At some point your horse will no doubt experience a cut, wound or bruise.
Most commonly wounds occur on horse’s limbs and particularly on distal limbs (lower part of the leg) which can be especially difficult to manage as that area of a horse has poor circulation, limited joint movement and minimal soft tissue between the skin and bone.
In the majority of cases these wounds and injuries can be minor and will heal quickly on their own but it is important to know the difference between a minor cut or bruise versus an injury which needs immediate attention by you or your veterinarian. In almost all cases you should be cleaning a wound with disinfectant to ensure an infection cannot develop.
In this article we look at cuts and wounds often experienced by horses and how best to deal with them.
How do horses get cuts, wounds and bruises
Horses like to mess around in their pasture with other horses. This can sometimes lead to them kicking each other and developing a bruise or cut, scraping their skin on twigs or branches or even bumping into fence rails.
Sports horses who lead an active lifestyle can also develop cuts and bruises through exercise, such as 3-day eventing horses who regularly get cuts and bruises by brushing past static jumps on the cross country course.
With a basic first aid kit the vast majority of cuts and bruises can be treated quickly with little fuss, but in some severe cases professional attention is required.
Checking your horses hoofs and legs after riding is important to establish whether any injury has occurred, including checking for wounds and cuts.
Annual tetanus injection for horses
Every horse and pony should be given a vaccination with ‘tetanus toxoid’ - their ‘tetanus shot'. Following the initial two tetanus injections, administered 6-weeks apart, they should then be given an annual booster.
Tetanus is often a fatal disease which is caused by a spore-forming bacteria known as 'Clostridium tetani'. Tetanus is not a contagious condition but caused through a result of an infection caused by a puncture wound or cut to the horses skin. Tetanus itself is a toxic reaction which directly effects the nerve signals to the horses muscles.
A horse who has developed symptoms of tetanus will show signs of muscle stiffness, find it difficult to move and will struggle to eat due to locked-jaw issues. Severe cases can lead to painful muscles spasms or seizures and in most cases the horse will become seriously ill, often leading to euthanasia.
As the majority of tetanus cases in horses will develop between 4 and 21 days after the initial infection develops; it is of paramount importance to treat all cuts and wounds quickly and ensure your horse has received their regular booster.
So, we’ve looked at the importance of keeping your horse free from tetanus, now we’ll look at the differing types of wounds and some of the causes of cuts often seen within the equine community.
There are four categories of cuts a horse can experience:
1) A horse with a puncture wound
A puncture wound is the most common form of cut seen with horses and are generally caused by a foreign object creating a small tear or cut in the horses skin.
2) A horse with a laceration wound
These types of cuts generally have wounds with rough edges and can be quite traumatic. Most laceration cuts in horses can be treated by repairing the lacerated wound with staples or glue.
3) A horse with a incised (sliced) wound
Incised (or sliced) wounds will have sharp edges and are generally caused by a sharp object slicing a wound in the horses skin. As with lacerations, incised wounds will normally be treated using staples or glues.
4) An abrasive wound in a horse
Abrasive wounds are cuts to the horse skin which have not penetrated the skin and are relatively minor, often only requiring first-aid and minimal treatment.
Punctures, cuts and wounds to the horses hoof or foot
A horses hoof or foot is a complex structure which is subjected to extreme pressures. Due to their lifestyles, many horses at some stage in their life will experience a puncture to an area of their hooves.
Puncture wounds can occur anywhere on the body but are far more common in the limbs and areas of the hoof. A healthy horse has healthy hooves.
Punctures to a horses frog or sole are unfortunately relatively common, often caused by walking over sharp flints, pieces of glass, tree needles, splinters or accidentally misplacing shoe nails.
However minor, punctures to a horses hoof need immediate treatment. Simple cuts to a horses hoof, sole or frog will likely result in a level of bruising and in some cases a secondary infection in the tissues can occur which can lead to an abscess.
The most serious puncture to a horses hoof is normally towards the base of the hoof, in the sulcus area of the frog. These wounds can effect the navicular bursa and in rare cases the coffin joint itself. An infection in these areas can lead to further complications in the lower surface of the navicular bone and are potentially a life-threatening condition.
In the vast majority of puncture wounds in the hoof the horse will show signs of pain and lameness. If lameness is seen, normally one or two days after the wound has been caused, the horse will become more lame and the pain will worsen.
