A well-equipped equine first-aid kit is a wise investment. Neil Clarkson, with help from Massey University equine veterinarian Margaret Leyland, gets a kit together.
For animals that display such remarkable athleticism, it’s amazing how accident-prone horses can be.
If a fence has a sharp piece of wire or nail sticking out, you can rely on your horse to find it.
Your equine friend may have a great turn of its speed, but it never seems fast enough to get out of the way of a well-aimed kick.
Out you go to get your horse for a relaxed ride, only to discover a nasty wound, swollen knee, puffy eye, or a haematoma the size of a grapefruit.
It’s up to each individual horse owner to ensure the paddock or stabling is as safe as it can be, but most horses will still manage to do some damage on a fairly regular basis.
That is why every horse owner needs a well-stocked first-aid kit.
All horse owners tend to gather a medicine chest full of various lotions and potions, from manuka honey to arnica cream. The chest is forever expanding, eventually getting to the point where you need a van just to carry the kit, let alone your horse and its gear.
It is essential to make the distinction between a medicine chest and first-aid kit.Its size means your kit eventually gets left behind and one day you find yourself away from home with a distressed horse in need of treatment, and precious little to treat the injuries with.
By all means have an industrial-size medicine chest, but don’t treat it as your first-aid kit. Your miscellaneous lotions and potions do not belong in a first-aid kit.
Look upon a first-aid kit as an emergency war chest. It needs to contain everything needed to stabilise an injured horse until a veterinarian arrives, or you can get the animal home for further attention.
At the other end of the scale, it also needs to have all the goodies you need to deal promptly with any minor scratches and abrasions, so you and your horse can move on. Nobody, after all, wants a small cut turning into a vet visit and a prescription for antibiotics.
Everything in the kit needs to earn its place. It needs to be portable enough that you can pick it up and put it in your float or vehicle every time you leave home with a horse.
You need to manage the kit to ensure that everything that should be in it stays in it. Imagine reaching for your kit away from home, only to discover the scissors are missing because you “borrowed” them for a job. You need to be sure that the contents don’t creep past their expiry date.
A well-focused kit also has the advantage of making it easier to find what you really need, instead of rummaging through a whole bunch of stuff that actually belongs in a medicine chest.
The quantities of dressings and other consumables in a kit are up to the judgment of each horse owner, depending on the number of horses and their accident record.
Owners should always budget their consumables on having to attend to more than one nasty wound at once, as tangles with fences and the like will often yield multiple injuries.
Remember that tetanus is an ever-present risk with cuts, particularly deeper puncture wounds, so ensure your horses are inoculated and have their booster shots.
What should your kit contain?
- A book on horse first aid. Nothing too encyclopaedic. There are no doubt several out there. We found one for $19.99.
- Two buckets.
- Betadine (100ml). It’s great for washing down wounds if watered down to look like weak tea. (A stronger solution will be less effective.)
- Silvazine, a good antibacterial ointment that won’t slow the healing process. Only the 50g tube is available without prescription. Avoid wound powder as wounds heal best in a moist environment.
- Bandaging material: It’s never fun to discover bandaging material binding with a wound – for you or your equine patient. If you’re bandaging over a wound, you need to use a contact layer first, so our kit will have Melolin dressings. The next layer would be a Soffban dressing, with the 10 to 15cm size (that’s the width of the bandage) most useful for equine wounds. Compression layers are built up using a layer of cotton wool compressed with cotton or paper bandage, or any cohesive bandage such as Vetrap. Elastoplast is useful to prevent shavings or other debris from going inside the bandage. Anything more elaborate than this should be seen by a vet and applied under their direction. We will also include stable bandages and gamgee to prevent lower limb swelling especially in uninjured limbs when box rest is required. Stable bandages can also be used as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to compression layers.So, to summarise the bandaging department, we’re including in the kit:
- Four 10cm by 10cm Melolin dressings.
- A new product called Bioband, which some vets are using in place of larger dressings. (The alternative would be two larger 10cm by 20cm Melolin dressings.)
- Two 10cm wide packets of Soffban.
- Two rolls of cotton wool.
- An assortment of stretch cotton bandages, Vetrap or other self-clinging wrap, stable bandages, and gamgee.
