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Common Equine Emergencies


What is colic, and what does it look like?

Colic is a general term used to describe abdominal discomfort in horses. Medical colic can be caused by a number of different things including but not limited to mild intestinal spasms, gas distension, an impaction, enteritis, or colitis. A more severe surgical colic can be caused by a strangulating lesion or a displacement. Every horse exhibits different signs, but the most common ones include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Flank watching (turning the head to look at the abdomen)
  • Pawing
  • Abdominal distension
  • Flehmening (curling the upper lip)
  • Laying down and/or rolling
  • Restless behavior
  • Decreased manure production
What should I do if my horse is colicking?

The first thing to do is to remove all feed and take your horse for a brisk 20 minute walk. If possible, take your horse’s temperature and heart rate. If the signs persist or worsen over 30-45 minutes, call your veterinarian for further assistance.

What should I do if my horse has diarrhea?

Diarrhea can vary from soft, semi-formed manure to liquid feces. It can be caused by a number of different things ranging from a change in diet to a potentially life-threatening infection. If you notice a chance in your horse’s manure consistency, check his or her temperature, appetite, water intake, and demeanor. If there is a fever, he or she is off feed, or if your horse is overtly uncomfortable, call your veterinarian immediately. Note if there have been any recent feed changes, recent deworming or vaccines, travel off the farm, or exposure to new horses. If your horse if bright, eating and drinking normally, does not have a fever, and the diarrhea is not continuous, then simply continue to monitor him or her for the next 12-24 hours. Isolation from other horses is always a good idea in case there is an infectious cause. If the diarrhea does not resolve, or if any of the aforementioned symptoms develop, call your veterinarian for further advice.

Esophageal Obstruction (“Choke”)

What is choke, and what does it look like?

If the esophagus is blocked by inadequately chewed feed, you will most often see your horse coughing, stretching out his or her head and neck, and acting very anxious. Your horse may even look like he or she is trying to vomit, although in reality horses are unable to vomit. The classic sign of choke is to find your horse with saliva and food material coming out of one or both nostrils.

What should I do if my horse is choking?

If you find your horse choking, call your veterinarian immediately. You will be instructed to remove all food and water from your horse’s reach. The goal is to relieve the choke as soon as possible. Once your veterinarian determines it’s a choke, he or she will sedate your horse and pass a stomach tube to resolve the obstruction. The most common complication of a choke episode is aspiration pneumonia, which can be extremely serious. A horse that experiences an episode of choke should have an oral exam to evaluate for potential dental problems and an endoscopic exam to identify potential problems in the throat or esophagus.


What classifies as a fever, and how can I tell if my horse has one?

If your horse seems depressed, has lost his or her appetite, or something just seems off, take his or her temperature. The normal temperature for a horse is between 98.5°F and 101.5°F. If you are not comfortable taking your horse’s temperature, ask your veterinarian to show you how to do so at your next appointment, since being able to report your horse’s temperature to your vet or other staff members over the phone is extremely helpful. These signs of illness can be early evidence of many different possible infectious diseases, so your veterinarian will probably ask if your horse has been traveling off the farm or if you have any other horses that have been sick recently. Fever is one of the most common signs of a viral respiratory infection such as influenza, EHV-1/4, or viral enteric infections such as Equine Corona virus.

What should I do if my horse has a fever?

If fever is accompanied by colic signs, diarrhea, or abnormal neurological signs, your horse should be examined that day. If your horse is simply lethargic and not acting quite right, your veterinarian may prescribe symptomatic treatment by phone and close monitoring for 24-48 hours, as well as quarantine.

Allergic Reactions

What is an allergic reaction, and how can I tell if my horse is having one?

Horses can have allergic reactions to many things in their environments including by not limited to dusts and molds in the barn, feed ingredients, insect sprays, insect bites, medications, and supplements. Allergic reactions can vary in severity from mild hives to full blown anaphylactic shock and respiratory distress.

What should I do if my horse is having an allergic reaction?

If you notice your horse has hives on his or her body but does not seem bothered by them and they do not involve the head or throatlatch area, this is most likely a very mild reaction, and treatment can be prescribed by your veterinarian over the phone. Most hives resolve on their own, although if you horse is itchy or uncomfortable, symptomatic treatment can be prescribed.

