Fireworks in the equine world! – How to keep your horse safe this Bonfire Night

This year, 5th November is on a Tuesday – and that means we’re not expecting a Fireworks Night so much as a Fireworks Week!

As prey animals, horses are by their very nature predisposed to panic at loud noises, especially in the dark. Bright flashes of light don’t help either! And panicked horses are rather inclined to run into things and hurt themselves (I’ve spent many hours stitching up horses who have lost arguments with fences, hedges, gates and stable walls).

There are three important elements to keeping horses safe when there are fireworks in the air:

1) Help them to avoid injury

2) Distract them

3) Keep them calm

To avoid injury, I generally recommend that horses be stabled when fireworks are expected. That probably means dusk to dawn for the next fortnight or so, but if possible, find out when displays are expected in your area. You can then focus on those dates and times (but don’t forget that many people will set off a few rockets for themselves and their families). Inside their stables, horses can still become frightened, but they’re not surrounded by the scary noises, and they can’t bolt and get up so much speed, so they’re less likely to cause themselves serious injuries….

Horses and money – is it really either/or?

With the new financial year, and the recent bad weather, everyone involved in and working with horses is trying to make money go a bit further. Among other issues, the cost of medicines is rising every month (many drugs have seen their manufacturers put the price up 10 or 15% in the last few months), and feed bills are rising due to poor cereal harvests.

As a result, I’ve put together a list of “top tips” for saving money in the coming year.

Firstly, 5 things to do…

1) Make sure you worm smart - which doesn’t necessarily mean often! Many owners still worm religiously every 6-8 weeks; however, recent studies have shown about that 80% of the worms are in 20% of the horses. If your horse doesn’t have a high worm burden, it may be a waste of money pouring expensive wormers down him every other month. In addition, the more wormers we use, the higher the risk of worm resistance – there has been recognised round- or redworm resistance to every active ingredient available in the UK, so the less we use them, the longer they’ll be effective.

The way I like to recommend people go forward is to use Worm Egg Counts – your vet will be able to do these, or will have a lab they send them away to. The test simply takes a faeces sample and counts the worm eggs in it, giving you a good estimate of the number of worms in the horse. Remember, this test can only be done in the warmer months (the worms don’t lay eggs in the winter!), and it only tests for nematodes (round and redworms). To test for tapeworms, your vet will need to take a blood sample, but this usually only needs doing once or at most twice a year.

Depending on the test results, your vet will be able to advise you on the best worming strategy, and if you’ve got a low burden, it may not be necessary to worm at all, as long as your pasture management (poo-picking etc) is decent. I’ve seen horses wormed every month come back with such low counts that we stopped worming completely and, because they weren’t mixing with lots of other horses, they were still worm free a year later. That said, I’ve also seen horses that really do need that regular dose, so it does depend on the yard, the herd and the individual horse.

2) Consider warming up with unaffiliated competitions – and beware direct debits! Skip past this one if you’re not competing – but if you are….

The Kinder Cut – Castration of horses

This is the time of year when people start to look at their cute little foals, and suddenly realise they’re starting to grow up fast… As a result, it’s also when we start to get phone calls from people to talk about gelding them.

If you are considering getting a colt gelded (“cut”), my advice would be to contact your vet, who will be able to advise you on the best approach in your particlar circumstances. However, I’m going to try and go through some of the commoner questions below, so you’ve got some basic information on the decisions to be made, the procedure, and what you’ll need to consider.

