Coping with a cast horse

  • If your horse is lying down and won’t get up, it is likely there is something wrong. A well horse that is lying down simply to have a rest will be able to stand up again by himself without difficulty, unless he is cast. A cast horse should be righted as quickly as possible because, if he is left lying down and unable to move for several hours, he will sustain muscle damage.

    Before you try to make the horse stand up, consider why he may have gone down:

    • Is the horse breathing? There is the awful possibility that the horse may be dead. If you are unsure, check to see if there is any response when you touch the eye. If the eye is responsive, then check the ABC (airway, breathing and circulation) and summon help.
    • Is there any obvious injury, particularly to one of the limbs, preventing the horse from standing? It can be difficult to spot a fractured limb tucked underneath the horse.
    • Is there any sign of disease such as colic or laminitis, which may make a horse reluctant to stand? Look to see if there are signs of the bedding being churned up. In such cases they will often get up with help and persuasion.
    • Could the horse be foaling?
    • Is the horse dull and non-responsive, suggesting some kind of brain damage? It could be that the horse has hit his head, although equine herpes infection is a possibility.
    • Is there a physical obstruction preventing the horse from rising? If so, you may need the vet or the animal rescue department of the fire brigade to help move the obstruction first, before trying to get the horse to its feet.
    • Has the horse been healthy? An important thing to consider is whether the horse was normal before he went down. For instance, if he was off his feed and had a high temperature, he may have an infection. If he was galloping across the field and then fell, it is more likely to be an accident. It sounds obvious when written down, but the sight of a horse down can be distressing, and owners aren’t always able to think clearly when it happens.

    Helping a cast horse stand

    If you are faced with a cast horse, you should immediately summon help. With luck, the horse will wriggle around and free himself before assistance arrives.

    When moving a horse that is down, take care that neither he nor you gets hurt. Old, arthritic horses or ponies may go down and then be too stiff and sore to stand, yet if they are rolled over, they can often stagger to their feet.

    Remember that even a horse you know well can be unpredictable when trapped or distressed. A cast horse can seem deceptively subdued, and then panic and struggle dangerously, regardless of anyone in the way. You must always be very careful to avoid injury.

    The simplest way to get a cast horse away from an obstruction such as a wall is to pull on the mane just enough to get the head and front legs away from the wall. You may only need to move the horse a short way before it can stand by itself. Ideally, put a towel under the horse’s head to protect the underlying eye, and take care to stand behind the horse’s back to avoid being kicked.

    If this cannot be done, an alternative option is to use lunge lines or long ropes, and loop these over the foot just above or below the fetlock on the lower limb nearest the wall. It is safest to do this by leaning over the horse’s body – avoid getting within kicking range of his feet.

    Simply pulling his forelimbs round with a rope may permit a horse to right itself, but sometimes both back and front legs have to be pulled over to move the horse away from the wall. Stand well back and allow the horse to get up on his own. Then, reassuring the horse to keep him calm, carefully remove the ropes.

    Once the horse is up: Check carefully for injuries, and continue to keep an eye on the horse for a couple of hours afterwards, in case he has colic. Always remember that he may have an injury on the underside that prevented him from rising by himself, so check for signs of any problems that may be invisible when the horse is turned over or stands up.

    If a horse has a tendency to become cast on a regular basis, it may be better to keep him in a larger stable and/or put an anti-cast roller on him. Banking the bedding up around the walls of the horse’s box may also reduce the chance of him being cast.

  • This first aid feature was first published in HORSE magazine (December ’04)


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