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When to Call the Vet at a Horse Show

4th April 2017

It can be a worrying time when you are away at a show and your horse shows signs of being unwell.

Unfortunately most owners will at some time have to deal with an emergency involving their horse.

It is essential to know how to deal with such emergencies before they arise and know when to call the vet.

When to Call the Vet at a Horse Show

Knowing when to call a vet could mean life or death for your horse, so it is important you can spot the warning signs early.

Here are some of the more common problems we see at shows along with some advice for preventing and/or managing them.

On arrival at a show, make sure to get contact details for the duty vet and keep these in an easy to find location in case you need them in an emergency.

If you do need a vet to see your horse while at the show try to give clear directions to your location as this should reduce the time it takes for the vet to get to you.

Common problems at shows

Stabling and sand arenas: dust/coughing/respiratory problems

Coughing and breathing problems, in particular attacks of heavy, laboured breathing with sweating and distress can be caused by allergic reactions to dust.

They can be very alarming for owners but it is important to remain calm in this situation as there are steps you can take to help with your horse’s breathing.

Place your horse in a clean, open, dust-free space. Reducing exposure to allergens is important, soaking hay before feeding it will help, as will using a bedding material that is low in dust.

If your horse is showing signs of a persistent cough or laboured breathing then contact the on duty vet for advice.


Horses exercising in hot weather can be at risk of heat stroke, especially on humid days when heat loss via sweat is reduced.

Your horse may start to show signs of heat stroke, which can include;

  • sudden increase in sweating
  • rapid breathing rate with flared nostrils
  • rapid heart rate
  • sometimes muscle tremors or cramps

If you spot these signs, immediately get them to a shady (and preferably breezy) spot and remove their tack.

Offer the horse water and use cool water to wash the horse down and then scrape off with a sweat scraper.

If the horse is not showing rapid improvement call the vet and continue washing and scraping while waiting for them.


The changes in routine and diet involved in being at a show can lead to an increased risk of colic.

Some horses eat less as they are distracted or stressed by the busy environment and may be keener to eat once the showground is quieter.

More hours standing in and less grazing can lead to slower gut transit time and drier droppings and potentially an impaction.

If a horse is showing mild signs of colic then a gentle walk out in hand for half an hour and reduced feed over the next 12-24 hours may be all that is required to settle things down.

For a horse showing recurrent or more severe signs the vet will need to be called. If the horse is lying down quietly it is best to let it be until the vet arrives.

If it is more violently painful it can be helpful to get the horse out of the stable and walking around to distract it from rolling and kicking out.

This should help to reduce the risk of further injury, but always remember that human safety comes first.

Rhabdomyolysis a.k.a 'Tying up'

Horses at shows can be more susceptible to tying up especially if they have a few days of reduced exercise followed by a day with intense exercise.

When a horse ties up the waste products of exercise accumulate in the muscles and cause damage to them which is very painful.

Signs range from stiffness of the hindlimbs through to being unable to walk. The muscles of the hindquarters may be hard and painful and you may see tremors and sweating.

If this happens stop exercise immediately and keep the horse warm and quiet. It is useful to try and observe the horse urinating to see if the urine is discoloured red/brown from muscle damage.

The horse will need pain relief and rest, and the vet will offer to take a blood sample to assess the level of muscle damage.

Some cases require intravenous fluid therapy. During recovery cut out energy-rich feed and include electrolytes.

Cuts, Grazes and Puncture wounds

Wounds are very common injuries and it is vital to be able to evaluate the severity of the cut.

Some wounds can be managed without veterinary assistance but some innocuous looking wounds near to joints or tendon sheaths can be the most dangerous, so if you are in any doubt as to the significance of a wound, it is best to contact the vet for advice.

If you find your horse has a wound and will not place any weight on the limb, then leave them where they are in case there is a fracture underneath the wound.

If they are able to walk, then very slowly move them to a clean yard or stable if possible. The vet should always be called if your horse is obviously lame following a wound.

If the wound is bleeding heavily then apply a dressing then several layers of cotton wool or Gamgee and bandage as tightly as possible.

In an emergency, tail or exercise bandages can be used but always put plenty of padding underneath. For wounds in areas that can’t be bandaged, maintain firm hand pressure over the wound using clean padding until the vet arrives.

If a foreign body is visible in the wound, leave it in place if at all possible. This will help the vet to evaluate the damage and it may be dangerous, to yourself and the horse, to remove it.


Not drinking/urinating

If your horse is not drinking and/or urinating but is bright, has a good appetite and is working well then do not panic but try to increase the amount of fluid they are taking in.

Offering one bucket with electrolytes, apple juice or cut apples alongside a bucket of plain fresh water can sometimes tempt them.

Otherwise soaking or at least wetting hay, keeping bucket feeds sloppy and if possible taking out for some in-hand grazing will all help.

If they are not drinking and seem quiet or dull check their temperature and seek advice as they may have become dehydrated or be otherwise unwell.