If your horse has any swelling of the eyelids, muzzle, or head, or if he or she is having difficulty breathing, this is a much more serious issue, and you should call your veterinarian immediately. Do not administer dexamethasone.

Increased Respiratory Effort

How can I tell if my horse is experiencing increased respiratory effort?

Flared nostrils, increased respiratory rate, and excessive movement of the thorax during breathing are common signs of respiratory difficulty in horses. If your horse has been galloping around the paddock or you’ve just finished a strenuous ride, then give your horse 10 minutes or so to cool down, and then re-evaluate his or her breathing. If you find your horse experiencing these symptoms without any apparent cause, however, count the number of breaths per minute so you can report that information to your veterinarian. 8-12 breaths per minute is a normal breathing rate. If it is above this range, your horse is experiencing increased respiratory effort.

What should I do if my horse is experiencing increased respiratory effort?

Move your horse to a well ventilated area. Check his or her temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate. Call your veterinarian and relay that information. He or she will give you further instructions.

Opthalmic (Eye) Emergencies

Eye injuries are always considered an emergency. Seemingly minor problems can rapidly develop into serious problems if not dealt with properly right away. If you notice any of the following signs, call your veterinarian immediately:

  • Eyelid swelling
  • Excessive tearing or other eye drainage
  • Squinting or holding eyelids closed
  • Cloudiness or a “blue haze”
  • Redness of any part of the eye
  • Laceration of the eyelid
  • Penetrating wound of the eye

The best way to observe your horse’s eye is with a light source like a pen light or a small flashlight. It is very easy to miss something in the eye without a direct light source. If your horse is uncooperative, do not force the issue. It is possibly to cause further injury with aggressive restraint, and some situations are better left for the veterinarian to assess. Often sedation and blocking the eyelids is necessary for full evaluation.

Common eye problems include blunt trauma, corneal abrasions or ulcers, and uveitis. An accurate diagnosis is imperative to instituting proper treatment. The treatment for uveitis (i.e. topical steriod medication) is absolutely not appropriate in the presence of a corneal ulcer. For this reason, never apply an ointment that contains a steroid into your horse’s eye without a veterinarian’s approval. A cold compress is helpful if there is significant swelling. Often, the veterinarian will recommend a dose of bute or banamine for anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects prior to his or her arriving at the farm.

Abnormal Neurological Signs

What are abnormal neurological signs my horse might show?

Abnormal neurological signs in horses include:

  • Frequent stumbling
  • Loss of balance
  • Lack of coordination
  • Inability to chew or swallow
  • Persistent droopy lip, eyelid, or ear
  • Depression, lack of response to normal stimulation
  • Compulsive circling, head pressing
  • Acute onset blindness
  • Fever or abnormal temperature
What should I do if my horse is showing abnormal neurological signs?

If you notice any of these signs or any other drastic changes in your horse’s behavior, call your veterinarian right away.

Most neurological diseases are not transmissible from horses to humans; however, we must always consider Rabies, which is transmissible to humans and is most often fatal. When your horse exhibits abnormal neurological signs, minimize contact with the affected horse, wear disposable gloves when handling said horse, and quarantine him or her from other horses until a definitive diagnosis is reached. Early intervention is important for collecting adequate samples for diagnosis as well as for implementing appropriate treatment. These horses are often a danger to themselves and their caretakers. Be extremely careful when working around a horse who is unbalanced and uncoordinated. In some cases, they can be managed at home, although referral to a specialty hospital for intensive supportive care is often recommended early since transportation can be difficult if not impossible as symptoms progress.

Common causes of neurological diseases in horses include:

  • EEE, WEE, and VEE (Eastern, Western, and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis)
  • West Nile Virus (WNV)
  • Neurologic Herpesvirus (EHV-1)
  • Equine Protozoal Myelitis (EPM)
  • Head or Spinal Cord Trauma
  • Wobbler’s Syndrome

Many of these diseases have very similar clinical signs and can only be definitely diagnosed with specialized tests. The neurological form of the herpesvirus (EHV-1) is the same virus that causes the common respiratory infection known as “Rhinopneumonitis,” but the vaccines are not protective for the neurological variant. This is why it is so important to quarantine new horses upon arrival to your farm. It is impossible to know which horses will develop respiratory illness and which infected horses will develop neurological disease.

