A Grooms Guide to First Aid at Competitions
One of the most exciting things you can do as a groom is to take a horse you have been looking after and see it perform to its best at a competition. It’s a buzz and it’s a big responsibility. I have seen you guys looking so proud – it’s a moment!
There is such a lot to of preparation required, so many things to remember to do and to bring, and so many places to be at certain times. Time to really showcase your skills and experience; oh and the chance for some cracking junk food at the show venue, too! All that being said, how would you cope if something went wrong with one of the horses in your care at a show? How prepared are you for a sick or injured horse? The dream outing can quickly turn into a nightmare if you aren’t up to speed with at least the basics. Former competition groom Kelly Wallace Horne gives us a grooms guide to first aid at competitions…
Prepare for the unexpected
Amongst everything else you need to load on the lorry, a first aid kit (both human and horsey) can be overlooked whilst you focus on the agenda for the day to make sure you have everything else you need. Most horse owners will keep human and horse first aid kits on the lorry permanently but you must ensure that you have everything YOU need for the horses in your care on the day, either in the main first aid kit or in a separate box. It is helpful to keep a list of contents and useful contacts attached to the inside of the lid of the box, such as your vet, a local horse transporter and insurance company etc. The horse first aid kit must be stocked and restocked regularly with items such as :
- Clean bowl
- A bright torch for inspecting wounds in poor light (and spare batteries!)
- Clean towel
- Large roll of cotton wool
- Round-ended curved scissors for trimming hair from wound edges
- Anti-bacterial scrub eg Hibiscrub
- Pack of sterile saline — very handy when on the move
- Ready-to-use poultice eg Animalintex
- Non-stick dressings eg Melolin
- Gamgee and large scissors for cutting it to size
- A selection of bandages including:
- Stretch cotton bandages
- Elastic self-adhesive bandages eg Vetrap,
- Tubular bandage eg Tubigrip
- A set of stable bandages
- A roll of electrical insulating tape 2cm wide
- A roll of black PVC tape or silver duct tape 7.5 or 10cm wide
- A gentian violet or antibiotic spray
- Petroleum jelly eg Vaseline
- Wound powder containing fly repellent
- Wound gel such as Dermagel, Intrasite Gel or Vetalintex
- Small pair of tweezers
- Paper and pencil
- A length of baler twine
- Rope halter
- Hoof pick
- Shoe removal kit ie buffer, hammer, pincers, pliers
- Wire cutters
- Cotton wool pads and buds
- Wound pads
- Sharp scissors
- A clean container for washing area
- Wound powder
- Ice packs (the sort you hit and they instantly freeze)
- Hoof pick
- Clean towels
- Epsom Salts
- Hoof Boot
- Latex Gloves
- Tea bags (not for you – read on! 😊)
Top Tip: Remember we recently discussed Understanding a Horses Vital Signs? It’s a very good idea to take a note of the travelling horses’ resting vital signs with you when you take the various horses off-site – it can prove invaluable information in the event of a medical emergency.
✓ Horse First Aid box: done! ✓
So now you have everything you need in a crisis in your horse first aid box, let’s look at just some of the possible incidents you may need to tackle whilst at a show…
Reactions to dust in temporary stabling and arenas – coughing/breathing affected
- laboured/heavy breathing
- general signs of distress
Action to take:
- take the horse into a well ventilated, clean, open area with a little dust as possible
- soaking the horse’s hay can be of benefit
- stabling on a low-dust bedding.
If the owner hasn’t noticed, tell them, if the problem persists a vet must be called and the horse attended to. If the horse is well enough it might be suggested you all go home, but never travel a horse who has developed such symptoms whilst at a venue without authority to do so.
As we discussed in our article A Basic Guide to Rugging Horses, overheating is a big threat to a horses health. Competing horses on hot days, also horses standing on hot lorries under the summer sun, and/or being over-rugged on a hot lorry are all risks. Unless you know the horse inside out. Getting the rugging right is, to a certain extent, trial and error, but remember it can get very hot in a lorry or trailer so what applies at home won’t necessarily apply to a horse in transport or even at the venue. The air flow in your temporary stable and the dust levels etc will all be different to what the horse is used to at home. A grooms experience really pays off here. If in doubt, ask the owner of the horse. Hopefully, things won’t progress to being an issue, but be vigilant for any of the following…
- a sudden increase in sweating
- rapid breathing rate
- nostrils flared
- rapid heart rate
- muscle tremors or cramps
Action to take:
- remove the horse from the hot environment and into a cool, well-ventilated area (depending on probable cause)
- take the horse into the shade (depending on probable cause)
- offer the horse water to drink
- wash the horse off with cool water and remove excess water with a sweat scrape
Immediately inform the owner and if the horse doesn’t improve and a vet will be required.