If they are drinking but not urinating you can try them in differing situations; some horses are more willing to urinate in a freshly bedded stable, others outside and others in the familiar environment of their trailer/lorry.

Dealing with allergic reactions

Horses can come out in skin bumps (urticarial) due to a number of irritants and allergens, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint the cause of the reaction.

Possibilities can include feedstuffs, inhaled substances, insect bites, shampoos, vaccines, heat and stress.

The lumps can develop rapidly or slowly and can be localised or widespread. Some horses appear unaffected by the urticaria whereas others can be very itchy or even distressed.

Owners are often worried about lumps interfering with breathing; if the muzzle and nostrils become very swollen then this is a valid concern but skin lumps down the neck are rarely a problem due to the protective cartilage rings around the windpipe.

If you can think of any new substance the horse has recently been exposed to that can be avoided (e.g. new bedding or feed supplement) that should be taken from their environment.

Cool baths can help reduce itchiness. To treat the lumps antihistamines may be tried but these are not as effective in horses as in people and often steroid treatment is needed to resolve widespread or persistent reactions.

Developing a snotty nose

A snotty nose isn’t the most pleasant thing to discover, but before you wipe his nose clean, take a few minutes to inspect the discharge.

Check your horse’s vital signs to make sure the nasal secretions are not an early warning of a serious health issue or one that may be contagious.

Make a note of the colour, odour and quantity. Observe your horse’s demeanour, does he seem dull or lethargic?

Check his vital signs, paying particular attention to his temperature. If your horse coughs, has a fever and shows other signs of illness in addition to a runny nose, a respiratory disease may be developing and you’ll need to call the vet. 

On the other hand, if your horse’s nasal discharge is clear and watery, and he otherwise seems well, then it’s probably nothing to worry about.

He most likely has some localized irritation in his nasal passages. If you see signs of a thick, foul-smelling discharge, blood or saliva and chewed food then it is best to speak to a vet.


The most common cause of choke is swallowing food which is either too dry or coarse (most commonly hay), or which swells rapidly once chewed so that its passage down the esophagus is slowed or stopped.

It can occur if a greedy horse attempts to swallow hay or feed without chewing it thoroughly.

The most obvious signs are discharge of saliva and feed material from the nostrils and/or mouth, depression and difficulty in swallowing.

When choke first occurs some horses will panic and make repeated unsuccessful efforts to swallow.  In most cases, saliva continually produced in the mouth lubricates the obstruction, eventually allowing its passage into the stomach.

Vets may often help speed resolution by administering a sedative or a spasmolytic injection to help relax the oesophagus.

In other cases the obstruction can be gently encouraged to move on down into the stomach with the help of a stomach tube.

If your horse shows signs of choke it is important not to allow access to food or water until the obstruction has passed.

Methods to prevent choke include soaking feed, feeding hay through a small holed net and allowing access to clean drinking water.

Eye problems

Mild eyelid swelling or small amounts of watery or mucoid discharge where the horse’s eye is wide open and comfortable in full daylight can be managed with first aid.

Try bathing with cooled boiled water and cold compresses (including cooled damp tea bags).

If the horse’s eye is significantly swollen, has profuse discharge or is closed then this should be examined by the vet.

As eye problems can be very painful this may require sedation to fully assess the eyeball and surrounding structures.

Horses with painful eyes often benefit from being in a low-light environment so if the stable cannot be made dark then a fly mask with duct tape over the affected side can help.

fellowes-farm-shop-horse-eye Corneal ulcer highlighted by fluorescin stain.

Vital signs/indicators of a healthy horse

It’s important to know your horse and know what signs are normal for them in terms of demeanour, appetite, urination and defecation.

These signs are simple to monitor and may be your first indicators of a problem.

Other vital signs that can be monitored include heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature.

The heart rate is the number of times the heart beats in a minute and a normal resting heart rate in an adult horse is 28-44 beats/minute.

In slim animals the heart rate can be felt by placing a hand over the left lower chest just behind the elbow.

It is easier to time how many beats you feel in 15 seconds and multiply that by 4 to work out the rate per minute.

The normal resting respiratory rate in an adult horse is 12-16 breaths/minute. There is mild movement of the nostrils and minimal effort made during inspiration and expiration.

It is easiest to watch the chest rise and fall standing to the side and back of the horse looking forward.

Respiratory rate may be a little higher in ponies (up to 20 breaths/minute). Increases in rate are normal during and immediately after exercise.

Maintained increase in respiratory rate or an increase in effort to breathe/nostril flare may indicate a problem.

The normal temperature is between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees centigrade.

First Aid Kit

When attending events it is wise to have a first aid kit for your horse.

This should include a thermometer, latex gloves, scissors, hibiscrub and cotton wool.

An antiseptic ointment for minor cuts and scrapes and a hydrogel to apply to fresh wounds under dressings.

Bandaging equipment should include a couple of sterile dressing pads, a veterinary poultice, veterinary Gamgee, soft bandage and crepe bandage.

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