The call of distress comes in the middle of the night. A horse is colicking, and our hero is needed now. Later, as she knows, may be too late. She slips out of her warm bed and into her boots. At this moment, she's the most important person in your horse's world and will likely save his life.
Who knew superheroes came in coveralls? But, for the large-animal vet, these kinds of heroics are simply part of the job-a job you can make easier.
Whether in Metropolis or Maryland, few superheroes are successful without a trustworthy sidekick, and when it comes to your horse's health, you serve as your veterinarian's-and your horse's-best bet. Here are 22 ways you can help.
1 Instill good ground manners in your horse. This is the number one key to keeping everyone who works with your horse safe. A horse that invades the handler's space or pushes over people on a regular basis is sure to be even worse when under the stress of illness or examination.
To be a good patient, your horse should stand quietly for examination, pick up his feet, respond to halter pressure, and walk and trot on the lead line. You and your vet should never feel as if you have to get out of your horse's way.
Having a horse with good ground manners not only makes her job easier, says Dr. Mary Masterson, it will increase your day-to-day enjoyment of horse ownership. For help working through ground-manner problems, see our yearlong "Ground Manners" series in the 2006 issues of Perfect Horse.
2 Learn how to take vital signs. All horse owners should be able to take their horse's pulse, temperature, respiration rate and check for the signs of dehydration and shock, says Dr. Wayne Schmotzer. Taking and recording these before calling your vet can indicate how critical your horse's situation is. If you don't know how to take these basic readings, ask your vet to show you, or consult our article, "Monitoring Your Horse's Vital Signs," on page 14 of our January 2007 issue. Then practice your technique, so you'll be ready for an emergency. Keep a cheat sheet around, or buy a good equine first-aid book to have on hand.
3 Provide a safe, clean place for your vet to work. When making a farm call, your vet needs a clean, safe place to work on your horse. Dr. Wendy Krebs prefers aisle-ways or grooming areas that are free of obstructions and bedding. Wood chips, especially, can be messy to work in, getting tools and bandaging materials dirty. Make sure rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows are out of the way, just in case your horse starts moving around during the exam or treatment. Access to running water is nice, too.
4 Have an emergency transportation plan for your horse. Dr. Schmotzer is surprised by how many horse owners have no transportation lined up for their horses. Not only is that unsafe in case of a natural disaster evacuation, it also makes emergency treatment or surgery in a clinic setting difficult. Often, an owner without a trailer has to scramble to find a ride, taking valuable time when a horse needs life-saving care that can't be performed on the farm.
5 Stay by the phone. Often, in an emergency situation such as an after-hours injury or colic, a horse owner will call the vet office's answering service. The answering service then pages the on-call veterinarian, who then contacts the horse owner.
"But lots of times, I'm trying to get back in touch with the owner, and the person is on the phone calling six other vets or has left the phone to check on the horse," Dr. Schmotzer says. This is not only frustrating to the vet, it also wastes time.
"Keep the phone-line free," advises Dr. Schmotzer. If you have a mobile phone, keep it with you. If you don't, recruit someone to stay by the phone to answer it if you've left a message for the on-call vet.
6 Work with needle-shy horses. A needle-shy horse can make what should be an easy, routine procedure into a dangerous encounter for your veterinarian. For horses like this, Dr. Krebs would like a little heads-up before she moves in to give the injection. Armed with this information, she can adjust her technique to fit the horse's specific issue.
In the meantime, she recommends working with your horse to conquer the needle-shy issue. "You can take a toothpick and gently poke the horse in the neck to get him used to the feeling," she recommends. Combine the "needle" desensitization with lots of praise, petting and reassurance for your horse.
7 Warn your vet about any vices ahead of time. Dr. Krebs understands it's not always possible to overcome every potential problem you may be working on before a vet visit. To help her out, though, she asks that you let her know if your horse has any dangerous vices, such as kicking, biting, rearing or striking.
8 Catch and clean your horse before your vet shows up. If you have an appointment, make sure your horse is haltered, confined and ready for service ahead of time.
"It never fails, someone thinks their horse is easy to catch, but the horse gets one whiff of us and runs," says Dr. Masterson.
You should also groom and clean your horse before your vet calls. "It's hard to give vaccines through crusted mud," Dr. Krebs says. A clean horse, in general, is also easier to examine for cuts, sores, or other skin abnormalities.
9 If you have questions about your role in the procedure, ask before you get started. Nowadays, most veterinarians have assistants to help them through procedures, such as castrations and teeth floating. The main reason, says Dr. Schmotzer, is because of liability issues-your veterinarian doesn't want you or your horse to get hurt. He also wants to keep himself safe, too.
But, if your veterinarian doesn't have a helper, you might need to step in and assist in a procedure. In these cases, make sure you clearly understand your role. If you're unfamiliar with the procedure, ask your vet exactly where he needs you to stand and what you need to do. If the horse is getting laid down, ask what the timeline is for the anesthesia and how long the horse will be out. If you're not comfortable or confident helping, let your vet know before you get started.
10 Finish all prescribed meds. Antibiotic resistance isn't just an individual horse problem, it's a global health problem as well, points out Dr. Krebs. As in human medicine, injudicious use of antibiotics has forced practitioners to use stronger, more expensive prescriptions to treat infection, leaving their arsenal limited and less effective. Giving a full course of antibiotics is time consuming, and sometimes challenging, but it's far better than the alternative. To protect your horse and the entire equine community, make sure you follow through with every last drop or pill of antibiotics that your vet prescribes.
