Livestock production: Being on top of a horse emergency

Question: I need an action plan for dealing with emergencies with my horses. Can you help?

Having an action plan for emergencies helps to avoid blind panic. Everyone involved with horse care should be familiar with the relevant steps.

Emergencies such as wounds, colic and foaling problems can happen at any time – night or day. In fact, they usually occur late at night, on weekends!

To prevent panic when these emergencies occur, the following guidelines are recommended:

  • Keep your vet’s number next to every phone, including after-hours emergency phone numbers.
  • Post a list of telephone numbers of nearby neighbours who can assist you in an emergency.
  • Consult your regular vet regarding back up, or an alternative vet to contact in case your regular vet is unavailable.
  • Know how to check your horse’s vital signs (temperature, pulse and breathing rate, colour etc.).
  • Always tell your vet about the horse’s vital signs as well as any treatments given.
  • Write down any treatments given as well as the time they were given.
  • Also write down any instructions for further treatment prescribed by the vet. It is useful to keep a “treatment book” for this purpose.
  • Always have a powerful torch available. It’s amazing how often these emergencies occur at night!
  • Know in advance the most direct route to an equine veterinary hospital in case you need to transport the horse there.
  • If you don’t own a horse box or truck, always have the phone number of somebody who does.


  • Keep a horse-specific first aid kit and store it in a clean, dry, easily accessible place.
  • Make sure that all staff members know where the kit is kept.
  • An ordinary human medical kit is hopelessly inadequate for any horse emergency.
  • Consult your vet about what you should keep in your emergency kit.
  • Keep a portable first aid kit in your horsebox or towing vehicle. Never be without one.
  • Have additional protective gear, such as leg and tail bandages, available to avoid injury during transport.
  • Practise the steps to be taken in case of an emergency to ensure that all staff members are aware of their roles.
  • Don’t panic! Panic only serves to stress you and your horse unnecessarily.
  • Be prepared, and stay calm.


Memorise the following normal vital signs for adult horses so you know what to tell your vet in an emergency:

  • Temperature: 37.5˚C to 38.5˚C
  • Pulse/heart rate: 28 beats/minute to 40 beats/minute
  • Respiratory rate: 8 breaths/minute to 20 breaths/minute
  • Capillary refill time: Press the gum with your finger. The time it takes for pink colour to return should be less than 2 seconds.
  • Mucous membranes: The gums and conjunctiva (around the eyes) should be pink and moist.
  • Skin elasticity: Count how long skin takes to return to normal after being pinched at the point of the shoulder. This
  • gives an indication of dehydration. It normally takes 1 to 2 seconds.
  • Listen to the stomach region for the normal rumbling, splashing and bubbling sounds. Lack of gut sounds can be a bad sign.

Normal parameters in young foals:

  • Temperature: 38˚C to 39˚C
  • Pulse/ heart rate: 60 beats/minute to 110 beats/minute
  • Respiratory rate: 25 breaths/minute to 60 breaths/minute
  • Mucous membranes: Pink and moist
  • Capillary refill time: Less than 2 seconds
  • Skin elasticity: Skin returns to normal position immediately after being pinched.

Also read:
Livestock production: How to buy a horse
Livestock production: How to feed your horse

  • This article was written by Dr. Marc Walton and first appeared in Farming SA.

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