Ouch! If you’ve ever had a horse come in from the pasture with a face full of porcupine quills or cactus spines, or if you’ve been out on the trail when such a spiny encounter has occurred, you know the irritation these natural defenses can cause to your horse. Here are some tips for first aid management of this occasional equine hazard.
The first thing to know when your horse has suddenly sprouted spines is to always consider safety first. This means safety for both your horse and you. While some horses may not appear to be very bothered by a few quills or spines, others can become highly distressed. This of course also depends on how many spines are involved and where they are on the horse’s body.
You can begin to judge a horse’s reaction to his predicament by observing his body language as you attempt to get a closer look. If the horse dances away from you or doesn’t allow you to touch the affected body area, this is a good indicator to call the vet, as sedatives may be needed to more closely examine the area and safely remove the spines. This is especially important if the spines or quills are on a lower leg. If this is the case, be very careful of unexpected kicks.
If your horse is calm and willing to let you closely examine and touch the affected area, evaluate the number of spines or quills and if there is any swelling or discharge which would indicate a localized infection. This can sometimes happen if the object has been in the skin for more than a few hours.
For removing quills or spines, small pliers or tweezers can be used, depending on the thickness of what has penetrated the skin. If your horse is compliant and you feel comfortable doing this, you can remove the quills or spines yourself. The key to a successful spine or quill removal is to grasp it as close to the base as possible and firmly pull it straight out. Do not pull at an angle because this increases the chance of it breaking and leaving a piece embedded in skin, which is harder to remove and increases the chance of infection.
Once all spines or quills are removed, gently clean the area with antibacterial soap or a dilute iodine solution. If you use iodine, dilute it with water so that the color resembles weak tea. Then keep a close eye on your horse for the next few days. Monitor the area for continued redness, swelling, discharge, or other signs of irritation. You may consider keeping the removed spines or quills for examination by your veterinarian.
The spines of some cactus species are more irritating than others. The cholla cactus, for example, has small spines but they are known for being extremely irritating to the skin. They also tend to attach in clusters, so a horse (or rider!) may come back with numerous cholla spines—a perfect way for the plant to spread its seeds but a literal pain for equestrians and their horses, for sure!
Some riders living in the desert resort to removing these cholla cacti from paddocks and avoiding areas on the trail where they are known to grow. If you plan on trail riding in an area with cacti, consider packing a small saddle bag equipped with tweezers and a little gauze and antiseptic, just in case.
Spines and quills should be removed from your horse as soon as they are found. This is particularly important for porcupine quills, since quills have a sponge-like core that soaks up moisture and causes the quill to swell once it has embedded in the skin. This swelling makes it more difficult and more painful to remove the longer it is embedded.
If you have successfully removed the spines or quills from your horse and observe no further irritation, there is no need to call your vet for a visit. However, if you have any concerns about the affected area, such as continued irritation, or you were unable to removal all the spines or suspect a spine has broken beneath the skin, a visit from your vet is a good idea.
There are two situations where a vet should always be called. Spines or quills in the eye are always a medical emergency and should be immediately seen by a veterinarian. Secondly, if you notice discharge from where spines or quills were removed, a veterinarian should come out for further evaluation. Discharge may indicate infection and antibiotics may be prescribed. During a vet’s visit, she may update your horse on his tetanus booster as well.
While a horse coming in from the pasture with a face full of spines or quills is disheartening to see, a little care and some delicate plucking can go a long way. The quicker nature’s barbs can be removed, the quicker you can get back in the saddle.
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