The first question, of course, is whether or not to get him cut. It’s an important decision, so these are my thoughts…
The majority of male horses are castrated, and for very good reason – very few people have the facilities, the time, or the inclination to manage an entire stallion. The old adage had it absolutely right – “You can tell a gelding, you can ask a mare, but you discuss the matter with a stallion”. Although there are some superbly well mannered stallions out there, it takes years of expert training – and in my experience they’re almost always more “bolshie” than a gelding, and much less forgiving of any mistakes. They are also much more easily distracted (e.g. by a passing mare), and prone to fighting.
Does this mean you can’t train them well and keep them happily and healthily? No, of course not – but it’s a lot harder. The majority of stallions can’t be kept in groups because of the husbandry regimes on most yards, so have to live on their own. That’s not good for their mental health, or their owners and riders! If someone has the knowledge and facilities to bring up a stallion, I don’t have a problem with that, and I wish them luck, but I’ve seen too many bored, frustrated and borderline dangerous stallions who haven’t been brought up correctly, and remain a liability.
Geldings, however, can be kept in groups, can mix with other horses, and are less likely to lose the plot or throw a temper tantrum. They also don’t present you with unexpected foals in your competing mares…

Sedatives and Sedation in Horses

We routinely sedate horses in practice – after vaccination, it’s probably the most common “routine” job that we do. So, what are we doing? How do the drugs work – and why doesn’t it always happen the same way?

“Sedation – a state of rest or sleep… produced by a sedative drug.”

That’s the dictionary definition, and it makes it sound lovely and simple – give a drug, and the patient goes to sleep. Of course, in reality (as usual with anything equine!) life isn’t that easy…

For those who haven’t seen it before, a sedated horse doesn’t lie down, but their head gets lower and lower, and they may require something to lean on to help them balance. It’s also important to remember that a sedated horse CAN still kick – they’re just much less likely to do so! It often seems that the horse is still more or less aware of what’s going on around them, but they’re too sleepy to care about it. As a result, we’d almost invariably use pain relief and local anaesthetic as well if we’re carrying out a surgical procedure.

There are a wide range of situations in which we like to use sedation. Generally, it’s to make the horse more amenable when something nasty or scary is being done to them. Of course, this varies from horse to horse. There are quite a lot of horses out there that need a sedative before the farrier can trim their feet; and there are others that will allow you to suture up a wound without sedation or even local anaesthetic (not recommended, but occasionally necessary)……

Rain Scald, Mud Fever and Greasy Heels – Wet Weather Care for Horses

I heard on the news recently that this year has been one of the wettest on record. I don’t know if it’s true – but it certainly feels about right! The big danger to our horses from this, of course, is Rain Scald and Mud Fever.

Most people have probably come across Rain Scald on occasions – the scabs hidden away in the coat feel like mud, until you pull them up and see the characteristic “paint brush” appearance as the hair stays stuck in the scab. Rain Scald is caused by a bacterium called Dermatophilus congolensis. This usually lives (fairly) harmlessly on the skin, but if the skin gets and stays wet, the bacteria can invade and set up an infection.

Most cases are mild, with just a few scabs here and there, but (especially in older horses and those with Cushing’s disease) it can be more general and leave large raw patches. Even a mild case can put a horse “off games” if the scabs or raw patches are under the saddle.

Most cases resolve on their own with simple care – gently brush out the scabs, and most importantly keep the area dry to allow it to heal. That said, older horses and those with other diseases may need a helping hand, in which case a short course of antibiotics from your vet will usually clear it up. HOWEVER… Unless the underlying problem is sorted, it will rapidly return! Prevention is far more important, and that means keeping the skin as dry as possible. Remember, if your horse gets wet, that’s fine as long as he can then dry out thoroughly. It’s if the skin stays constantly wet that problems ensue – and watch out for rugs, especially in early autumn! When it’s wet, but not that cold, horses can easily sweat up under their rugs, and sweat seems to be even worse than rain for causing Rain Scald.

The other thing to watch out for, of course, is Mud Fever. This is an infection of the skin behind the heels (its sometimes called Greasy Heels), and is most common in horses with long feathers. It’s a far more complicated disease than rain scald, and has a large number of contributary causes. The most important is wet weather, of course – as the skin gets wet, bacteria can invade, as in rain scald – long feathers keep the water trapped in the area, slowing down the drying, so cobs and heavy horses are more prone. However, mites are also a known cause (the first signs are usually stamping of the hind legs), and its not just bacteria, because some cases include yeasts and other fungi as well. Sometimes, really aggressive bacteria like Pseudomonas can establish themselves, and they can be really difficult to manage………….

