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equine emergencies: preparation and neighbours

From: Valeria

Dear Jessica, I'm so excited, my horses are coming home at last! For almost twenty years that I've owned horses I have had to board them out, but now I have a place of my own. We have just put up our fences, and my husband is hanging the pasture gates tomorrow. My horses will come home next Monday. I am very happy but also very nervous, because now that they are coming to live with me I am starting to realize just how much I don't know.

We have tried to make our place as safe as possible, doing things that we have liked at boarding barns and things that you have recommended in your books and on HORSE-SENSE. But now that I'm going to be totally responsible for my own horses, I want to be sure that I am prepared in case a horse gets hurt or sick. I do know to call my vet! But what kind of things can you tell me about being ready for any potential problems? At all the barns where I boarded my horses all these years, there was always somebody there who took care of the problems, not that I didn't get called, and my vet too, but I usually got to the barn about the same time as the vet and the barn manager had already done the first-aid part of it. Now I'm going to be the person who does that, or else my husband is, or my neighbor. We don't have children.

I work away from home, and so does my husband, so the horses will be alone a lot of the time. My neighbor is a stay-at-home Mom, she likes horses and their field is right next to her house, and she is willing to keep an eye on them for me. The problem is that she hasn't had much experience with horses and doesn't know anything about looking after them or handling them, never mind helping them in an emergency. What can I tell her to look for, and what should she do if she notices anything wrong? I'm probably making too much of this but I feel overwhelmed right now.

Thank you so much! Valerie

Hi Valerie! Congratulations, it's wonderful that you're finally able to have your horses on your own property. And how very convenient to have a neighbour who is always at home AND is willing to keep an eye on your horses. Be very nice to this neighbour. ;-)

No matter how safe and wonderful your facilities are, you are almost certainly to have some kind of emergency to deal with, sooner or later. Cuts, kicks, colic, runny noses, swollen eyes - a lot of different problems can occur even when a couple of quiet, friendly horses share a large safe pasture.

A lot of emergencies can be "headed off" as long as the humans on the property (or the humans next door) know what to look for, and can recognize serious or potentially serious problems and make an appropriate, fast response. Calling the vet is, of course, correct. But even this isn't as simple as it seems. You probably have your vet's number memorized; you may even have your vet on speed-dial. ;-) But your neighbour doesn't. So here's one of the most basic ways to protect your horses: make large cards (laminate them if possible - even a piece of clear, adhesive shelf-lining material will do) and tape or pin them up near every telephone in your house and barn - and in your neighbour's house, too (give her enough cards so that she can have one by every telephone). On the cards, print or type your name and address, your home phone, your work phone, and your husband's work phone. Then print "VETERINARIAN" and your veterinarian's name and number or numbers - some vets have one number for appointments and another for emergencies. Then list at least one other veterinarian's name and number(s), so that there will be a back-up vet to call in case your own vet is unavailable.

Are you within reasonable driving distance of a major equine veterinary clinic, perhaps one associated with a university? If so, post that name and number as well.

At the bottom of the card, or on the back of the card, write clear directions to your farm from the vet clinic and from the nearest highway, using road numbers and names and giving compass directions ("turn North" and "turn South" are much more useful than "turn right" or "turn left" - and if you think there could be confusion, offer both, as in "turn North (right)" and "turn South (left)". Sometimes people come from another direction, or need to go an extra mile or two on a road because of local conditions (accident/roadblock/bridge out, etc.), but as long as they know that your farm is 3 miles north of Road X and five miles east of Road Z, they'll be able to find you from any direction. If there's an emergency, you don't want a vet to waste any time reaching your farm, and getting lost can add many minutes to a trip.

If you have "horsey" friends who live nearby, add their names and numbers to the list under "help while waiting for the vet".

Walk your neighbour through your place, and show her where your telephones are and - very important - where your first-aid kit is. Be sure that anyone who is likely to be called to help, from your husband to your best friend five miles away, also knows where the first-aid kit is.

Your first-aid kit doesn't have to be fancy. An ordinary plastic box with a snug-fitting lid will do. Put it somewhere obvious - near the barn phone, perhaps? - and use sticky tape to mark a big red cross on the lid. You can do a lot with scissors, saline solution, four-by-four gauze pads, and a few rolls of self-stick cotton gauze. Include a thermometer with a string and clip already attached to it - nobody should have to look for those items in an actual emergency. You can fill a trunk with first-aid materials, if you like - clippers, surgical scrub, sponges, various types of scissors, bandages, rolls of sheet cotton, adhesive tape, duct tape, and various medications and wound treatments are all available through any equine vet-supply catalogue. Your vet can help you decide what to put in your first-aid kit - give him a call. He won't mind. Vets are usually very happy to advise you on what you should put in your first-aid kit in case of emergency. They are usually much LESS happy if the emergency has already occurred with no first-aid kit in sight, and they have to tell you why you should have had a first-aid kit, and what you should have put in it.

