One of the most shocking sights any horse owner can discover is a down horse in a barn or grazing area. A horse stuck on its side is a fairly sure sign of problems, especially when it cannot right itself. Horses don’t sleep standing, but they also rarely sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time. If your beloved equine companion is on one side for longer than this, try whistling and calling to them. If the horse seems lethargic and cannot stand, call the vet before proceeding. Many different things can cause a “down horse,” and only a few of them are treatable without a vet handy.
A Cast Horse
The best case scenario is a cast horse that has simply become wedged in a space where they cannot stand. A horse is cast whenever it can’t fully stretch its legs and support its weight to get out of the position. This often happens in the corners of a barn, but frozen ground, soft soil or loose sand can also prevent a horse from getting to its feet. If there’s no other sign of illness and injury, try righting the cast horse. Due to the potential for injury, let the vet know you plan to do this before you begin – and never do it alone unless absolutely necessary.
Take great care to ensure that the area is clear of objects that can potentially harm the animal or yourself. Speak soothingly to your equine friend and attempt to free any limbs that may be entangled or unable to move on their own. Remember that the horse is likely scared and unsure of how to respond. If it’s been on one side for too long, two or more hours, it may have developed sores that can make it even more irritable. If the first few attempts at righting fail, whether you have assistance or not, wait for the veterinarian. Additional attempts without vet assistance are only likely to add more stress.
Colic and Reflux
Much like infants, horses can get colic. The symptoms are often similar to that of humans with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and can worsen after a horse becomes prone. If you have just awoken to find your equine companion laid out on the ground, yet still breathing, colic may be the culprit. Dealing with colic overnight leaves a horse unable to sleep. The horse will likely have shown signs during the previous few days, including irritability, pawing and rolling.
Unlike with most humans, colic can easily kill horses. Don’t panic, but don’t hesitate to call a veterinarian and let them know you have a down horse with signs of colic. There are treatments that can help bring the horse back to health, but time is of the essence. A horse left on its side for three hours or more can develop internal injuries due to its own weight and nervous system, making this an especially trying period. Horses with ongoing gastroesophageal issues require special care and dedicated treatment.
Many veterinarians dread the down-horse call because it can be so difficult to diagnose. If the handler has no idea why a suddenly healthy animal has suddenly gone down and no idea how long it has been that way, the vet has little to work with for a diagnosis. Obvious injuries to the chest, lower extremities or head of the horse necessitate a fast response from a vet. These areas may appear swollen or inflamed.
The absence of obvious injuries means the vet must probe further for a cause. Most will attempt to find sensitive or sore spots on the creature that don’t show symptoms available to sight. Hairline fractures and other breakage can create warm spots beneath the skin that are telltale signs. In this type of case, the veterinarian will likely need assistance getting the horse into a sling for further diagnosis and to relieve stress on internal organs. Unfortunately, not all horses recover from injuries that leave them downed.
Disease and Other Causes
With no signs of injury and a negative result on reflux tests, the vet is likely to recommend a series of tests for illnesses and hereditary or genetic diseases and disorders. Unfortunately, these tests are exploratory and may take up to a week to see results.
In a worst-case scenario, a horse may have contracted West Nile virus or another disease that causes encephalitis. These types of disease are on the rise in North America, with climate change a possible culprit in their buildup. Time is not on your side with this type of disease or disorder. By the time a diagnosis is complete, it may be too late to save the horse through no fault of owner or veterinarian.
Because a down horse is such a major concern, it is always wise to contact a vet first whenever your equine companion refuses to rise after being called. Even if the horse only requires a simple righting, it’s best to get the veterinarian staff underway just to be certain. Your vet undoubtedly understands the importance of timeliness in this situation, and they will do all they can to save your beloved friend or workmate. Don’t panic, but understand that time is crucial whenever a horse is down.
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