Fence Injuries

Wire Cuts
by Catherine Hall DVM

Just about any fence is safe…until it isn’t!

Here in the middle Georgia area we have have had record breaking drought and heat. While the heat and lack of rain has made life miserable, we also need to think about how this may impact our horses, especially our pastures.  Here at CGES, we are seeing an increasing number of leg injuries from fences.  This is likely due to the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side”!  No rain means no grass and horses are still trying to graze on our now non-existent pastures, they are looking elsewhere for green sources…outside the fence.

Injury can occur with any type of fencing, but we see the most severe injuries with wire fencing.  Horses will lean or push against the fence trying to get at grass. As they realize they can get further and further, they begin to try and step through the fence.  But horses don’t seem to understand the concept of picking the foot back up to release the leg and then they are trapped.  Once trapped, the horse panics and starts pulling or running until the fence breaks or the horse gives up. This is when the biggest injury occurs.  The wire acts like a knife on their skin, muscle and tendons-leading to very large, unsightly wounds.   

You may have slick wire, electric wire, barbwire, wood, vinyl, coated electric, hog wire, no climb wire, or many other alternatives of fence.  But here are a few things to keep in mind with your fence, whatever type it may be, to try and prevent these injuries from occurring.

•    Visibility -  Horses have to be able to see the fence at all times. Brightness and contrast from the surrounding landscape makes the fence more visible. If the fence line is overgrown with brush it is much harder to see. Pieces of cloth or colored tape are very helpful with this, the movement and color difference makes the fence much more visible.

•    Materials - The smaller the area the safer the materials need to be. A large field may be safely fenced in barbed wire but a small paddock needs to be constructed with safer materials such as woven wire, wood  or vinyl. "T" posts have no place in a small enclosure or a common fence line. Post caps are essential if you must use them.

•    Fence lines - It is best if fence lines are not shared.  Horses will fight among fence lines if enticed, which commonly leads to injuries.  Having an alley or some degree of separation between paddocks and pastures is ideal.

•    Smart turn out strategies - Group horses together who are known to get along.  If new horses arrive, place them with a horse that usually gets along with others in the safest fencing you have available.  Horses being turned out in a new pasture for the first time should be turned out early in the daylight so they can learn the landscape. Lower class horses will run through fences trying to get away when being chased, so think, watch and learn how your horses react.

•    Fence Installation - Make sure that whatever type of fence you decide on is properly installed.  A lot of times, we’ll be in a hurry to get a fence up and cut some corners. This can lead to an improperly installed fence which can cost you more in the long run. Rounded corners are safer because horses cannot trap each other. Gates need to be hung so the horses cannot lift the gate off the pins. Be sure to install gates that swing easily and close securely.  Plan for gates large enough to drive a vehicle through. Horses will learn to lean on woven wire fences gradually destroying the fence of there is not an electric wire or board placed along the top.

But no matter how hard we try, horses will be horses and manage to find ways to injure themselves anyway.  

So, what do you need to do if your horse has an injury?  Whether you feel it was caused by a fence or not, here are some good things to keep in mind.

1.   If the wound is deep or bleeding, or you are unsure about how to handle the situation, call your veterinarian immediately.  Most wounds to the lower limb, unless they are very superficial, require some extent of veterinary treatment. First thing first: if the wound is actively bleeding apply pressure with a clean towel or bandage.
2. If is possible for your horse to walk, get them into the cleanest, driest environment you have available even if this is just to higher ground out of the dirt and mud. This just helps keep the wound from becoming more contaminated than it already is and it makes treating the wound easier.
3.  If the wound is contaminated with mud, sand, shavings, etc. you may gently hose around the wound to help remove the debris,however don’t spray water directly into the wound.  High pressure on the tissue may be damaging. 
4. DO NOT  put any ointments, powders, sprays or other over the counter products on the wound with out being told to do so. While it might seem like a good idea many products contain ingredients that are harmful to tissue and the wound CANNOT be sutured once these have been applied. The product label may claim to help healing when in fact many of these products can be caustic to the wound causing a delayed healing time.
5. DO NOT give any sedation, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory or other medication prior to the veterinarian arriving. Many medications may lower blood pressure which could cause the horse to collapse if it is bleeding and complicate anesthesia if it becomes necessary. Some medications make infections worse.
6. You may cover the wound with a clean non-stick, absorbent cotton with Vetwrap or a standing wrap until the vet arrives to assess the wound

If ever in doubt, call us, we're here to help.

