Rope burns can be serious and difficult to treat

Ropes in their various guises are common in the horse world. Although they may differ in length, size and makeup, they all serve to connect people to horses or horses to stationary objects. As a result of this and due to their unforgiving nature, a good working knowledge of ropes is imperative to the safety of both horses and people.

Whenever horses, people or at times both become entangled with a rope(s), burns are a likely mishap. The friction created by the rope as it runs across the skin heats the tissue, causing a burn injury that can be very serious, painful and difficult to treat.

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Rope burns frequently occur in locations where the body flexes such as pasterns, knees, flanks, hocks and under the tail head. The pastern is commonly afflicted and can be problematic to heal because of its tenderness and flexibility.

Unlike an open bleeding wound which demands immediate attention, rope burns tend to be more subtle showing very little apparent damage to the tissues initially. As such their seriousness is often overlooked. Rope burns seldom bleed. Bleeding would be an indication to summon a veterinarian. These injuries cannot be sutured. Consequently they are managed as open wounds. Rope burns seep and weep fluid. Weeping is an indication of tissue injury, as well as a means of healing for often fibres from the rope become embedded in the tissue and must ‘fester’ out like splinters for complete healing.

Pain and lameness will be readily apparent. Even mild rope burns tend to be quite painful for the horse. Any person who has experienced a rope burn can readily attest to its stinging discomfort. Individual assessment of the injury will be necessary to evaluate involvement of deeper tissues such as muscles, bones, tendons, tendon sheaths and joints.

Keeping a rope burn clean is important. It is the most important element in healing any wound, and rope burns in particular. They are often incredibly painful and cleaning them can intensify the pain, so restraint or sedation may be necessary to attend these wounds. Gentle rinsing with cold water brings welcome relief, cleaning and soothing the wound.

While healing, the wound benefits from daily hydrotherapy. Aloe vera or Derma-gel are good choices as initial healing salves. It may be necessary to cover the wound to keep it from crusting over and painfully breaking open as the horse walks. The benefits to bandaging the wound are cleanliness, fly control, improved healing and reduced scar formation.

Many burns stubbornly form a scaly crust as they heal, leaving a raised, hairless scar. Keeping the skin moisturized for months with soothing ointments containing lanolin, vitamins A and D or aloe vera serves to minimize scarring.

At times infection may complicate a rope burn. Horses with an infection become very lame with marked swelling and foul discharge at the injury site. They may also develop a fever, become lethargic and lack appetite.

Scarring from deep rope burns can impede blood circulation distal to the injury site, temporarily causing the limb to swell until collateral circulation becomes established.

Keeping the skin pliable and soft at the injury site while encouraging movement can minimize the effects of superficial and deep wound scarring. These wounds can take up to two years to strengthen, remodel and mature, so patience is valued.

Rope burns are best given immediate first aid treatment. Proper treatment greatly reduces the chances of their complications, ensuring a favourable cosmetic outcome and return to function.

About the author

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

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