Five Steps to Snakebite Safety for You and Your Horse

While we all want to avoid encounters with poisonous snakes, occasional snakebites do occur. If your horse gets bitten here's what you'll need to do.
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While we all want to avoid encounters with poisonous snakes, occasional snakebites do occur. If your horse gets bitten here's what you'll need to do.
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Snakes! J ust the word is enough to strike fear in the heart of many a seasoned horseman. The truth is, horses seldom die from snakebites. However, they are more sensitive than any other animal to viper venom and can suffer nasty reactions. Having a plan to deal with a bite may mean the difference between life and death for your horse.

With that in mind, we talked to both equine experts and riders who have been through it to compile a five-step strategy to get you and your horse safely through a snakebite experience and back on the trail again.

1. First of all, don't panic.
Yes, this advice applies to most emergencies. In the case of a snakebite victim, though, keeping calm and quiet may slow the progress of venom through the body. Snake venom travels through the blood, moving efficiently through the victim's arteries, wreaking tissue damage along the way, until it has been distributed throughout the body. Both exercise and anxiety increase blood flow, which will only speed that distribution and worsen the reaction.

The first thing you should do if your horse is bitten is to locate the snake, then carefully and slowly back the horse to a safe distance. Do not get off the horse until you know you're at least 15 feet away from the snake.

"You wouldn't want to get off the horse if you didn't know where the snake was," warns Dr. Ken Marcella, a veterinarian with Chattahoochee Equine in Canton, Georgia. "You could get off the horse and dismount right onto the snake. Then you're bitten, too, and you can't help."

If a Snake Strikes

  • Locate the snake and back off to a safe distance before dismounting.
  • Try to identify the type of snake or get a good look at it so you can describe it.
  • Check your horse's breathing and insert short lengths of hose into his nostrils if he's having difficulty.
  • For a leg bite, if time and distance are great before treatment is available, a tourniquet is an option.
  • Even if the snake isn't poisonous, consult your vet because bacteria can also cause harm.
  • Monitor your horse's progress for secondary problems, which can last months or even years.

That's what happened to Kelly Smith of Scottsdale, Arizona, when a prairie rattlesnake spooked her horse on a trail in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.

"Everything happened really fast," she remembers. "I fell off, and I must have been within range of the snake because he hit my boot. It went through the boot, through my jeans, and got into my ankle."

Kelly never even saw the snake, which made a quick getaway without striking her gelding. Luckily, she was not far off the main trail and a neighbor came to her aid. If you're in a remote area alone, however, you may have only your own brain to help you-another good reason to stay calm.

"Assess the situation," advises Dr. Marcella. "How far are you away from a trailer?"

If one is nearby, walk the horse slowly to the trailer, keeping the horse's head up to prevent the toxin from spreading. If the trailer or your barn is far away, call someone to bring a trailer to you.

2. Name that snake.
There's another reason to locate the snake after a bite occurs: The anti-venoms, also called antivenin, that treat snakebites are specific to each type of snake. They also cost thousands of dollars, so you want to make sure you have the correct one and that it's really needed.

About half of the time poisonous snakes deliver what's called a "dry bite" to a horse, meaning they release no venom.

"Snakes make a conscious decision whether to envenomate," explains Dr. Marcella. "It takes a tremendous amount of biological effort for a snake to make its venom, so it is not going to waste it. When a snake can sense that it's being aggravated by a 1,000-pound horse, there's no way that snake is going to kill it and it's not a meal for the snake anyway. You get more problems with young foals and smaller horses because the snake doesn't see it as much of a threat."

Even dry bites, however, deliver a large dose of bacteria that will cause infection and an inflammatory reaction. It may not be immediately clear whether the horse has been envenomated, so it's best to take all precautions.

When attempting to identify a snake, safety is paramount. Don't get too close or waste valuable time looking for it. But if you do manage to catch a glimpse, make an effort to remember what you see.

"When you're talking to a poison control expert or an emergency physician, you can say, 'Hey, this is what it looked like. This is what the colors were. This is what the pattern was,' " says Dr. Marcella.