Some things are better left OUT of first-aid kits: Peroxide, for instance. It can be tempting to pour hydrogen peroxide over a wound because of vague childhood memories of Grandma "cleaning" our own cuts and skinned knees, and because the bubbles make us feel that we're doing something useful. But don't do it - peroxide is harsh and destructive to injured tissues, and can damage the edges of a wound to the point where it becomes difficult or impossible to suture. Plain water is better than peroxide, but plain water applied to an open wound will sting and can cause the horse to jump around. Saline solution is the safest and least painful option, and will cause the least amount of inconvenience to the vet when he arrives on the scene.

Medications and ointments designed for various injuries are best left in the kit until the vet arrives, or at least until you've had a chance to talk with the vet. For one thing, many products will get in the way of the vet's initial diagnosis and possibly interfere with treatment as well. For another, some products meant for a specific sort of injury can cause MORE harm if used on another form of injury - eye ointments containing steroids, for instance, can cause enormous damage to an eye with a corneal injury. First Aid means just that - it's what you do FIRST, to keep the horse alive and in as good shape as possible until the vet arrives. If the horse is bleeding badly, use a pressure bandage to stop the bleeding if you can. If the horse is suffering from the sun and/or flies, get the horse into the shade. It's generally safe to use saline to clean out a wound to get a better look at it, but you may not even need to do this. If the vet is on his way and the wound is crusted and dirty, he'll want to clean it out anyway; if the vet is on his way and the wound is actively bleeding, it's probably reasonably clean - and your priority is to stop the bleeding.

You are lucky to have a willing neighbour, but remember that stay-at-home Moms are usually very busy women who are keeping up with stay-at-home small children. ;-) This limits the amount of time she can spend checking on, much less helping, your horses. If she's willing to glance into the pasture occasionally during the day, notice any really obvious problems, and call you and the vet, that's already a lot of help, and that may also be ALL the help you can reasonably expect from her, for practical reasons. She does have small children to watch, after all. Introduce her to your horses, show her what they look like and how they behave when they are normal and healthy. It's very hard to notice abnormal behaviour and appearance unless you are familiar with normal behaviour and appearance! Explain about rolling (some rolling is normal, constant rolling could mean colic, constant rolling and a sweaty horse almost certainly means colic), explain that a horse stamping at flies is normal but a horse biting at its own sides is not normal, explain that a swollen and/or closed eye is a reason to call the vet right away. If she's the kind of person who is likely to come out and feed your horses treats, show her how to do it safely (pieces of apple, not a whole apple, carrots cut into sticks, not chunks, use the flat of your hand, don't hold treats with your fingers, etc.) and explain that too many treats can make horses nippy and that you would prefer that she feed treats when you are there with her. You should also probably explain about colic, feed, and why grass clippings should never be fed to horses - it's better to explain this BEFORE it happens. Your neighbour isn't familiar with the intricacies of the equine digestive system, and it might seem very natural to her that since horses eat grass (true) it would be a good idea to dump grass clippings over the fence whenever she mows her lawn (NOT TRUE). As usual, prevention is much, much better than cure.

Also... Don't count on a huge amount of hands-on first-aid help from a neighbour who is kind and willing but unfamiliar with horses. People who aren't used to handling horses can find it scary, intimidating, and sometimes impossible to catch and halter a horse, let alone tie and medicate or bandage that horse. If your neighbour wants to learn about horses and is willing to spend time learning from you, that's great, but if not, encourage her to make full use of that telephone information card whenever she has ANY doubts about your horses' health and safety. Be sure that she understands that you would rather be called than not, that you would rather have your vet called than not, and that you would MUCH rather pay for a few unnecessary vet visits than NOT have the vet called out when needed. Don't make her feel that she needs to be chasing your injured horse around the field with a child tucked under each arm! A nervous, worried human in a hurry will be of more use on the telephone than in the pasture.

If she makes a mistake, calls the vet at the wrong time, or calls the wrong vet first, remember that she is doing this to HELP you, and that as she isn't a horse-person, she isn't going to be sure of herself. The first time you look after your neighbour's children for her, as you undoubtedly will at some point, you are going to experience all of those same doubts and worries and fears about "What's normal? Is this okay? Should I be worried? Should I call her? Should I call the doctor?" Your neighbour won't expect you to become a pediatrician or even an experienced Mom just because you're looking after her kids; don't expect her to become a vet or an experienced horse-owner just because she's keeping an eye on your horses. The more she learns, the better off your horses will be, but don't push the issue. Appreciate what she can do, and what she is willing to do - and who knows, she may eventually get bitten by the horse "bug" like the rest of us!

With any luck, your horses will be healthy and happy in their new home, and your first-aid kit and all of those laminated telephone cards will collect a lot of dust. You are wise to have them readily available in case they are needed, and I hope that you never need them at all!


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