Treating a cut, wound or puncture to the horses hoof is normally straight forward; often visible when lifting the horses hoof. Once you can see the area of concern you should remove whatever has caused the puncture - whether a piece of glass, wire or a nail. This is only possible if you are confident that everything has been removed and that no damage has been done to the deeper structures of the hoof. If you are unable to remove the foreign object then immediately contact your vet. It is also worth noting exactly where the puncture has been found.
Once you are satisfied that you have removed the object, the sole and the hoof should be thoroughly cleaned with disinfectant and a poultice applied. Keep a close eye on how sound the horse is and if any signs of lameness occur then get medical advise. If the horses wound is found in the horses frog or towards the back of the hoof you should call the vet either way.
If an infection has developed in the hoof this will often need to be drained which involves cutting a hole in the sole of the hoof to allow any infected puss to drain, although a poultice can sometimes help drain the infection. In most cases a professional opinion is required. Where a hole has been cut your vet will likely use a ‘packing material’ designed to prevent further infection entering the hole.
X-rays and thermal imaging can be helpful in diagnosing and treating certain puncture wounds. If the infection has developed in the navicular bursa area then immediate surgery will likely be given and in some cases large areas of the hoof will be removed.
Laceration and incised wounds in horses
If your beloved horse has sustained a lacerated or incised cut the most important first-step to take is to stop the bleeding. Laceration wounds can vary in their severity with more severe wounds creating damage to the horses tissues, muscles, tendons or ligaments.
Barbed wire or sharp edges to fences can be a common cause of lacerated or incised wounds, as well as wounds caused by other horses through kicking each other.
It is likely that if your has developed a laceration that they will require medical attention by a vet who will likely test to check no severe damage has been caused, leading to further complications, lameness and pain for your horse. In bad cases surgery may also be required.
Abrasive cuts to horses
Just as if you have scratched yourself, horses will also at times cause abrasive scrapes, cuts and wounds to their skin. Abrasive cuts are minor cuts to the skin which break the skin but does not penetrate the skin and only effect the superficial layers of the skin.
In some cases badly fitting tack can lead to abrasive wounds or superficial hair loss and even lead to skin legions or dermatitis. In rare cases your horse may show signs of lameness and produce a clear or yellowish discharge from the wound.
A horse with a bruised sole
The sole of a horses hoof is extremely sensitive and rich in blood supply. They are full of nerves which connect to the horses pedal bone.
Bruised soles of a horse are one of the most common causes of equine lameness, whether the horse has shoes on or not.
A bruised sole will occasionally develop a hematoma (blood blister) which can create pain and lameness, and sometimes produce inflammation or swelling.
Most bruised soles are created through activity through an injury from a stone or foreign object. Poor fitted shoes and excessive work on hard ground surfaces can also develop sole bruising.
Treating a horse with a bruised sole requires a period of rest to aid their recovery. If shoes are fitted these will be removed and a poultice fitted to prevent further infection. Farriers are well placed to advise on how to treat a suspected bruised sole. It is common for them to fit pads to help the horse limit pressure on the hoof and aid the recovery process.
Just as a human can bruise any part of their body, so can a horse. Bruises are therefor not just limited to a horses sole and can occur anywhere. These are known as 'contusions' and are often self inflicted or caused by another horse. Contusions, normally created by a blunt object, will typically create pain, swelling, and potentially a loss of movement in the effected area. If you witnessed the injury it will be easy to manage but if you didn’t then some 'detective work’ needs to be done to establish where the injury has occurred.
Thermal imaging can be useful to help diagnose a contusion if you didn’t witness the injury. In most cases treating contusions with cold therapy methods will suffice however in some cases painkillers and anti inflammatory NSAID medications may be required.
The healing process of cuts and wounds
When a horse has experienced any form of cut, wound or abrasion their system goes through four main processes or phases of recovery, just as we do.
Understanding these four phases can be useful when understanding how to care for your horses wound or injury.
Hemostasis phase of the healing processClotting of the blood, or the ‘homeostasis phase’ of healing, is the first stage of wound recovery; where the blood flow is stopped (or limited) by the process of hemostasis which changes the blood from a liquid form to a less viscous (thicker) state. This phase of recovery happens immediately after the body detects blood is leaving the body and requires applying pressure to the wound.
