Everyone who has a horse or is involved in the care of horses knows that at some point their animal is likely to sustain injury or contract a nasty virus or disease. 

Despite our diligence, horses are very adept at hurting themselves. Keep a horse in a stall and it will kick a wall and injure its legs. Turn one out in a paddock and it will get kicked by another horse or manage to entangle itself in the fencing. If there is one sharp item hiding in a field or a stall, a horse will find it and run into it or step on it.

Injuries can just as easily happen under saddle while competing, training or hacking out. Sadly there are also many viruses and diseases that can cause a life-threatening event that requires immediate emergency medical treatment.

Early recognition of the need for immediate medical attention is important and a basic understanding of first aid can be useful. Having a good relationship with your primary care veterinarian is imperative. Veterinarians can assess your horse on the farm and recommend treatment at home or referral to an equine emergency facility.  When warranted, a timely referral is extremely important to ensure that your horse has the best possible chance of a full recovery.

Once your primary care veterinarian has assessed your horse on the farm and decided that referral to an equine hospital is necessary, the veterinarian will call the hospital and provide the receiving clinician with a detailed report of the findings, details of any initial treatment administered as well as your contact information and likely time of arrival at the hospital. If relevant, the veterinarian may also offer some historical medical information about your horse.

Having your own trailer in these situations is preferable, but if not, ensure that you have a good relationship with a friend or professional hauler who is willing to transport your horse at short notice.

Often this is a very scary and intimidating time and it is easy to go into panic mode.

Forethought and planning are important. It is a good idea to know where your nearest equine hospital is located before you are in the midst of an emergency situation. Work out the easiest route in advance and keep contact information inside your truck or trailer. 

Keep medical and general care information about your horse in a designated, easily accessible place. This should include information about a Coggins test, vaccinations your horse has been given, recent medical treatment, and any drugs administered. Details as to where you have taken your horse recently can also provide clues as to why they are experiencing a medical emergency.

The Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (EMC) in Leesburg, Virginia, has a dedicated emergency and critical care team (ECC) that receives and initially treats emergency cases. This team is led by clinicians who are board-certified in equine medicine or surgery and have received additional training in emergency and critical care. This focused training provides the skills needed to diagnose and treat critical emergency cases with life-saving medical or surgical treatment.

When equine patients arrive at the hospital with sometimes life-threatening conditions, time is of the essence to ensure a successful outcome. 

During daytime hours, owners bringing in an emergency will check in with the admissions office. At night, the on-call emergency team will be waiting for your arrival and will take your horse into the hospital building from the trailer parking area. The EMC is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and often receives emergency cases at weekends and during overnight hours.

The emergency and critical care team will be led by a clinician, but you may wonder who the other team members are and what role they play during your horse’s treatment. 

The clinician will be assisted by a resident, an intern, a veterinary technician, and veterinary assistants. If a history has not been provided by your primary care veterinarian, the resident will typically review this information with you. Once information has been gathered owners are directed to the waiting room.

If a patient is known to have a fever or diarrhea prior to arrival, it is transported directly to the EMC isolation unit. Separated from the main hospital building, each stall in this building has an individual heating and air supply to ensure that communicable diseases are not spread from patient to patient. Horses not known to have a fever or diarrhea will be brought directly into the main hospital building where their temperature, pulse, respiratory rate (TPR), and weight will be taken. 

Each emergency case is different, some will require immediate surgical treatment or life-support, while others may need imaging or laboratory diagnostics before a comprehensive treatment plan can be nailed down.

“The EMC receives a diverse range of emergency and critical cases with colic and orthopedic injuries being the most prevalent type of illness or injury,” said Sarah Dukti, clinical assistant professor of emergency and critical care “During the foaling season in the spring we see many very compromised foals which makes our ICU one of the busiest areas of the hospital during that time.” 

Once initial treatment has been completed and the patient is stable, the clinician will sit down with the owner of the horse and explain initial clinical and diagnostic findings and propose a preferred treatment plan as well as an estimate of the total cost of treatment. In some cases, the horse can be treated immediately and returned home for continued care under the client’s primary care veterinarian. In other cases, the horse must remain in the hospital for continued treatment. 

While a horse is under treatment in the hospital the responsible clinician will provide daily updates by phone until the horse is ready to return home.

EMC’s emergency caseload is growing rapidly. EMC’s board-certified specialists and highly skilled clinical support staff are supported by state-of-the-art facilities and diagnostic equipment with life-support capabilities to monitor and manage critically injured or sick patients. 

Close collaboration between primary care veterinarians and emergency and critical care specialists at the EMC ensure that each horse has the best possible chance of a full recovery.

Written by Sharon Peart for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing