Dealing with the eight top equine emergencies

When to call the vet and what to do until he or she arrives

When a horse sustains a laceration to one of its lower limbs, the functional and cosmetic outcome is greatly improved with early veterinary intervention.

Most horse owners will at some time encounter an emergency. Recognizing a true veterinary emergency and knowing appropriate first aid care until the veterinarian arrives can substantially improve the equine patient’s outcome.

Colic is the most common cause for emergency calls. Colic is a broad term which describes abdominal pain or “pain in the belly.” Causes range from mild and inconsequential to life threatening or fatal. Since horses respond in a typical fashion to abdominal pain regardless of cause it can be very difficult to distinguish between a mild colic and a potentially fatal colic, especially in its early stages.

Signs of mild colic may include refusal to eat, pawing, flank watching, circling, kicking and/or biting at the abdomen, stretching and/or lying down. As the pain escalates the horse becomes obviously distressed, sweating, no longer standing, rolling, dog-sitting, and even thrashing violently. Due to its potentially life-threatening nature it is appropriate to handle all cases of colic seriously.

Upon notifying the veterinarian, encourage the colicky horse to remain standing, preferably walking. Walking the horse supports normal gut function and helps to keep it calm. Horses with severe colic can become violent so it may be necessary to stay well back. Always use caution.


Horses that are fine yesterday and “dead” lame today are another emergency and need immediate medical attention. Conditions that cause sudden lameness in horses range from a simple hoof abscess to major injuries such as fractures and tendon ruptures. Horses with laminitis/founder can also present suddenly lame, at times being reluctant to move at all. It is best not to move these animals too much until a further diagnosis and plan of action is formulated.


Acute injuries such as lacerations and puncture wounds benefit tremendously from early medical attention. At times there may be significant hemorrhage associated with these injuries and it will be necessary to apply direct pressure to the wound and a snug, dry bandage until veterinary help arrives. Open wounds and lacerations to the head and lower legs tend to be more time sensitive as their window for successful suturing and primary closure tends to be quite short. In general, wounds and lacerations should be kept clean and the horse kept quiet.

Injuries or abnormal conditions of the eye such as squinting, swelling or discharging require prompt attention in order to minimize secondary complications. The sooner the eye condition can be treated, the sooner it will be on its way to recovery and optimal visual acuity. Generally it will be advantageous to move the horse with an eye condition into a dark, quiet space until a veterinarian arrives. A warm compress with a small amount of lavender oil can be utilized to soothe the eye. The eye tends to be very reactive to injury and soothing this response can minimize the ill effects of inflammation.

Foaling complications

The events that occur around the birth of a foal are incredibly time sensitive. Dystocia/difficult birth, uterine prolapse and hemorrhage, and retained placenta fall within this category. These emergencies must be dealt with quickly and efficiently and at times efforts are directed at saving the lives of both the mare and foal.

A sick foal is always an emergency. Since the health of a neonatal foal, or a foal less than four weeks old, is precarious, early recognition of any sign of ill health in a foal could save its life. Any foal failing to nurse eagerly or behave normally is cause for immediate concern and veterinary attention. Place the mare and the foal in a quiet space and note the nature of the foal until the veterinarian arrives.

“Choke” is a term used to describe esophageal obstruction in horses. Esophageal obstruction arises when feedstuffs or foreign bodies become lodged in the horse’s esophagus and the horse can no longer follow through on swallowing. These horses will show obvious signs of distress. Common presentations may include anxiety, neck extension, retching/gagging, repeated attempts to swallow/gulp/cough, and will often have a greenish mucoid discharge from their mouth and nostrils. The quicker the choke is identified and relieved by a veterinarian the fewer, if any, complications result. When you suspect that your horse is choking keep it in a calm environment and remove all feed and water.

It is also important to recognize the horse that just “ain’t doing right.” Horses that go off their feed, separate themselves from their herd mates, or fail to interact with their environment may be struggling with an early illness and/or fever. Horse owners who familiarize themselves with the normal behaviour, demeanour, and habits of their horses better equip themselves to detect illness in its early stages. Detection of illness in its early stages plays a key role in a timely and successful outcome.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

Carol Shwetz Dvm's recent articles



Stories from our other publications