Azoturia/Rhabdomyolysis (A.K.A “tying up”)
Horses at shows can be more susceptible to tying up especially if they have a few days of reduced exercise followed by a day with intense exercise. When a horse ties up the waste products of exercise accumulate in the muscles and cause damage to them which is very painful. Signs range from stiffness of the hindlimbs through to being unable to walk. The muscles of the hindquarters may be hard and painful and you may see tremors and sweating. Of course, this is another instance where the owner and a vet need to be consulted.
If this happens, stop exercise immediately and keep the horse warm and quiet. Top Tip: It is useful to try and observe the horse urinating to see if the urine is discoloured red/brown from muscle damage. Of course, this is another instance where the owner and a vet need to be consulted.
The horse will need pain relief and rest, and the vet will offer to take a blood sample to assess the level of muscle damage. Some cases require intravenous fluid therapy.
Top Tip: During recovery cut out energy-rich feed and include electrolytes.
Cuts, Grazes and Puncture Wounds
Wounds are very common injuries and it is vital to be able to evaluate the severity of the cut. Always ensure both you and your horses are fully vaccinated against Tetanus, so there is not a panic over every tiny wound. Some wounds can be managed without veterinary assistance but some innocuous looking wounds near to joints or tendon sheaths can be the most dangerous, so if you are in any doubt as to the significance of a wound, it is best to contact the owner and a vet for advice.
- If you find your horse has a wound and will not place any weight on the limb, then call for help, do not move the horse in case there is a fracture underneath the wound.
- If the wound is bleeding heavily apply a dressing, then several layers of cotton wool or Gamgee and bandage as tightly as possible.
- In an emergency, tail or exercise bandages can be used, but always put plenty of padding underneath. For wounds in areas that can’t be bandaged, maintain firm hand pressure over the wound using clean padding until help arrives.
- If a foreign body is visible in the wound, leave it in place if at all possible. This will help the vet to evaluate the damage and it may be dangerous, to yourself and the horse, to remove it.
If your horse is not drinking and/or urinating but is bright, has a good appetite and is working well, then do not panic but try to increase the amount of fluid they are taking in.
- Top Tip: Offering one bucket with electrolytes, apple juice or cut apples alongside a bucket of plain fresh water can sometimes tempt them to drink.
- Otherwise soaking or at least wetting hay, keeping bucket feeds sloppy and if possible taking out for some in-hand grazing will all help.
- If they are not drinking and seem quiet or dull check their temperature and seek advice from the owner, and possibly a vet if advised by the owner, as they may have become dehydrated or be otherwise unwell.
- If they are drinking but not urinating you can try them in differing situations; Top Tip: some horses are more willing to urinate in a freshly bedded stable, others outside and others in the familiar environment of their trailer/lorry.
Dealing with Skin Allergies/Allergic Reactions
Horses can develop skin bumps due to a number of irritants and allergens, and it can be very difficult to identify the cause of a reaction. Possibilities can include feed/hay, inhaled substances, insect bites, shampoos or coat sprays, vaccines, heat and stress. The lumps can develop rapidly or slowly and can just be in one localised area of the horse’s body, or cover a wider area. Some horses appear unaffected by the skin reaction, but others can be very itchy or distressed.
It is always a worry that lumps may interfere with breathing, and a swollen nose/nostrils is a big concern. Skin lumps down the neck rarely cause breathing problems because horses have protective cartilage rings around the windpipe.
In the event of skin irritation think of any new substance the horse has recently been exposed to (e.g. new bedding, feed supplement, grooming spray etc) so you can remove and/or avoid it. Washing down with cool water can help soothe and reduce itchiness. The horse may require antihistamines or steroids to reduce the lumps and irritation, so don’t delay consulting a vet if the symptoms persist.
Developing a runny nose during the day
As unpleasant as it is, do inspect any discharge before cleaning the horse’s nose. Check your horse’s vital signs to make sure the runny nose is not a symptom of something much more serious and possibly contagious. Make a note of the colour, quantity and any unusual or unpleasant odour. Observe your horse’s behaviour – does he/she seem dull or lethargic? Are there any other symptoms accompanying it, such as laboured breathing, coughing, or skin irritation? If so it is important that you consult a vet.
