You go to catch your horse for a ride and there it is—a big, ugly laceration right in the middle of his chest. You panic when you see blood running down his leg, and it looks like he’s cut right down through the muscle. Now what?
Breathe. Relax. Believe it or not, even a big, deep laceration in your horse’s chest is likely to heal quickly, and without much trouble. Why? Because it’s an area with large muscles, good blood flow, and few critical structures at risk of being damaged. But if you find a tiny little puncture at the back of your horse’s pastern, that’s another story. Even the smallest, most benign-looking wound in that area could mean trouble.
In this article, I’m going to help you understand what makes a wound more serious, and why. First, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the five critical factors to evaluate when faced with any wound. Then, I’ll give you some real-life scenarios so you can decide whether that wound is a nightmare or a nuisance—and what you should do about it.
Location, location, location. The location of a wound is one of the most important factors in determining its severity. If it’s over a well-muscled area of the upper body like the chest or croup, you’re in luck. There’s good blood supply and few critical structures to complicate healing. It’s likely to heal well, even if it’s big and deep.
The same is true for wounds on the head. They often heal quickly and well with few complications, even if they look horrifying at the start.
Wounds on the lower legs, especially those below the hocks and knees, are typically more difficult. Blood supply may be limited, and there’s little extra tissue between the skin and the more critical underlying structures. A wound that’s directly over a joint or tendon sheath is the scariest of all because penetration risks infection of one of those critical, closed-off structures—a potentially life-threatening complication.
Other signs. Is it “just a wound,” or is there some other symptom that could mean something more? Most commonly, excessive bleeding may be cause for concern, and might happen any time a large vessel is disrupted. If blood is bright red and spurts in pulses, that’s the most concerning of all, as it means a high-pressure artery is likely to be involved.
Lameness is another sign that a wound might be serious. If your horse is lame with a wound, a critical structure such as a joint, tendon, or ligament might have been damaged. Severe lameness might also mean a more serious injury, such as a broken bone.
Finally, if the wound is on your horse’s face, signs such as squinting or tearing might mean his eye’s been damaged. Blood from his mouth, or difficulty chewing, could point toward an injury to his teeth or jaws. Anytime a wound is accompanied by another problem, it’s likely to be more serious, and to require special care.
How deep? The depth of a wound is important for helping you decide just how serious it is, and whether it needs sutures.
To determine just how deep it is, try to separate the edges by putting pressure on either side. (It helps to clean the wound with cold water from a hose before this step.)
If the wound is fresh and you can pull the edges apart, it’s likely to have penetrated the full thickness of the skin and would heal best with sutures (unless it’s a puncture wound; see page 2). If you can’t pull the edges apart, chances are it’s just an abrasion and sutures won’t be necessary.
Keep in mind there are areas on your horse’s body where the skin is up to one-quarter-inch thick, meaning a deep abrasion can look much more frightening than it is. Most non-full-thickness injuries will heal without much trouble.
Finally, a very deep wound, even if it’s small, might end up as the most nightmarish of all, due to risk of penetration of more important deeper structures—taking us back to location as a crucial factor. A tiny but deep wound over a joint may turn out to be a much bigger issue than a huge abrasion over a well-muscled area.
How big? If all other factors are equal, size does matter. A wound that’s less than one-half inch in length typically won’t need sutures, even if it’s a full-thickness deep through the skin. A wound that’s between one-half and one inch might heal better with a stitch or two, and a wound that’s longer than an inch will almost always heal better if it’s sutured.
Again, though, location plays a role in this decision. A longer wound on the well-muscled upper body is likely to heal even if it isn’t sutured, while a shorter wound on the lower legs will be much more problematic if left to heal on its own. As a general rule, a call to the vet is an important step for any full-thickness lower-leg wound.
How old? It’s always best if you discover a wound immediately so that you’re able to make a treatment decision right away, while the damage is fresh. Fresh wounds that are attended to immediately are much less likely to become nightmares than are wounds that are days or even hours old.
Excessive swelling or drainage of yellowish/brownish thick fluid are two signs that a wound is older and possibly in need of special care. However, contrary to popular belief, even a wound that’s a day or two old may often still be sutured, and will heal much better as a result.
Now that you know the five basic factors to evaluate on any wound, let’s take a look at some common wound scenarios and whether the wound in each will become a nightmare or a nuisance.