Equine Education (Part 2 – Vet Students)

Have you ever wondered who the young person trailing behind your vet is? They appear, at best they’re introduced as “so-and-so, who’s seeing practice with us”, and then they disappear, never to be seen again…

Well, the odds are they’re vet students who are “seeing practice” with your vet.

Training as a vet is a long process – vet students spend 5 or 6 years at university doing lectures, practicals and clinical work. However, in that space of time, they also have to do the equivalent of an extra year of “EMS” (Extra-Mural Studies, generally known as “seeing practice”). This is their chance to get out of the lecture theatre, away from the ivory towers and out into the real world of practice!

As vets in practice, our job is to take these students and teach them the nuts and bolts of veterinary practice. They’ll learn the science, and all the theory, at vet school; however, there is also an art to veterinary practice, and that’s our responsibility. For example, if the client can’t afford the best treatment, how do you proceed? Or if a client refuses consent for a surgical procedure, what other options can be explored?

At the vet schools, students tend to learn a lot about the more esoteric and uncommon diseases, operations and procedures – this is because they operate referral hospitals (although Nottingham uses an expanded version of the EMS system for virtually all their clinical tuition). Although they do have first opinion practices, in all seven schools the teaching tends to be biased towards the rare and exotic. Out in general practice, however, the axiom “Common things are common” applies – for every septic pedal joint, there are dozens of simple hoof abscesses!…………………..

BEVA Congress 2012 – How Horse Vets Keep Up to Date

As vets, we’re always trying to do the very best for our patients. However, veterinary medicine is constantly changing – every year, hundreds, even thousands of new papers are published, new drugs become available, and new machines and tools come on the market. What was the “gold standard” of treatment for a disease ten years ago might now be proven to be more harmful than helpful! At a recent conference (BEVA Congress – see below for more on that…), John Walmsey, one of the foremost and best respected members of the profession, gave the plenary lecture talking about the massive changes that have taken place in equine veterinary care in the four and a half decades since he graduated. The drugs we have now are far more effective, the machines and tools more robust and more useful. Even ten years ago, MRI in the horse was really rare and (to be honest) unreliable; now it’s a standard tool in working up a complex lameness. As a result, with the field of knowledge constantly changing, it’s more important than ever for vets in practice to keep up!
The process of keeping up to date is known as CPD (Continuing Professional Development), and we are expected to do at least 5 days a year. It can be made up in a number of ways, including lectures, seminars, webinars, practical courses and reading journals and papers. Like most equine vets, I receive the big journals Equine Veterinary Journal and Equine Veterinary Education, which (respectively) publish papers on equine science and equine surgery and medicine. I also try to attend relevant courses and lectures as often as I can.

In September, I was at the BEVA (British Equine Veterinary Association) Congress in Birmingham. This is one of the biggest gatherings of horse vets in the world, and I try to go most years. Congress lasts for three days of lectures and seminars, as well as a large commercial exhibition. It’s a great place to go to pick up the latest ideas, new treatments and medicines, and catch up with colleagues from across the country. I sometimes think we learn almost as much from talking over cases with colleagues as we do in the lecture theatres!

This year was notable for…

Competition Vetting

Like everyone I know, I was glued to the Olympics – great job Team GB, especially our first Dressage and Show Jumping medals for a long time!
However, I wonder how many people think about the infrastructure and planning that go into keeping the horses fit, safe and healthy when they compete?
I’ve been a treating vet at a lot of competitions over the years, including Endurance events, local, regional and National Championship Pony Club events (where the standard is often as high as at many BE competitions!) and the International Show Jumping at Sheffield Hallam Arena. I was also on the vet team as a student at Badminton back when they still had roads and tracks before the cross country.