A few things you should have on hand or in a first aid kit:
•    A non-stick, absorbent cotton wrap such as combine, a baby diaper, or even quilts/no-bows would work.
•    Vetwrap or a standing wrap
•    Gauze sponges
•    Non-stick gauze pads such as Telfa®

Once we arrive there are some critical elements which will influence our treatment options and the outcome of the injury.  Most importantly is the location of the wound; is it in a high motion area, an area with a lot of skin tension or is the wound over a joint. If the wound is over a joint or tendon sheath, we will need to take special precautions.  The depth of the wound will help us determine all of this.  If only the skin and subcutaneous tissues are involved the wound may be ready for surgical repair at this time. If the wound is deep and involves tendons, exposed bone, joints or tendons sheaths a more aggressive treatment plan will be necessary to avoid permanent disability.  If swelling is present a delayed closure may be required..  If the horses has a fever, infection may already be present and antibiotics are needed.. If the horse is showing signs of shock, fluids may be needed. If a large amount of blood has been loss, a transfusion may be needed.

Our treatment plan will be based upon the above assessment.  Primary closure, which involves suturing the wound back together, is one option.  This is most desirable, but not always possible.  Another option we choose is a secondary closure.  If there is excessive swelling but a fairly clean cut and not a lot of tissue damage, we may elect to perform a delayed closure. In these cases the wound is placed in a pressure bandage for a few days then surgically closed when the swelling has resolved and the wound bed is healthy.  Then there are the wounds in which closure is never possible, and the wound has to heal by second intention.  Basically, there is so much tissue damage and swelling that the wound never gets to a point where closure is possible.  But the body will do amazing things in the way it heals wounds. We can manage the healing process by the use of special materials to minimize scarring for the most cosmetic outcome. 

So, should you and your horse experience one of these injuries, what should you expect?  Initially, the wound will be wrapped in a pressure bandage regardless of the treatment we are able to perform.  This bandage will be in place from a few weeks to a few months.  The horse will likely be placed on and anti-inflammatory drug and an antibiotic.  Age, severity of the wound, location of the wound and available treatment options greatly determine the length of time for healing.  For example, wounds in a high motion area will take longer to heal versus wounds on a flat surface that has no motion.  

Other things to keep in mind are the facilities that you have available.  Injured horses need to be confined to a stall, or small pen. Horses CANNOT be turned out while wearing a bandage as the bandage may slip and cause more damage.  Bandage cannot become wet or dirty or they do more harm than good..If you do not have a stall at your farm it may be necessary for your horse to be stabled at another location during the healing process. This is one thing to think about prior to an injury occurring.  Do you have appropriate facilities at your place, or do you have a place you may take your horse should this arise.

One case we’ve had over the last several months of lower limb injuries is a 17 year-old,
Thoroughbred gelding who got his right hind limb caught in hot wire. He arrived at the clinic with  a 10 inch laceration beginning over the lower hock and extending to his fetlock.  The skin was pealed back with both extensor tendons and  a 4 inch section of his cannon bone exposed.  All of the tissue between the tendons had pulled away from the bone and were not repairable.  The leg was very swollen and painful on the initial treatment.

 The wound was thoroughly cleaned, packed with an antibiotic ointment and placed in a pressure bandage.  Due to the length and position of the wound, the initial bandage covered nearly the entire leg. Initially he required daily care. As time went on the bandage changes were less frequent and the bandages became smaller.

  It is still in the process of healing as the last picture shows, but you can definitely see the progress. You can see where the skin is growing over the granulation tissue.  The skin edges will eventually meet and all that will remain is a much smaller scar.

We hope you'll find this information helpful. Hopefully you will never need to manage a severe injury like this one. If you have any questions regarding this topic or suggestions for future newsletters please let us know.
Charlene & Catherine