First Aid and the First Aid Kit

Being prepared is the first step in handling any emergency. Knowing what to do in common medical emergencies that you might face with your horse will give you confidence to deal with them, so have that "what if" conversation with your veterinarian ahead of time and develop a plan. Your veterinarian may be able to supply you with some good resources to read or direct you to credible websites on the Internet. Some clinics may actually provide first aid training for their clients. In fact, many of the basic principles that we learn about in human first aid are applicable to the equine patient too.  

What is First Aid?

St. John Ambulance describes first aid as the emergency help given to an injured or suddenly ill person using readily available materials. Its goals are to preserve life, prevent the injury or illness from becoming worse and to promote recovery.*

The earlier that medical attention occurs, usually the better the response – and outcome. First aid can effectively treat minor injuries and, for more serious injuries, it provides support until your veterinarian arrives.

When we consider the horse as the patient, the goals of first aid remain the same. However the goals of the horse are likely to differ. At the best of times, horses can be unpredictable. They have a strong "fight or flight" reflex, which can be very strong in an emergency situation and accentuated if the horse is in pain.

Equine first aid requires providing the care without putting you or others - the first aiders - at risk. Play it safe. In some cases, you may only be able to help prevent further injury while waiting for help to arrive. Make the environment safe by removing objects that could result in further injury. Consider confining the patient to a smaller area if it is possible to do so. Sometimes having a "horse-buddy" within sight of the equine patient will help to keep it calmer.

The First Aid Kit

Commercially prepared first aid kits for the equine are available and can be purchased. Alternatively, you may choose to build your own, following the advice of your veterinarian. The kit can be as large as you care to make it but obviously it should remain easily portable. Or you can build a larger kit for at home use, and a smaller one suitable for travel. The ideal kit will make use of a container that is both waterproof and sealable to keep dirt and dust out. One with a handle or handles for carrying it easily is a good idea. One example is the plastic tub, which is readily available in retail stores. It comes in a variety of sizes and colours and is fitted with a lid.   

Regardless of the source of your kit, it is a good plan to periodically review its contents and read the labels. Ensure that expired products are replaced as necessary and that storage conditions are being met. For example, some products may require refrigeration. Become familiar with when and when not to use each product – talk to your veterinarian about this. When you use a product, avoid contaminating the remainder of it – again, your veterinarian will be able to advise you about the "how to’s" for each product.  

If you choose to build your own kit, your veterinarian will be able to suggest basic items that it should contain.  As a starter, here are some items to consider:

  • Name/phone number of veterinarian
  • Alcohol-based hand cleanser
  • Paper/pencil for record-keeping
  • Hemostats (forceps)
  • Thermometer
    • An increase above normal may indicate infection, and a subnormal temperature can occur in shock. The normal adult horse temperature is 99 to 101ºF [37.2 to 38.3ºC)
  • Stethoscope
    • Normal heart rate range:  28-40 beats per minute and respiratory rate range: 10-14 per minute
    • Also used to listen for intestinal sounds; ask your vet to show you how
  • Scissors
  • Large syringes (35cc, 60 cc) / 18 or 19 g sterile needles / (sterile) spray bottle
    • These are useful for irrigating wounds with sterile saline.  They provide the recommended amount of pressure that won’t cause further tissue injury
  • Sterile saline solution
    • This can be purchased or you can prepare it at home
  • "Horse friendly" (so that it doesn’t damage the tissue further) antiseptic scrub, as recommended by your veterinarian: e.g. "tamed" iodine (povidone-iodine) or chlorhexidine
  • Gauze squares
  • Sterile non-adherent dressing pads
  • Tape
  • Bandage material: self-adhesive, 4"; ‘stretchy’ gauze
  • Antibiotic ointments:  recommended for skin use, recommended for eye ("ophthalmic") use
  • Rubbing alcohol: to clean rubber stoppers of bottles before puncturing them with a sterile needle; skin cleaning before making an injection
  • Pail and clean towels
  • Wire-cutters
  • Flashlight
  • Fly repellent
  • Sterile gloves
  • Poultice materials
  • Other items as recommended or prescribed by your veterinarian. (examples:  pain and/or anti-inflammatory medication; injectable antibiotic)