Even better, learn the colors and patterns of the poisonous snakes in your area so you can make a positive ID yourself. (See sidebar on page 50.)

If You Get Bitten

Horses, of course, aren't the only ones in danger from poisonous snakebites. Because of their smaller size, humans are more likely to be envenomated than horses and are more affected by the venom, although fatalities are rare. If you are bitten, you should follow more or less the same approach you would with your horse:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water if you have time.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Immobilize the bitten area and elevate it above the heart. Use a tourniquet only if you can't get medical attention right away. (Make sure to not tie it too tightly.)
  • Don't cut the bite open or try to suck poison out.
  • Be aware that people who spend a lot of time around horses may be particularly sensitive to antivenins made from horse serum. Make sure the doctor does a skin test to test for sensitivity before injecting a horse product.

3. Make sure your horse can breathe.
Now that you're a safe distance from the snake and have calmed your horse, it's a good time to take a look at that bite. There may be two fang marks and it is likely to swell, even if the snake was not poisonous. The horse's nose may also begin bleeding due to the anti-coagulant effects of the venom.

Colette May, owner of New Horizons Equine Education Center in Snellville, Georgia, remembers finding her gelding after he was bitten on the nose. "He was in the pasture, and I noticed him trying to stay really close to the other horses and just not acting normal," remembers Colette, who recommends checking on your horses in the pasture at least twice a day. "We went out to check, and already his nose was about twice the size it should have been. It seemed to swell instantly, almost up to his eyes, just to the point where you'd think the skin was going to break."

Besides being ugly and painful, swelling in the face or nose area can be life-threatening for horses, who cannot breathe through their mouths.

"Sometimes the swelling can be so massive and so quick that the nasal passages are cut off," says Dr. Marcella. "It's just cartilage, and that will actually contract down on the face."

Most experts recommend that on the trail you carry two 4- to-6-inch lengths of garden hose, which can be inserted into the nostrils to keep the airways open if they begin to swell. You may also want to carry a lubricant like Vaseline to help insert the hoses and some tape to secure them. These are probably the only pieces of equipment that are really useful in a "horseman's snakebite kit," as experts now believe that cutting open a bite to suck out the poison does more harm than good.

"The more damage you do to the site, the more you're going to make it bleed, and you're going to spread the toxin," explains Dr. Marcella.

Likewise, tourniquets often are of little use, particularly as most bites occur on the feet or nose, which cannot be tied off. However, if your horse was bitten on the leg and there will be a long delay before you can get help, a tourniquet is an option. Tie a band just above the site of the bite, loose enough so you can still slip a finger under the bandage, and untie it at 10- to 15-minute intervals to avoid damaging the tissue due to lack of blood flow.

Probably the best thing you can do for your horse, though, is to get him medical attention as soon as possible.

4. Call your veterinarian.
Always carry a cell phone on trail rides and have your vet's phone number in the memory.

"The veterinary profession is one of the few where you still don't get charged for consultations," Dr. Marcella points out, so what do you have to lose? Even if the horse appears to be having only a mild reaction, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

If, on the other hand, the reaction is so severe that swelling is compromising breathing or movement, or if the horse exhibits signs of shock such as high respiratory rate, full-body sweating, clamminess or coldness, or pale mucous membranes, consider taking him to an animal critical care center immediately.

"Most often your regular veterinarian can help you," says Dr. Eileen Sullivan, an assistant professor of equine surgery and critical care at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "But if the swelling is severe enough, they may need more treatment, especially if they need support to breathe or a tracheostomy."

Colette May remembers her snake-bitten gelding's trip to CSU. "We got him to the hospital before anything really bad happened-within just a few hours - but he was on IVs and in really bad shape," she recalls. "He had to stay a whole week in the hospital."

The gelding, who lived to be the cover model for New Horizons' course catalog, was the Mays' third horse to be bitten by a prairie rattlesnake in their pasture near the northern Colorado foothills. The other two were older Palomino mares whose reactions were less severe. They were able to stay home, but they still needed a vet to administer antibiotics.

