What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Traumatic Incident Witnessed


On a number of occasions I have witnessed or treated horses that have sustained severe injuries from accidents: slipping on ice, hitting fences head-on, rearing and flipping over backwards, etc ... This list is long.

In many of these cases the injuries are immediately apparent. In others, the horse seems just fine afterwards. Often, there is an adrenaline rush associated with traumatic injury. Adrenaline causes horses to appear better off than they are. However, once a horse calms down they begin to reveal the true nature and extent of their injuries. The opposite of this can also hold true; Certain injuries are very painful at the time they occur but rapidly improve.

What the best course of action is if your horse was involved in a severe accident but seems ok immediately afterward? Call your vet immediately and tell them what happened. They may want to see your horse immediately or advise you to carefully monitor the horse over 1-2 days because some injuries take time to manifest.

For example, a horse that hits its head in an accident may appear normal initially, but worsen over the next 12 hours. Bleeding into the space around the brain causes pressure to form that begins to cause signs of brain dysfunction. "Compartment Syndrome" relates to swelling or bleeding in many locations, with the potential to cause pressure build-up on particular anatomy and cause worsening signs.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • Even if the horse seems normal, it is best to start the conversation.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
You also might be observing
Very Common
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your role


What To Do

When in doubt, assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), repeatedly, every few hours. Be sure to see the horse walk in circles to both directions, and pay attention to attitude and appetite.

The WHE takes into account multiple body systems so it is a good quick survey of the horse's general health. Share your findings and concerns with your vet, who may advise you to give the horse medication (or not, so that the signs of injury are not clouded by this treatment), or provide other advice. When in doubt about whether or not a horse is injured, rest them until they are evaluated by your vet.

What Not To Do

Do not assume that a horse is uninjured just because they look or act normal immediately after an accident.

your vet's role

Your vet starts with a basic physical exam. They assess the horse's general health and look for outward signs of injury. They may perform lameness and neurologic exams for further information about commonly injured body systems.

The need for any further diagnostics is usually determined by the findings from the initial evaluation.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Describe what happened.
  • When did this happen?
  • Does your horse walk and move freely, or have you noticed any lameness?
  • Can the horse bear weight on all the limbs and walk forward fairly normally?
  • Do you see any swelling or any other abnormality?
  • Do you think the horse's attitude and appetite are normal?
  • How long ago did you give the medication?
  • Have you given your horse any medication?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • What medication did you give, how much, and by what route?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

Very Common
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further reading & resources

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP