Veterinary advice about hunting

In our monthly equine veterinary feature, Dr Sarah Davidson BVMS MRCVS Assistant Vet at Sussex Equine Hospital give advice about hunting.

Vet Sarah Davidson BVMS MRCVS

For some, there is nothing better than a day out hunting. It’s sociable, exhilarating and a great way to bond with your horse. However, as with any activity involving horses, it comes with risks to both horse and ride and outlined below are some of the injuries you may expect to see from time to time involving your horse and a few hints and tips for how to avoid them, spot them and treat them.

Even for a fit horse, hunting can be strenuous on their bodies. A thorough cool down and wash off is essential before travelling home to minimise musculoskeletal injuries and help with recovery. When removing tack, during washing off or before loading, a full body check for cuts, bruises or other injuries reaps rewards because the quicker any injury is spotted, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Terrain covered while out is likely to include stony ground. Horses running on adrenaline will be less likely to notice the stones, but solar bruising is commonly seen in horses from a few hours after hunting to days down the line. In a similar vein, shoes are prone to being sprung which would definitely spell the end of your day out.

Depending on the level of soreness, a few days’ box rest on a deep bed may be sufficient, but those that are suffering more may need anti-inflammatories and a poultice.

Wounds come in many shapes and sizes and more importantly, are caused by many different things. General rules are to assess location, depth, associated pain, local reaction and level of bleeding.

Over-reach injuries are either caused by a hind limb reaching a front limb or from one horse getting too close to another. Most are superficial and inconsequential, but deep ground can mean that cuts are higher up and involve fetlock and pastern joints or the tendon sheath.

Clean the wound thoroughly, inspect it carefully and bandage it up.
Grazes to knees, fetlocks and stifles may be seen after jumping solid objects like stone walls and again, often amount to nothing. Occasionally, however, the joint is involved. Be critical when looking at the wound and if you can see straw coloured, sticky fluid, be concerned.

Sharp objects such as gate latches can create very dramatic-looking wounds with large skin flaps and lots of blood. Very often these kinds of wounds are much better stitched, but for this to happen, the vet must be called within six hours. A photo is very helpful and will allow your vet to bring all the necessary equipment and to do the best reconstruction job possible. While you are waiting for the vet to arrive, washing the wound with fresh water (a hose will do) or, in the case of excessive bleeding, apply steady firm pressure.

The most feared of all ‘wounds’ is the invisible wound, the blackthorn. Things to look out for are a non-weight bearing lameness and a hot, swollen, painful joint. Either of these things should ring alarm bells and your regular vet should be called immediately.

Blackthorn hedge

From recent research it appears that the inflammation is caused by the chemical that makes the thorn black rather than an infective process. This means that a thorn found and treated early carries an excellent prognosis, but is likely to involve surgery costs along the way.

Horses have no muscle below their hocks and their knees, this means that the joints and tendon sheaths are more exposed so it’s a good idea to avoid clipping your horses legs before hunting, leaving an extra layer of protection.

If you are in any doubt, call your vet for advice and very importantly, if your horse sustains a wound and its tetanus vaccination status is unknown or lapsed, it is better to be safe than sorry and agree to an antitoxin injection.

Tendon injuries will also crop up, getting your horse good and fit before the season can help them to withstand such injuries. Good riding can also play a part, by avoiding deep mud for example. Banding and cold-hosing will minimise swelling. Your horse will likely be sore so Bute can also be beneficial as pain relief and an anti-inflammatory. Remember though, your vet may want to assess the horse before you administer anything.

It is well known fact that horses enjoy a day out hunting as much as their owners. This can manifest in many different ways from being extra vocal to passing the odd loose dropping. Some horses will be on their toes and even more reactive than usual. A horse that is known to kick should have a red ribbon in its tail.

While most of the above injuries will be spotted at the end of the hunt or upon unloading at home, it’s good practice to check your horse one last time before turning in for the night. A hard day’s work, profuse sweating and maybe catching a chill can cause a horse to colic and this is less likely visible until they relax in their stable.

All things said, hunting should be a great day out and if due care and attention by both horse and rider is exercised, accidents will stay at bay.

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