- A roll of strong medical adhesive tape.
- Elastoplast strapping
- Saline solution, and salt. Saline is great for flushing out a wound, and is far gentler on tissues than many products. You can make your own by adding one level teaspoon of plain table salt to 600ml of warm, clean water which has been boiled. We’ve included a good-sized bottle of saline in case you can’t get access to water.
- Two single-use containers of sterile saline solution for cleaning wounds in delicate places, particularly around the eyes
- A six-pack of latex examination gloves.
- Four disposable diapers. These can be used as “field dressings” with some success, holding a hock wound together and applying pressure until proper treatment can be organised.
- A clean towel.
- A pair of round-nosed scissors.
- Tweezers, for removing small splinters, debris, or other nasties. In some cases a vet may find it helpful to see the direction and depth of a bigger penetrating foreign body so that they can work out which structures might be involved. Ring your vet before tackling anything like pulling a nail from the sole of the horse’s foot.
- A hoofpick.
- A farrier’s buffer, hammer, nail puller or shoe puller. (Enough gear to get a shoe off properly).
- A small pair of wire cutters, for getting a horse out of wire.
- A small torch containing quality batteries (for long life).
- A card with emergency phone numbers – veterinarian, farrier, a friend with a horse float – anyone you know will help in an emergency.
- A typed inventory card so you can keep track of the contents, and what you use. It’s a good idea to list the expiry date of key products, so they can be replaced at the appropriate time.
- A watertight container to hold everything
- Duct tape-useful in any emergency. It’s water-resistant and durable. They used this in space to repair Apollo 13 so it’s a must for the first-aid kit.
- A small roll of strong twine.
- A halter and lead rope.Optional:
- A plastic digital rectal thermometer. This doesn’t really fall within the gambit of first-aid, but providing your horse’s temperature to a vet over the telephone may be useful in determining an early course of action – a raised temperature pointing to the likes of colic or a wound infection. Don’t get kicked using it!
- A stethoscope. Can be useful in suspected colic for monitoring gut sounds and heart rate – all useful information to give your vet over the phone before they get there.
- Vaseline: useful for preventing scalding below a discharging wound.
- A hoof knife.
Let’s go shopping
Armed with a final shopping list, it was time to spend some money.It took an afternoon to get everything in the kit together. In hindsight, I would have been better to spend 30 minutes on the telephone to find out which retailer had what.
For a start, it would have saved me 30km driving around three saddleries until I finally located a hoof knife.
The other thing to consider is where you buy your items. The medical supplies, for example, could be sourced from a pharmacy or a store attached to a vet’s surgery. Some of these items are also available at saddleries. A saddlery could be a source of the farrier’s gear, or you may even have a farrier supply store in your neighbourhood.
Some of those decisions may depend upon how far you have to travel, and the kind of relationship you have with your family pharmacist, saddlery store, or local veterinarian.
Canny shoppers will no doubt do better than I did by shopping around. They will save even more if they pick up the items as they are passing, as opposed to the 90km round trip I did.
The odd item I knew I could get cheaper elsewhere, but I couldn’t justify the time, mileage, or fuel to make a saving of a couple of dollars. You, too, will have to make those judgment calls.
First port of call on the way into town was a hardware store, where I intended to get the wire cutters. These will be invaluable if you have to cut a horse free from a fence. There are nippers on the market that will cut wire for around $10, but these tend to require good hand strength.
My sights were set on a small pair of dual-action bolt cutters, which can cut wire like butter and will suit women much better. The store stocked only a name-brand pair for $49.95, which was going to maul my budget only moments out of the starting blocks. I knew another hardware store was on my route and eventually snaffled a budget pair for $9.92.
I’ve opted for cheapie items several times. Quality items are great for regular use, but these things are being bought to live in the first-aid kit. If you’re lucky, you’ll never get to use the boltcutters. I applied the same principle to the optional hoof knife, which cost $8.95. It will do the job in an emergency. A quality knife will cost around $50. You can just about guarantee a good knife will get borrowed from the kit and never returned.
The wallet also came out at the hardware store for Duct tape ($10.96) and an LED torch and batteries ($14.49). LED torches are bright, provide long battery life, and the bulbs never need replacing.
