (cut) is over a joint or tendon, if bone is exposed, if stitches are needed, or if the bleeding won't stop.
  • If your horse becomes depressed or lethargic, stops eating, or has a high (>102 F) temperature.

Most importantly, when in doubt – call your vet.