Inflammatory phase of the healing processThe second phase of the system recovering from a wound is an inflammatory reaction which will often result in localised swelling. Inflammation begins immediately after the wound has occurred when the injured blood vessels leak and cause localised swelling.
The inflammatory response by the living system controls the bleeding and helps prevent infection. The fluid built up by this response allows the healing process to begin by directing white blood cells to the wound whilst removing damaged cells, pathogens or bacteria away from the wound.
In the equine industry this processes is often called “filling” and is widely seen in distal limbs (lower limbs). The inflammation seen is part of the natural healing process and is only problematic if it lasts several days or is excessive.
A common issue with stabled horses or horses who are travelling long distances is “stocked-up legs” or “filled-legs”. This is a visual indication of the inflammatory phase of healing in action and is caused by pooling of the lymph, a fluid containing white blood cells which circulate through the lymphatic system to fight infection. Swollen and filled legs will normally reduce after a period of exercise and can be supported with cold therapy techniques and tack such as magnetic bands.
Proliferative phase of the healing processThirdly, the rebuilding process of the wound will take place. This is known as the ‘proliferation phase’ and is where the structures of the skin or tissues are repaired and begin to rebuild. Within the proliferative stage of healing it is important to remember that to provide the optimum environment to heal the wound should be kept moist and hydrated and not be allowed to dry out. Bandages and dressings are designed to provide this humid environment which aids the wounds healing process.
Maturation phase of the healing processFinally the fourth stage of a wounds healing process is the ‘maturation phase’ where the wound fully closes and the cells used to help repair the wound are no longer required. A scab of a wound is the maturation phase of the healing process, as well as scar tissue.
Depending on the severity of the wound remodelling begins around 14-21 days after the initial injury and can continue for many months afterwards. In some more severe cases scar tissue can be permanent.
The various stages of wound recovery are complex and failure to progress through the four stages can result in chronic wounds which can result in disease, infections and long term lameness.
Natural treatments and therapies for equine cuts and wounds
The market for holistic approaches of care are increasing, but equally within the professional sports industry horses who are competing cannot be administered many medications or anti inflammatories. If a professional competing showjumping horse, polo pony, or barrel racing horse has experienced a cut or wound - many owners now look at a holistic approach and adopt natural methods and treatments to support their horses recovery.
Topical creams are available on the market; developed to support the natural healing process of any cut and often containing formulas using ingredients such as balsam of fir, linseed oil and fish oils. These creams can be placed directly on the wound and are designed to promote the healing process as well as limiting scarring.
Comfrey and Echinacea can be used topically as a compress to relieve bruising and soft tissue damage. Calendula and Tumeric are used to help reduce inflammation, control bleeding and sooth damaged skin. Tea tree oil is used as an antibacterial and anti fungal treatment. Aloe vera has shown to sooth, moisturise and aid the healing process and vitamin E is used an antioxidant to reduce scarring.
Natural and alternative therapies are also widely used to aid a horses wound recovery.
Acupuncture has shown to decrease pain levels at the site of the wound and increase the rate of circulation to aid a speedier recovery process. Acupuncture is also thought to boost the immune system which naturally helps fight infections.
Many horse owners use massage and physiotherapy to increase circulation and hyperbaric oxygen therapy is gathering pace within the equine community, designed to increase oxygen saturation in the bloodstream and body tissues which in turn enhances the healing process and reduces recovery time.
Advanced magnetic technology, such as EQU StreamZ magnetic bands, are also widely used to aid a horse wound recovery process. Naturally targeting inflammation the technology produces no thermal reaction (heat) in the horses body and as such is ideal for use on any horse going through a recovery process whether from a wound or from an injury. Advanced magnetism has shown to support the healing process in many horses around the world, such as with Eva the horse who experienced a serious laceration to her leg when getting caught in a wire fence.
In all recovery stages of a wound your horse will require rest. Providing a horse with adequate stabling and pasture and ensuring they are not too hot or cold, and dry, are key. You need your horse to feel safe and comfortable so they rest and recuperate.
As you can see, cuts and wounds within the equine community come in various types and severity levels. All wounds and cuts require immediate attention and without adequate management can develop into life threatening conditions.
Prompt action is key. Your vet (and farrier if involving the foot) are on hand to support with any cuts or wounds your horse may develop and in many cases applying basic first-aid will help.
Clean, protect, rest, recover.