Most horse owners would be happy if they never had to call a veterinarian.   Nobody wants their horse to be sick or injured. But the truth is, at some point in life, most horses require some kind of medical attention, just like people do.  Whether it’s a dentist, an orthopedist, or an internist, sometimes the episodes of life require expert care.  As equine veterinarians, and horse lovers, if there’s a problem, my colleagues and I would rather be called in as early as possible, so that long-term problems might be alleviated and there are greater chances for positive outcomes. Remember that, it is always best to call a veterinarian early is you suspect something is wrong.

It’s important for you to be able to identify situations of concern with your horse and determine how quickly you need to seek a veterinarian’s help.

I classify the basic need for care in two ways:

  1. 1. Likely needs to be seen by a doctor but can wait until tomorrow
  2. 2. Needs to be seen immediately

For this discussion, I am going to focus on some of the Needs to Be Seen Immediately category.  With a little “horse homework” on the following information below, and by asking your veterinarian some follow-up questions, you should find it easier to classify your own situations.  

The Basic Systems

As we consider whether something constitutes an emergency or not, it is helpful to consider how the body’s systems work and what system is affected by the current issue.  Although this list is not totally comprehensive, it does provide guidance for a majority of truly emergent situations.

  1.     Skin or The Integumentary System

The skin is the largest organ of the body, but it’s rarely involved in true emergencies on its own.  Exceptions would be severe burns, or large lacerations (cuts) that expose considerable underlying tissues.  The skin itself ‘holds everything in’, so if skin is damaged, it’s possible that some other type of underlying tissue is protruding or exposed.  It’s not always pretty, but identification of this tissue can be important. Location of cuts or laceration can also help determine the level of concern.

Generally speaking wounds over the head region, neck and body can be more successfully and cosmetically managed, even if there were a delay before they were seen.


  However a  laceration over the abdomen with protrusion of a tube-like structure could mean a deep wound has penetrated the body wall, and a piece of intestine is herniated.   This is definitely an emergency.

If a skin wound has sticky yellow fluid leaking from the wound, it likely means a joint cavity, tendon sheath, or bursa has been penetrated.  


Because infection of any of these structures can represent a serious treatment challenge, this also is an emergency.

A stitch not always in time.

Getting skin wounds sutured immediately is not always the best thing to do.  If a wound is highly contaminated, even after cleansing, it may not heal well if sutured immediately. Some of these can be cleansed and bandaged overnight, and be seen electively the next day. A wound that appears to be mostly superficial, even if quite large, can often be cleaned and if applicable bandaged, and managed more completely the following day. However a wound near a joint or over a tendon sheath, that is leaking sticky, yellow fluid should receive early professional attention.

  1.      Musculoskeletal System

The musculoskeletal system provides form, support, stability, and movement to the body. It is made up of the bones of the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connective tissue that supports and binds tissues and organs together. If a horse is not putting any weight on a limb at all, it should probably be seen as an emergency.  It is common for horses to develop foot abscesses that are quite painful, and can make them not want to take any weight on a limb.  These are rarely a long term problem, but only a veterinarian is going to be able to determine if this is the cause of the lameness, and then treat it appropriately. The horse may also be suffering a broken bone, and this definitely needs proper diagnosis and treatment.

  1.      Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal tract consists of organs involved in food intake, digestion and excretion.

The major areas of concern here are the upper gastrointestinal system and the lower gastrointestinal system.  

For the upper gastrointestinal system, the most common problem is choke.  Choke is a condition in horses in which the esophagus is blocked in some way, usually by food material.  Although the horse may be able to breathe in many cases, it is unable to swallow and faces danger from dehydration.  Horses with choke salivate excessively and often have some of the food material present in both nostrils.  Choke is often self-limiting and may correct itself.  However, just like people who may unfortunately choke on food, it should be seen as an emergency and addressed as quickly as possible.

For the lower gastrointestinal system, the most common issues are abdominal pain or colic.  Colic occurs much more commonly than choke.  Horses with abdominal pain get up and down frequently in an attempt to find relief.  They often roll back and forth a lot.  Although many cases of colic result from an accumulation of gas without any repositioning of the intestine or colon, the careful horse owner will seek out a veterinarian to determine if any repositioning has occurred, as this is mandatory for a successful outcome.   

  1.      Cardiovascular System

The heart and circulatory system make up the cardiovascular system.  The heart works as a pump that pushes blood to the organs, tissues, and cells of your body. Blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to every cell and removes the carbon dioxide and waste products made by those cells. Blood is carried from the heart to the rest of the body through a complex network of arteries, arterioles, and capillaries. Probably the main emergency situation here is a laceration that causes arterial bleeding that cannot be controlled.  The pressure in arteries is much higher than in veins, and with some lacerated arteries the pulsation associated with each heartbeat can be seen.  Veins are under much lower pressure so pulsations do not occur with lacerated veins.  Because of the high pressure of the arterial system, bleeding is also quite copious.  These do represent emergency situations, and application of some type of counter pressure to slow the blood loss is important while awaiting veterinary attention.

  1.      Eyes

Considerable inflammation develops when horses injure an eye.  The end result of this excessive inflammation can be an eye with compromised vision.  Some horses also develop corneal ulcers that can have devastating effects on the eye.  If your horse has closed eyelids, guarding what is obviously a painful eye, this represents an emergency.

  1.      General Symptoms

A persistent change in a horse’s attitude and actions suggests something might be wrong.  Horses generally have great appetites, so if your horse has ‘gone off its feed,’ it warrants investigation.  Similarly a persistent fever of > 101 degrees F means you should seek veterinary attention.

That is a very basic list of biological systems and issues you may encounter with your horse.  Do some Googling on these subjects and look at images.  Ask your veterinarian questions.  With a little familiarity, you will be able to confidently identify basic issues and determine if one of these emergent situations appear.  Remember, that it is always better to be safe than sorry with the treatment of your horses.




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