Horses can suffer from all sorts of wounds. But do you know how best to treat them? Professor Deborah Archer examines some commonly held wound care myths
Myth 1: the bigger the wound, the worse it is
Some wounds can look horrific. A large wound that only involves the skin, however, is often less troublesome. While it will need veterinary treatment, it is unlikely to be life threatening.
But small wounds, such as puncture wounds where a thorn has penetrated the knee, for example, can sometimes be extremely serious — especially if the puncture enters a joint or tendon sheath. Infection can soon develop in these structures unless surgery to flush out the area is performed as soon as possible.
Myth 2: powders and sprays are best for wounds
While an array of lotions and potions is available for wounds, in many instances these are not necessary.
These products can actually delay healing if applied to the delicate tissues deep below the skin and can make it difficult for a vet to assess how severe the wound is.
Superficial scrapes and grazes will heal nicely in horses in the same way they do in humans, if cleaned with warm water and kept dry and protected. There’s no need to cover them in wound powder or blue spray.
If a horse injures himself, stop any bleeding by applying a sterile wound dressing over the area and keeping pressure over the site. Alternatively, use any piece of clean, dry material such as a tea towel to stem the flow.
If bleeding persists, or if a horse has a wound that makes him severely lame, contact a vet immediately.
Once the bleeding stops, wash your hands and use cotton wool soaked in clean warm water to remove any dirt and dried blood from the area. Make a note of the wound location and how long, wide and deep it is, and look for any other wounds that might not immediately be obvious.
Grazes and small wounds with edges that do not separate should heal quickly if kept clean and dry.
If any of the following apply, contact a vet for advice:
➤ The wound is associated with lameness or is near a joint
➤ It is deeper than 1-2cm
➤ It is located anywhere around the eyes, nostrils or lips
➤ The horse is distressed or showing any other unusual signs
Myth 3: a wound should always be stitched
Stitching may sometimes be necessary and can allow a wound to heal much quicker than had it been left to its own devices.
But sometimes there may not be enough skin left to allow the wound to be stitched, as in the case of wounds caused by barbed wire or those at the hock or knee or below.
In addition, if the wound is more than around 6-8hr old and has been contaminated with dirt, infection at the site will have already started. Stitching these wounds may result in holding infection in, which will delay healing.
Another outcome is that the wound simply fails to seal, wasting the time and expense of stitching it in the first place. Your vet will determine if a wound can and should be stitched, based on these factors.
Myth 4: a nail in the foot is no big deal
There are many important structures within a horse’s foot and any object that punctures this area can have potentially serious consequences. The golden rule is to pick up any nails or plaiting needles that you see lying around the yard to prevent a horse from standing on them.
If you do find that a horse has an object stuck in his foot and is holding the leg in the air, do not make him move. This can drive the object further in, exacerbating the problem.
Ask someone to hold the horse while you remove whatever is stuck in the foot, making a note of where and in which direction the object entered and how far it penetrated (make a mark on the removed object using a marker pen to indicate how deep the object went into the foot). Then contact a vet immediately for advice.
If an object is stuck deeply within the foot and will not be driven in further if the horse stands on it, leave it in place until the vet arrives. This can help the vet determine how serious the injury is likely to be when he removes the object.
It is important that you know whether the horse is up to date with his tetanus vaccinations. The toxins responsible for this killer disease live in soil, so a foot puncture is an ideal way for the bacteria to enter the horse’s system.
Myth 5: cold tea makes a good eye wash
This is a common myth — cold tea should not be used as an eyewash.
A horse’s eyes ideally should only be bathed with commercial eye products designed not to damage the delicate tissues or allow any harmful bacteria to enter.
In an emergency, boiled water that has been allowed to cool can be used with cotton wool to wipe away any discharge.
Eye medications left lying around the yard after previous use on another horse, or human eye medications that can be purchased over the counter, must never be used. These could make the situation much worse and delay the start of correct treatment administered by a vet.
Contact your vet immediately if a horse is unable to open an eye or is holding it partially closed, or if the eye looks a strange colour.
Failure to initiate treatment with appropriate medication can make the condition deteriorate. Small eye ulcers, for example, can be treated quickly with the correct medication, but will worsen rapidly if left untreated. Infection or inflammation within the eye that becomes out of control could result in loss of the eye.