'); return true;" onmousedown="changeImages('tab_home', 'images/tab_home-over.jpg'); return true;" onmouseup="changeImages('tab_home', 'images/tab_home-over.jpg'); return true;">  (616) 897-7877

Emergency Care

Most horse owners have had or will have to deal with a horse-related emergency at some point in time. This article is meant to provide information on basic care during an emergency situation. It is not in any way complete, nor does it in any way replace care by your veterinarian. Horse emergencies vary greatly, but some basic information is universal. It is always important to remember that horses are ‘flight-or-fight’ animals and are often very sensitive to your own level of stress and that the ability to remain calm and quiet will help both you and your horse during any emergency situation. Please also remember that your own safety should come first and that may mean that it is best to leave an unstable horse alone and simply wait until your vet arrives. It is crucial to have your veterinarian’s contact information as accessible as possible. We suggest you have one of Thornwood Equine’s magnets or business cards in an obvious location and that you program our number into your phone for easy access at home or on the trail. While waiting for the vet to arrive, find a quiet location sheltered from the sun, wind or rain that is free of any obstacles and on firm, flat footing. Write down any instructions your veterinarian gives over the phone so that you can be following them accurately while awaiting their arrival. It is important to remember that regular veterinary care, a safe environment and owner education are the best ways to prevent many emergencies from occurring or escalating. Knowing what is normal for your horse will also aid in identifying any problems. Also remember that your veterinarian is only a phone call away and that many minor health problems can be prevented from turning into emergencies by identifying and treating them early.


First Aid Kit

Below is a list of supplies that may come in handy in any emergency situation. Please contact Thornwood Equine if you have any questions on how to use the products mentioned. Many of them can be purchased through our office, online store, or your local pharmacy.

  • Stethoscope
  • Thermometer
  • Hoof Pick
  • Flash Light
  • Bandage Supplies
    • Leg wraps (quilts, polos) 
    • Gauze pads
    • Roll cotton
    • Brown gauze
    • Adhesive wrap
  • Scissors
  • Antiseptic solution
  • Eye wash
  • Latex gloves
  • Duct Tape




Basic Exam

The ability to do a basic physical exam is helpful in determining abnormalities and can be performed while waiting for your veterinarian to arrive. Practice on your healthy horse so that you know what is normal for him/her. The veterinarians at Thornwood Equine would be happy to show you how to do this or answer any questions you may have.
1)       Temperature- Rectal temperature can be taken with a digital or mercury thermometer. Normal for an adult horse is 99.5 to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
2)       Heart Rate- The heart can best be heard in the left armpit just behind the elbow. You may also be able to feel a pulse with arteries that course on either side of the fetlock or just under the jaw. Normal for an adult horse is 28 to 44 beats per minute.
3)       Respiratory Rate- You may watch the horse’s sides or nostrils for respiratory rate. The lungs can also be heard in the triangle created by the withers, elbow and point of hip. Normal for a resting, adult horse is 12 to 24 breaths per minute.
4)       Gut Sounds- Listen with a stethoscope to the 4 quadrants of a horse’s abdomen- the left and right upper and lower flank. Gurgling like a small dinosaur should be heard at least 3 times per minute. Few or no gut sounds are a sign of intestinal disease. Frequent or “hypermotile” sounds may also be a problem.
5)       Mucus Membrane Color- Be sure to note the color of your healthy horse’s gums, as individuals vary. Excessively pale, dark purple or red gums are a sign of disease.
6)       Capillary Refill Time- Gently press on the gums or a mare’s vulva. The tissue should blanch white and return to its normal color in less than 2 seconds.
7)       Skin Pliability- Gently pull at the skin on your horse’s neck and release. A well-hydrated horse’s skin will snap back into place. A horse with some degree of dehydration will have a small “tent” remaining where the skin was pinched.
8)       Attitude and Appetite- Horses, as herbivores and prey animals, should always be aware of their environment and eat well. Poor appetite and abnormal attitude are often some of the first signs of a problem.