The vets that people most often seen are those on the Ground Jury at competitions – the notorious “Trot Up” before the competition starts, and again (in eventing) before the horses go forwards to the show jumping phase. At Badminton and most other big events, there are two vets – one on the Ground Jury, along with two or three other worthies – and one in the Hold Box. If there is a question over a horse’s fitness to compete, they get sent to the hold box, where the second vet examines them to see if there is a medical problem rendering the horse unfit. This is a very contentious area – I’ve never yet been at an event where the Ground Jury and the vets didn’t come in for a barrage of criticism over their decisions. However, it’s important to realise that they have to balance several factors:

Firstly, if a horse is unlevel on the trot up, it may be truly lame, or it may have a “mechanical lameness” – in other words, an abnormal gait………………..

Part 3: Surgical Colic

As we saw in the previous part of this series, Medical colics are those which can be managed medically, usually on the yard. However, about 1 in 10 cases of colic require emergency referral to an equine hospital for surgery.

This is what most horse owners are terrified of. The general indicators that a horse has a surgical colic are:

1) Heart rate over 60 that isn’t relieved by injectable painkillers.

2) Dilated loops of small intestine on rectal exam

3) Positive stomach reflux from the stomach tube

4) A definite rectal diagnosis of a surgical problem.

5) “Toxic rings” – dark red or purple gums, that indicate that the horse is going into toxic shock.

Of course, it varies between horses, and the vet has to make a judgment call based on all the evidence available.

We also have to talk to the (by now usually frantic) owners about costs. Colic surgery usually costs between £4000 and £5000, but can easily be a lot more. Even if the horse is insured, it is important to check how much the insurance company will cover – there are a couple of companies out there who will only cover part of the costs of emergency surgery. If in doubt, always call your insurer’s helpline.

However, colic surgery is one of the most genuine emergency operations there is – and it can be truly life-saving….

Colic: Part 2: Medical Colics

In my last piece, I looked at how the vet will examine a horse with colic. Following this, and using all the information from the history and workup, he or she has to decide if the colic is Medical or Surgical. The terms are more or less self-explanatory: a medical colic can be managed with drugs, while a surgical colic needs emergency surgery.

As a rule of thumb, 9/10 colics are medical, and can almost always be managed on the yard.

So, here are the common causes of colic that we see in the UK1 :

1) Spasmodic Colic. This is probably the commonest, and perhaps the least understood; I estimate about 80% of Medical colics are Spasmodic. Spasmodic colic can be caused by a stressful event, mild dehydration, or be genuinely idiopathic (i.e. we don’t know what causes it!). It can also be caused by severe tapeworm burdens. In a Spasmodic Colic, a section of the gut goes into a spasm, preventing anything from moving past it. It can be acutely painful, but usually responds really well to management with drugs. For any horse that has two or more bouts of spasmodic colic, I’d always recommend a tapeworm blood test to make sure it isn’t part of the problem!

2) Impaction Colic. This is more common in some management systems – it is pretty rare, for example, in horses who live on grass. In these cases, the food in the large intestine dries out a bit too much, and turns into a putty-like material. It then gets stuck, typically at one of the 180- degree turns in the Large Colon. It’s also strongly associated with moderate dehydration – as a horse gets dehydrated, he will move water out of the gut in order to keep up his circulating blood volume. This is a clever trick, meaning a horse can survive levels of dehydration that would kill a human. However, if the water isn’t replaced, and he’s been eating dry hay, his gut contents can become so dry they cause an impaction. This is why, many years ago, bran mash and Epsom salts were fed after hard work – both are good ways of rehydrating the colon and Caecum contents.

3) Gut displacements and entraptions. These are a bit of a mixture – some are medical, some are surgical, some look surgical but aren’t, and some can be fixed medically but keep coming back so surgery is eventually needed. What many people don’t realise is that the guts are in constant motion. Occasionally, a loop of intestine goes “wandering around” inside the abdomen, and gets stuck behind something else (for example, into a little gap between the spleen and the kidney). These can often only be diagnosed by rectal exam, and can feel really confusing, where nothing seems to be exactly where it should be! Each case has to be treated on its merits, and many can be resolved by lunging – presumably because jiggling everything around helps the intestines to fall back into their proper places! Personally, however, my inclination is generally to refer the horse as a possible surgical case……………….

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