Stable first aid: the basics

12 July 2023 Written by Michael Sharkie

While equine veterinarians are best placed to look after any health issues a horse may have, some basic first aid knowledge by the stable staff and people who work with them day in, day out, can go a long way.

Dr Dave McKellar is used to early starts. As one of Australia’s leading equine veterinarians his phone is bound to ring before dawn once or twice a week.

Occasionally it is an urgent call for help, but more often than not it’s a minor ailment that needs expert advice before treatment is applied. When horses are stabled overnight and left to their own devices, it’s inevitable that one or two are going to find a little bit of mischief.

“They are inherently flight animals and they tend to overreact to perceived threats or surprises,” said McKellar.

“When you couple that behaviour with their natural physical power and bulk and then build in manmade constraints like stable boxes or fences, there is always the potential for an accident to happen.”

McKellar has been the long-time in-house vet for Lindsay Park, working for the Hayes family for over 20 years. Before that appointment he had worked for the great Bart Cummings, Melbourne Cup-winning trainers David Hall and Mike Moroney, and the revered Brian Mayfield-Smith.

When it comes to equine first aid, McKellar has attended to his fair share of mishaps.

“Most happen overnight or on the training track,” McKellar explained.

“If you think about the everyday training programs of most thoroughbreds, there are four areas where an accident might happen; in the box overnight, in the stripping shed or tie ups, on the training track or on the walker after their work.”

When stable staff arrive at any racing stable around Australia, their first task is to check the health and wellbeing of the horses in their boxes, taking note of specific factors that are key health indicators and reporting any abnormalities to stable managers.

Legs are checked for cuts or abrasions in case the animal has become cast overnight; essentially this is where the horse has lay down and found itself in a compromising position when trying to stand up, causing cuts, scratches or swelling.

“It’s a bit like first aid treatment for a human with the old RICE principle, except we leave out elevation because it’s basically physically impossible for a horse,” said McKellar.

“For any cuts or nicks or swelling on the legs, stable staff will clean the area with cold clean water then apply ice and then bandage the limb, taking care not to wrap any bandage too tightly as it can affect tendons and ligaments. The horse should be confined so movement is limited and if the issue isn’t serious vets usually attend later for an examination.”

Colic is another common ailment, and one that can be deadly if it is not correctly diagnosed and treated. Colic is related to an acute abdominal issue, often caused by impaction of the bowel, and if not diagnosed early enough it can lead to a twisted bowel or infection which requires emergency surgical intervention.

Horses with colic look uneasy and often paw the ground or turn their heads back towards their flanks, they lie down and roll, obviously trying to move and stretch the pain in their stomachs. Staff are taught to keep a close eye out for any of these behaviours.

“You really don’t want a horse that presents with colic to be lying down or rolling around, you want to keep them walking, just slow walking but constant movement,” said McKellar.

“Hydration is a big factor with colic, too. You want them drinking and encouraging them to do so can often lubricate the intestine and help any impaction to pass.”

Other small ailments include spiked temperatures and leftover feed, which are indicators of potential illness or low-grade viruses; pulled shoes can see nails prick the soft sole of the feet and cause lameness; and hook abscesses can be painful while they are encouraged to break out and burst.

More serious issues like deeper cuts when a horse lashes out in a tie-up or on a walker, or suspected fractures during track work require immediate veterinary attention and immobilisation – those first few minutes of care are critical for the long-term recovery of the animal.

Splint bandages are applied to the affected area and stable staff work to keep the horse as calm as possible which can be difficult given that innate want to run from fear or confrontation, with adrenalin flowing following a sudden unexpected incident, it can be a dangerous time for those working with the injured horse.

“What people can get wrong in those early moments is to administer pain relief like bute (phenylbutazone) because the natural pain response has a protective function,” said McKellar.

“Anti-inflammatory drugs or pain relief give a false sense of security. It’s really hard to see any animal in pain but we need that horse to understand that something isn’t right and to be as still as possible, we can provide care and try to calm it down until a vet can attend and treat the issue.”

While senior stable staff and stable managers are educated in immediate first aid, there is often no care in those first minutes of an injury like quiet composure and a good bedside manner, especially with a patient as big and powerful as a thoroughbred.