The word “Colic” refers to any type of abdominal pain or discomfort. There are many causes of colic, including gas, obstruction, displacement, diarrhea, urinary problems and others. Signs of colic include:
  • Poor appetite
  • Rolling
  • Looking or biting at the sides
  • Stretching
  • Frequent urination or posturing to urinate
  • Lethargy or depression
  • Absence of manure
  • Others

If you suspect that your horse is colicky, remove feed from his presence and call your veterinarian. You may want to confine him/her to a stall or small paddock where you can monitor manure production and water consumption. While you are waiting for the veterinarian, quietly walk the horse for 5-15 minute periods to avoid rolling and encourage gut motility. Be ready to tell your veterinarian about the following information:

  • Recent changes in feed or routine
  • Medical information such as history of colic, deworming schedule, recent vaccination, pregnancy status, etc.
  • Heart rate and gut sounds
  • Quantity and consistency of manure produced in the last 24 hours
  • Do not give your horse any medications or home remedy without instruction by your veterinarian



Horses frequently get cuts and scrapes, but it is important to know which ones need veterinary attention. It is always prudent to call for your veterinarians opinion. The following are examples of cuts that need medical attention:
  • Wounds located over a joint or tendon
  • Puncture wounds
  • Wounds with excessive bleeding
  • Wounds with excessive heat or swelling
  • Any wound that is questionable
While waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, gently running a hose with cold water over the wound will clean the area and reduce inflammation. If the cut is bleeding excessively, place a sterile pad or clean towel over the wound and apply pressure with your hand or a bandage until the vet arrives. If your horse has been impaled with an object, it is usually best to leave it in place so that your veterinarian can see where it is located and what structures it involves and to avoid further blood loss or damage.


Eye Injuries

Eye injuries in horses are almost always an emergency. The equine eye has normal bacteria and fungus that inhabit the area and quickly cause infection when there is trauma. The following signs may indicate an injury to the eye:
  • Excessive tear production
  • Cloudy eye
  • Mucus discharge
  • Holding the eye closed
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Swelling around the eye or eyelids
  • Eyelid lacerations
Do not attempt to treat the eye yourself. Please call your veterinarian.

Sudden Lameness

The most common causes of lameness include hoof abscess, fracture, laminitis and tendon injuries. It is often difficult to tell the cause of lameness and so your veterinarian should be contacted immediately, especially if the lameness is severe. The horse should be kept calm and quiet and, if the horse is reluctant to walk on the limb, it is often best not to move them. While you are waiting, check for any heat, swelling or outward signs of injury.

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions may include facial swelling and hives, or raised areas where the hair stands up. Many horses react to insects, certain plants, new fly sprays or other chemicals that they come into contact with. Take note of any recent changes in your horse’s environment. Running cold water or holding an ice pack over the affected area may reduce swelling until your veterinarian arrives.


Choking in horses is usually the result of an obstruction in the esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. This often occurs in older horses and especially those that eat quickly. Signs of choke include:
  • Coughing and retching
  • Head and neck extension
  • Large amounts of nasal discharge, often including saliva and feed material
  • Excessive salivation
  • Sweating
While choking in horses does not usually prevent them from breathing, the feed material and saliva often enters the airway and can cause infection. The longer the obstruction remains in place, the more damage to the lining of the esophagus. While waiting for your veterinarian, remove feed from your horse’s reach. You may be able to feel the obstruction along the neck. Gently massage the area, but if resolution does not take place quickly, leave the area alone so additional damage is not done. Keep the horse quiet and attempt to keep their head low, which will aid in draining the feed and saliva out the mouth and nostrils and prevent it from entering the airways.


Fortunately, foaling emergencies are relatively uncommon. However, when there is a problem, it is usually serious. Mares often complete the active foaling process within minutes and if your mare does not appear to be making progress, call your veterinarian immediately. If the first tissue you see is not a yellow-white but red, this is an emergency. This is known as “red bag” and is a premature detachment of the placenta. At this point in time, the foal is not getting oxygen and it is imperative that the tissue be cut open and the foaling assisted without waiting for your veterinarian, though they should be contacted as soon as possible. It is also important to note that a normal foal will stand within 1 hour, nurse within 2 hours and the mare will pass the afterbirth within 3 hours. This is known as the “1, 2, 3 of foaling”. Call your veterinarian immediately if:
  • The foal is depressed or lethargic
  • The temperature is >102 or <98 degrees F
  • Increased or labored breathing
  • Straining to urinate or defecate
  • Signs of colic
  • Painful or swollen joints
  • Painful or swollen umbilicus
  • Diarrhea
Foals can be very fragile and their health status can change quickly. If you ever have questions about the health of your foal, it is always best to contact your veterinarian.