Our regular pharmacist was the next port of call, and we made our first major dent in the list. A few minutes later we were out the door with Betadine antiseptic liquid ($14.99), Silvazine cream ($23), a large bottle of saline solution ($12.99), a six-pack of latex gloves ($2.50), a $10.99 packet of nappies (we only need four of them), two packets of cotton wool at $5.99 each, large splinter forceps ($8.99), round-nosed scissors ($3.99), our optional vaseline ($6.99), and two 30ml single-use containers of sterile saline for irrigating eyes ($5.90), wide Elastoplast strapping ($11.99), and an empty $3 plastic squirt bottle that may prove useful for irrigating a wound.
All up, that’s $117.31, but he kindly knocked it down to $105.59.
It was then off to a nearby saddlery and, minutes later, I was $193.35 poorer.
The big-budget items here were a shoe puller ($44.95), buffer ($19.95) and a farrier’s hammer ($14.95). The hoof pick was $1.95. No luck on the hoof knife, or a book on equine first aid.
A cob-sized halter cost $16.95 and a lead rope $7.95.
We also managed to pretty much wrap up the non-sterile bandaging, with a packet of veterinary gamgee ($34.95), three rolls of non-adhesive stable bandaging ($9.95 each), and three roles of cohesive (self-clinging) bandage (two packs at $7.95 and a narrower one at $5.95).
Later, at the supermarket, this was rounded out with three 75mm-wide crepe bandages ($2.35 each) and a narrower cloth adhesive tape ($3.99).
Next stop was a homeware store, where a big thirsty white towel cost $14.99 (it was discounted $10).
The hoof knife was proving a problem, so it was off to another saddlery. We struck out on the knife again, but found a book on equine first aid for $19.99.
A shop specialising in plastic products was next up, providing two plastic buckets ($1.29 each) and a 60-lite plastic container, complete with wheels, able to hold the entire contents of the kit ($24.99).
The hoof knife was finally ticked off the list at a third saddlery ($8.95), before the final call for the day: the local veterinary clinic.
Here, we found a plastic digital rectal thermometer ($18), two Soffban bandages at $5.50 each, and four Melolin gauze dressings for $1.60 each. In place of bigger gauze dressings, they were recommending a new product called Bioband ($16), which we added to the kit.
The clinic was out of stethoscopes, so I bought one on an online auction site for $15, plus $3.50 postage.
The plain table salt was snaffled from the kitchen, and a length of strong twine off an existing roll.
All up, the kit cost $451.38.
It all fits pretty neatly into the 60-litre container, and weighs in at 9.5kg.
It may not fit in a bum bag, but at least you have a comprehensive kit that can easily be loaded into the boot of your car, or the front of your float.
There are countless horse books with many different lists of what the authors consider essential in a first-aid kit. It’s possible you may review other kit recipes and add items you feel may be useful.
Remember to replace what you use, and check expiry dates on items. If you must “borrow” something from the kit, ensure it goes back, or you could well live to regret it during an emergency.
While specific brand names have been used for some items, there will naturally be perfectly good alternatives in the market. Just ensure you are substituting like for like.
Don’t forget to put it in your car or float during outings.
A good kit is not much use if the person using it doesn’t have the necessary first-aid skills. Brush up on your equine first-aid skills by reading a good book. You may have trouble tracking down an equine first-aid course to attend, but there are plenty that deal with another mammal – people.
Most of the basic principles and techniques can easily be transferred to an equine emergency.
Equine veterinarian Margaret Leyland says horse owners should not hesitate to contact their veterinarian in an emergency.
“We’re always willing to give advice on what to do,” she says. “And if squirting saline in the horse’s eyes, for example, is stressing it out, you may be best to wait for the vet to arrive with their trusty sedatives in order to do a thorough job without anyone getting hurt.”
As the numbers show, a good equine first-aid kit is a major investment. In reality, most horse owners will already have at least some of the required content. By drawing up a list of what’s missing, they should be able chip away at it as and when their budget allows.
The end result will be a first-aid kit that, one day, may be worth its weight in gold. The peace of mind it provides may prove just as valuable.
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in July 2007.