Lacerations and Puncture Wounds

How can I tell if my horse has a serious laceration or puncture wound?

Small wounds on the body and head generally heal well on their own, but it is always a good idea to discuss specifics with your veterinarian. If your horse is in immediate distress (i.e. non-weight-bearing), there is active bleeding, or the wound is near a joint or a tendon sheath, call your veterinarian immediately. When you call your veterinarian, you should be able to accurately describe the location, size, and depth of the wound.

What should I do if my horse has a wound or laceration?

If the horse is in immediate distress, get him or her to a safe place if necessary and call your veterinarian immediately for further advice.

If there is active bleeding, apply a clean pressure bandage, or simply hold a clean towel or dressing over the wound and apply pressure to stop the bleeding. Do not remove the dressing if it becomes saturated; simply add more layers. Removing the initial dressing may remove a clot that has developed and allow further bleeding. Have a second person call the veterinarian while you are applying the bandage. If you are alone, control the bleeding first and then call for assistance. Remember that horses can lose approximately 10% of their blood volume before showing signs of shock. Since an average 1,100lb horse has approximately 11.4 gallons of blood, he can lose approximately 1.4 gallons before there is serious concern.

If the wound is near a joint or tendon sheath, call your veterinarian immediately for further advice. A wound that enters a joint or tendon sheath can result in a life-threatening infection. Prompt, aggressive treatment is necessary.

Sudden Onset Severe Lameness

Any rapid onset severe lameness (i.e. non-weight-bearing lameness or “toe-touching”) should be taken very seriously. It could be caused by a hoof abscess, a potentially catastrophic fracture, or anything in between. Hoof abscesses or sole bruising are the most common causes of unilateral limb sudden onset lameness. Examine your horse for any wounds, heat, or swelling in the affected limb. Check the foot especially well for a penetrating wound or a foreign body. Although it seems counter-intuitive, do not remove a foreign body from your horse’s foot. It is extremely helpful for your veterinarian to be able to see it in place and possibly even take an x-ray with the foreign body in place in order to determine exactly what structures of the foot may be involved. Your veterinarian can advise you on how to deal with the situation by phone prior to their arrival. If your horse has been shod in the past few days, it maybe as easy as a “close” or “hot” nail that needs to be removed. If the horse is willing to walk, get him or her to a safe place. If the horse is resistant or appears to be in distress, do not force him or her to move. Call your veterinarian immediately for further advice. Check your horse’s temperature before calling or administering any medications. The presence of a fever with acute onset lameness is a more significant concern, and medications like bute or banamine can control a fever. The veterinarian will determine the best course of action with the help of your accurate description of the situation.

Laminitis (“Founder”)

What is laminitis, and how can I tell if my horse might have it?

Laminitis or “founder” is a very painful condition involving the attachment of the coffin bone and hoof capsule that commonly presents as lameness in both front feet, or sometimes all four feet. Your horse may present these symptoms:

  • Reluctance to walk or walking very stiffly as if on eggshells
  • Frequent lying down
  • Constant shifting of weight
  • Rocking back or “sitting” on his or her hindquarters

These signs may be acute in onset or slower to develop. There are many possible causes and treatments of laminitis.

What should I do if I think my horse might have laminitis?

If your horse is exhibiting any of the signs described above, call your veterinarian immediately. Laminitis should be treated as urgently as possible, and it can only be determined by a full physical evaluation through history and bloodwork. Take the following steps until your horse is examined by a veterinarian:

  • Confine him or her to a stall with deep bedding.
  • Ice the affected feet.
  • Stop feeding grain and treats, including apples and carrots. Eliminate access to grass.
  • Feed only grass hay. If possible, soak the hay before feeding.
  • Do not administer any medications unless directed by your veterinarian.

Laminitis is a potentially life-threatening condition that should be taken very seriously from the outset. Prompt veterinary attention and cooperation with your farrier is essential to a positive outcome.

2014-04-first-aid-kitFirst Aid Kits

The New England Equine Surgical and Medical Center offers an excellent first aid kit, sold as a complete set at their clinic, located at 15 Members Way in Dover, New Hampshire.




Katy Raynor

Written by Katy Raynor, DVM, New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center. Katy can be reached at 603-749-9112 or


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