If the horse’s nasal discharge is clear and watery, and he/she seems well otherwise, then it’s probably nothing to worry about. It is most likely a localized irritation in the nasal passages. Thick, foul-smelling discharge, blood or saliva and chewed food are not a good sign and it’s best to speak to the owner and, if directed, to a vet.
Choke is as the name suggests, and the most common cause is swallowing food which is either too dry or coarse (most often hay), or which swells rapidly once chewed so that when the horse swallows the food is slowed or stopped in its passage down the horse’s oesophagus. It is often seen in greedy, stressed, or excited horses that attempt to swallow hay or feed without chewing it properly. The most obvious signs are a discharge of saliva and feedstuff from the nose and/or mouth, lethargy and difficulty swallowing. When the choke first occurs some horses panic and make repeated unsuccessful efforts to swallow. Fortunately, in most cases, the saliva continually produced in his/her mouth acts as a lubricant to the obstruction, and it eventually completes its passage into the stomach. If in doubt call the owner and the vet. Vets can often assist with by administering a sedative or a spasmolytic injection to help relax the oesophagus, or by encouraging the obstruction through the oesophagus and into the stomach with the help of a stomach tube. If your horse shows signs of choke it is very important not to allow the horse to eat or drink anything further until the obstruction is cleared.
Good practices to help avoid choke include:
- Soaking feed
- Providing hay in a small holed hay net
- Avoiding feeding hard food until a horse is calm and settled
- Ensuring access to clean drinking water
- Cutting carrots and apples into finger-sized slithers and NOT allowing horses to munch whole carrots and apples
Minor eyelid swelling or a little watery or “mucoid” discharge can usually be treated out of your first aid box, but do ensure the horse’s eye is wide open and comfortable in full daylight first! These can result from all sorts of thing from an allergic reaction to a sting, getting something in his/her eye, trauma etc. It is very important to ascertain the cause so you know how to proceed – if in doubt call the owner and, when advised, a vet. If you suspect something minor, with the owner’s approval you could try bathing with cooled boiled water and cold compresses, including cold damp tea bags.
If the horse’s eye is very swollen, has considerable discharge or is closed then this should be examined by the vet. Eye problems can be very painful, so this may require sedation so the vet can fully assess the eyeball and surrounding tissue.
Top Tip: Horses with painful eyes often benefit from being in a low-light environment so if the stable cannot be made dark then a fly mask with duct tape over the affected side can help. However, this mustn’t be applied until you are advised to do so and the cause is 100% identified.
The best grooms are always right to be concerned about any colic – it is the number one killer of domesticated horses, according to a study by the Morris Animal Foundation. The term colic describes any abdominal pain, ranging from simple indigestion, which will often resolve by itself, to twisted gut, which could require surgery. Research has shown that around 10% of the horse population get colic on an annual basis. Stress, which is often heightened in a competition setting, can exacerbate digestive issues and provide the perfect storm for a colic incident.
- Pawing or scraping the ground
- Turning to look at the abdomen or flanks
- Restlessness – getting up and down, trying to roll
- Attempting to urinate frequently
- Increased pulse and high temperature
- Less in, less out – decreased appetite and fewer droppings
There are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of colic at a show:
- Stick to some familiar management routines at the competition venue to reduce anxiety in the horses in your care. Get into a routine which is familiar to them on every outing and stick to it
- Don’t make any feed or forage changes – if possible take your own usual hay and feed, and even pre-order familiar bedding!
- Don’t overload the horse with concentrated feed that needs a lot of concentrated chewing
- Keep treats like carrots, apples cut into finger-sized slithers.
If the worst happens and a horse in your care is showing any signs of colic, call the owner and a vet immediately. Even minor cases may not resolve spontaneously. While you are waiting, food should be removed, although the horse can have water. Painkillers, such as bute, should not be given except under veterinary advice. If the horse is manageable, quiet walking to help distract a horse and shift things along within the digestive system may be helpful, but never walk a horse until it is exhausted.
Despite the best management, the risk of colic can never be eliminated completely. However, with an understanding of potential causes, warning signs and preventative measures, you can greatly reduce your horse’s chances of suffering from it at a show.
This is a massive subject and we haven’t covered everything or gone into great depth, but hopefully, it will be another refresher for the more experienced of you and a useful start point for the more junior groom. Never be frightened to talk to a more senior competition groom about their “competition strategies” and have a nose in their first aid box, it’s an opportunity not to be missed!
Finally, don’ t forget to keep yourself safe at a competition! You want to look nice but do ensure you have the right gear yourself.
Top Tip: ENJOY! And, when the time is right, have the BIGGEST burger on the menu. Or you could go for the vegetarian option. 🙂
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