Dr. Sullivan, who says CSU treats an average of half a dozen equine snakebites a year, says many horse owners don't realize the danger posed by infection. "It's a penetrating wound, so by definition, there's going to be some local infection," she says. "The venom is irritating to the tissues and there's an open wound to the outside world, so there's contamination."

In addition to antibiotics, your vet will wash the bite and may administer fluids to support the cardiovascular system and prevent shock. Steroids and anti-inflammatories may also help deal with swelling and other changes brought on by the toxin.

Interestingly, many veterinary hospitals don't keep a supply of antivenin on hand.

"Some people want to go to the biggest trauma center they can find," says Dr. Marcella. "But if I was bitten here in Georgia, I don't want to go to Atlanta to some big hospital because they don't see many snakebites. You're better off going to a smaller regional hospital up in the mountains, up by hiking trails, or by the state parks because that's something they treat and they're more likely to stock some of the antivenin."

After a horse has been treated, he will need to be monitored for the next few months, and possibly years, depending on the severity of the bite.

"The secondary problems-like sloughing of skin, which is caused by the toxins that are in the venom, and damage to the heart and nerves-could be fairly severe and significant," warns Dr. Marcella. "You can have cardiovascular effects from the toxins as well, plus the secondary effects on the system from losing blood pressure. You can also have liver and kidney effects."

5. Next time, tread carefully.
Snakes-even poisonous ones-are generally not aggressive and would much rather stay in hiding than interfere with your trail ride. Yet, as humans encroach more and more on their natural habitat, snake encounters have become increasingly common. And horses and horse people have more than their fair share of snake encounters because they live and ride in the wide, open spaces that many snakes call home.

There is no surefire way to keep snakes off your property either, but you can take a few precautions to make it more likely that you will see a snake-or it will see you-before anyone gets hurt.

You may have heard that you should make noise while riding so snakes will stay away. This is somewhat misleading because snakes are deaf. However, they can feel vibrations through the ground.

"If you're just walking, they'll feel the vibrations from the earth and they will get out of there," says Kelly Smith, who encounters western diamondback rattlers often on her walks through the Arizona desert. "But if you're trotting or galloping and you're going pretty fast, you may accidentally come upon them faster than they want and then they could strike at you."

Smith knows from firsthand experience that snakes can be quite a surprise themselves. "I have to be careful of things that look like sticks because sometimes snakes will stretch themselves out across the path," she says. "They really are camouflaged very well. They look just like a stick!"

That's why it's wise to keep a sharp eye out when you're riding in areas snakes like to frequent (see sidebar on page 50), such as rocky areas or tall grass.

"Don't tie a horse up in tall grass," advises Dr. Marcella. "And if you're going to ride in tall grass, walk through it first with sticks to make sure it's a safe place before you bring your horses through."

Logs are another favorite hiding spot for vipers. Many an unfortunate horse has been bitten after stepping over a log, surprising a snake snoozing in the sun on the other side. Steer around logs if you can or dismount and search for any unwelcome visitors before stepping over one.

If you do happen upon a possibly poisonous snake, just give it a wide berth. A snake can strike from up to two-thirds the length of its body, but it will do so only if it feels its life is threatened. Remember, you and your horse are much bigger than it is and it really is more afraid of you than the other way around.

If, despite all your vigilance, a poisonous snake bites your horse, just stay calm. Everything will be all right now that you know how to handle it.

All About Snakes

Only four types of poisonous snake are found in this country-rattlers, cottonmouth moccasins, copperheads and coral snakes-but they live in every state except Alaska, Hawaii and Maine.

The vast majority (16 species) are rattlesnakes. Rattlers, along with moccasins and copperheads, are called "pit vipers" because of the small pit between the eye and nostril that detects heat and allows snakes to sense prey. Pit vipers have triangular heads and elliptical pupils (like a cat). Their fangs are hinged and leave characteristic side-by-side puncture wounds.

Rattlesnakes tend to frequent rocky or sandy areas of the western U.S., but can also be found in wooded areas. Cottonmouths are found in the rivers, streams and wetlands of the southern states, and copperheads live throughout the East and into the Midwest.