11 Follow through with the treatment plan. Dr. Masterson emphasizes how important it is to follow your veterinarian's treatment plan to the letter. We'd all love a magic pill that heals our horses, but that often just isn't the case. Nursing a horse back to health and soundness takes time-intensive care, such as stall rest and hand-walking.
"Care in those situations is as important as anything else and needs to be followed through with, even if it means hand-walking twice a day for three months," Dr. Masterson says.
12 Educate yourself using reliable sources of information and take Internet resources with a giant dose of salt. And that doesn't mean just on the Internet, says Dr. Krebs. "Go to continuing education courses or reproductive labs the universities offer." Or, she adds, take your vet up on any learning opportunities, such as bandaging clinics or horse-health seminars. It's important, says Dr. Schmotzer, that owners can manage first aid, such as bandaging, and recognize disease symptoms. When seeking information, rely on reputable sources.
These vets agree that that Internet is a great resource, but it's also a place of easy-access misinformation. "Use common sense," Dr. Masterson says.
Dr. Krebs points clients to university websites and the AAEP. She warns against gleaning horse-health information from chat rooms and message boards, where information can come from unknown and unreliable sources. If you do find a tempting tidbit on the Internet, take the time to call your vet before implementing the treatment.
13 Start handling foals early, preferably from the day they're born. Veterinarians are doctors, not horse trainers. This is especially true when it comes to working with foals. "Most injuries to vets have something to do with handling foals," Dr. Krebs says. The little guys are still horses, weighing several hundred pounds. They can kick and bite plenty hard enough to hurt.
14 Have a designated handler for a mare during foal exams. Mares pose a special threat that needs to be addressed before a foal check.
"Everybody gets so focused on the foal that they don't pay attention to the mare, her behavior, or her body language," Dr. Krebs says.
To keep everyone safe, designate someone to handle the mare while the foal is getting checked out. This person can help control the mare and provide her with reassurance as others handle her baby.
15 Pair your horse's intranasal strangles vaccination with sedation. Intranasal strangles is usually a horse's least-favorite vaccination, which, in turn, makes it most veterinarians' least favorite, too. For this vaccination, the serum is sprayed into the nostril using a long pipette. If your horse has an aversion to this procedure, rather than risk a battle, ask your vet whether it might be better to sedate him, like you do when he gets his teeth floated."
16 Give your horse the best preventative care. You know that old saying about an ounce of prevention? It's just as true in horses as it is in humans. Good preventative care, such as scheduled dewormings and regular vaccinations, make your vet's job easier and add years to your horse's life. Vaccines, especially, are cheap insurance for your horse's health, and much less costly than treating an infection, says Dr. Krebs.
Other preventative measures? Balanced nutrition, ample fresh water, a clean environment and regular exercise. The combination will keep the gut healthy, reducing colic episodes. Consistent care will also boost your horse's immune system, helping him fend off any bugs.
17 Keep your horse housing horse-safe. The majority of wounds requiring emergency treatment result from run-ins with faulty fencing, sharp edges or objects in pastures and paddocks. Even protruding stall and gate latches can pose a threat. Help protect your horse from possible injury by assessing his housing for safety issues.
18 Schedule your non-emergency appointments in advance. This one is pretty easy. For routine care, call ahead and make an appointment. If you need a health certificate and Coggins test to attend events or cross state lines, schedule ahead for those, too. Lab results can take time to get back. Plus, between regular appointments and emergency calls, most vets run a pretty tight day, so fitting in a last-minute appointment can prove difficult.
19 Have an emergency plan, along with specific written instructions, about how you want your horse cared for in your absence. It's the worst-case scenario: You're out of town and incommunicado, and your horse gets hurt. Your neighbors or house-sitter are in charge and unsure of what to do. Who do they call, how do you want your horse treated, and if it's serious, how much are you willing to spend?
For just this reason, Dr. Schmotzer recommends leaving instructions with your horse-sitter and also on file with your regular veterinarian. Include the following:
• Contact numbers for someone you trust to make decisions for your horses.
• Insurance policy numbers and instructions, if applicable.
• Any pertinent past health history information about each individual animal.
• What or if you approve of heroic lifesaving procedures on each animal. Be specific. If you'd approve a colic surgery on your 4-year-old, but not the 26-year-old, write that down.
• How much you're willing to spend to save your horse's life. If it's different for each horse, again, write it down.
20 Set up billing or resolve payment issues ahead of time. Veterinarians, like any service provider, appreciate being paid in full and on time. Without proper payment, it's hard for veterinarians to keep their doors open. If possible, set up a credit card with your vet's office to help simplify the situation. In cases where you can't pay immediately, work out a payment plan and stick to it.
21 Invest in insurance or have a "horse-health savings fund" set aside for veterinary care. Some of the toughest veterinary-care decisions are those based on finances, Dr. Krebs says. And, often, the best care option is the most expensive. Also, in emergency situations such as colics or traumatic injuries, emotions play a big role in decision-making for owners. To help ease stress-both emotional and financial-Dr. Krebs recommends having either an insurance policy or a savings fund set aside to care for your horse.
22 Tell your vet what she's doing right. Often, says Dr. Masterson, vets hear only from an owner if a treatment is going wrong. While that's necessary, she admits, it's also nice to hear what's going right. Getting positive feedback helps your vet understand what she's doing right as well as what might be off the mark. Hearing how treatments have helped your horse can help her make good decisions for other clients down the road.
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