The three species of coral snake native to North America are part of the Elapidae family, related to the Asian cobra. They are found in the southern states from Florida to Texas and are rarer than pit vipers but also more poisonous. Elapidae differ from pit vipers in that they have slender heads, round pupils and short teeth that do not leave obvious bite marks.

Here are descriptions of some of the most common poisonous snakes and their habitats:

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake: Found throughout the Southeast, up to North Carolina and west to Mississippi. This is the largest and most dangerous rattlesnake, recognized by the overlapping black-edged brown diamonds with a white border on its back. All rattlesnakes have rattles on their tales.
Western diamondback rattlesnake: Its body is a light buff color with darker brown diamond-shaped markings, and the tail has heavy black and white bands. Prefers brush desert and rocky canyons and foothills in the Southwest from southeast California to central Arkansas.
Prairie (western) rattlesnake: Heavy or bulky, gray-green body with greenish blotches, is camouflaged to blend in with the prairie landscape. Inhabits open grasslands and river valleys from western Iowa to the West Coast and congregates on rock ledges in the winter.
Timber rattlesnake: Has a pinkish-gray to brown back, with chevron-like black crossbands, broken by a reddish stripe down the middle. Prefers remote wooded hillsides with rock outcrops and swampy areas throughout the eastern U.S.
Mojave rattlesnake: Entire body is pallid or sandy color with darker diamond-shaped markings bordered by lighter-colored scales and black bands around the tail. Prefers upland desert flatland and arid lowlands with sparse vegetation and grassy or rocky hills in the Southeast, as well as southern California, Nevada and Utah.
Sidewinder: Small nocturnal desert rattlesnake found in southwestern desert flatlands. It travels by "sidewinding" to keep from slipping when crossing sandy areas.
Massagua: Heavy-bodied, gray or brown rattlesnake with dark blotches and spots on the back and sides and nine enlarged scales on top of its head. It lives in dry woodlands, rocky hillsides and swamps from northwest Pennsylvania to eastern Iowa and southwest into Texas.
Black-tailed rattlesnake: As its name implies, it has a distinctive black tail and snout, but its back coloration varies from greenish, yellowish, grayish, or olive, with black or brown crossbands or blotches of irregular outline. Prefers rocky, mountainous areas and can be found among rimrock and limestone outcrops, in wooded stony canyons, and among chaparral and rocky streambeds from Arizona to central Texas.
Dusky pygmy rattlesnake: Small snake (less than the thickness of your thumb) with a tiny rattle and black blotches down its back separated by reddish spots. It prefers mixed pine and hardwood forests, sand hills, marshes and areas near ponds from eastern North Carolina to the Florida Keys, and west to eastern Oklahoma and Texas.
Cottonmouth (water moccasin): Recognized by broad dark cheek stripe with light borders and black spotting in dark crossbands. Prefers lowland swamps, lakes, rivers, sloughs, irrigation ditches and clear, rocky streams in the Southeast, from southern Missouri to south-central Oklahoma and central Texas.
Copperhead: Stout-bodied snake with broad, light brown to gray crossbands, alternating with dark brown to reddish-brown crossbands in an hourglass shape. Eastern copperhead is found in the Southeast to east Texas and Oklahoma, while the northern copperhead lives from southwest Massachusetts to southwest Illinois and south to northern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Prefers wooded hillsides and the edges of swamps or rock outcrops above streams or ponds.
Western coral snake: Prefers rocky areas in plains or lower mountain slopes, and rocky upland desert in arroyos and river bottoms from central Arizona to southwest New Mexico. All coral snakes have red, yellow and black stripes, with red and yellow bands that are adjacent, unlike harmless lookalikes such as the scarlet kingsnake, which has adjacent red and black bands. (Remember: "Red on yellow will kill a fellow; red on black won't hurt Jack.")
Eastern coral snake: Prefers moist, densely vegetated areas near ponds or streams in hardwood and pine forests and rocky hillsides and canyons in the Southeast, from North Carolina to Florida and west to south Texas.
Texas coral snake: Prefers ponds or streams in hardwood or pine forests, rocky hillsides and canyons in southern Arkansas, western Louisiana and south Texas.