Wound Care, Naturally
By Lynn Carrick
"Accidents happen," they say. And sadly, "they" are right. The most idyllic romp in the pasture can end with an unexpected and most unfortunate injury. Of course, the veterinarian is the one to call to evaluate and treat any condition that threatens the health of your horse, but there are many methods of wound care, for first aid and for continuing healing, that you should know so you can prevent infection and other complications. As a general rule of thumb, if you think the wound is serious enough to be covered while it is healing, it's serious enough for you to consult a veterinarian. If you feel the injury requires the attention of a vet, ask when you call to see what, if anything, he would like you to do until he arrives. It can make his job harder to have to clean out a wound that's been filled up with ointments before he has a chance to see and evaluate it. It would be best to simply rinse out such a wound with a solution of warm water with a few drops of hypericum added, or if hypericum isn't readily available, dissolve a little salt in the water.
Luckily, the largest percentage of wounds that occur are minor and don't require the attention of a professional. When you're dealing with a minor cut or scratch of this nature, maybe from a thorn or sharp branch along the trail, first, make sure there is no dirt or foreign object of any sort, such as leaf debris, left in the wound. Just as with a more serious wound, you can rinse it out with a solution of either salt water or warm water with a little hypericum added. A spray bottle or clean syringe works well to remove debris without forcing dirt deeper into the wound. If the cut is still bleeding, use distilled witch hazel for its astringent and coagulating (blood-clotting) properties. Other astringent herbs are also useful for this purpose, such as rosemary, yarrow and goldenrod.
Remember that the bleeding of any cut is part of a natural system of healing - the blood flow brings with it antibodies against germs and the physical action of the bleeding washes out dirt and other impurities. Unless the flow is heavy and you fear the horse will lose enough blood to cause additional problems, a little bleeding can be a good thing. When the bleeding is too heavy, use a sterile compress, if available, and compression to staunch the flow. If no sterile compress is available, of course, use whatever is handy. Even though infections can threaten the health of your horse, excessive blood loss can threaten her life, and if that is a concern, deal with the most critical problem first. Infections can be treated once you've made sure the horse's life is no longer in danger.
Once the bleeding is stopped or in those injuries where there is little blood flow, healing is next on the agenda. It's important to remember that healing should occur from the inside of a wound to the outside. It wouldn't do to have the outside of a wound closed when there is still unhealed tissue inside. This can result in abscesses or other serious infections. So, if the wound is deep, even if it's not bleeding, you might want to consider using a poultice to keep the outside moist while the inside is healing. Don't treat the outside of such an injury with any herb that has a strong healing effect such as comfrey because you don't want to promote the healing of the skin before that of the underlying tissues.
Poultices are useful in wound healing for just this type of deep wound. They are, simply, hot or cold substances that are applied to a wound or other affected area in order to provide some benefit such as reduction of swelling, drawing out of fluid, infection, or foreign bodies. Poultices tend to discourage the formation of clots or scabbing on the outside of deeper wounds allowing the inside to heal first, and therefore should never be used for more than 48 hours without the advice of a veterinarian. Hot herbal poultices should be changed three times a day, though some cold pack poultices, generally containing a type of clay, are recommended for use for up to two days. Make sure hot poultices are warm enough to help, but not so warm that you can't stand the heat on the back of your hand. Covering them with a bit of plastic wrap will keep out external moisture, and ensure that the poultice is only drawing moisture from the inside of the wound. A piece of aluminum foil can help maintain the warmth longer. Depending on the location of the injury, it may need bandaging. Stretch wraps such as vet-wraps and stretch tapes can be used to keep the bandaging in place without constricting blood flow, which is essential for healing. You might even find that a piece of an old stocking or pair of pantyhose is useful.
Slippery elm is a good choice of herb for a poultice you would want to use on a puncture or other deep wound. It has strong drawing properties and is ideal for use with other substances that have antiseptic properties, such as chamomile, lavender, tea tree oil, eucalyptus or garlic. One or two tablespoons of slippery elm powder can be mixed with enough boiling water to form a paste. Remember to check the temperature of the paste before applying it to the wound. Fresh or dried herbs should be placed on a square of cloth on a large plate, covered with boiling water, and allowed to cool enough to handle. The excess water is then squeezed out before carefully applying the poultice to the wound and covering it with plastic wrap and bandaging. If the wound is in the sole of the foot, it can be helpful to soak the foot in a tub or bucket of warm water containing about ten drops of the oil of one of these herbs and then apply a poultice made of slippery elm powder and a few drops of that oil.
Slippery elm powder poultice
There is a wide variety of healing products available on the market these days, so choosing one can be a bit daunting. Since a horse's skin tends to dry out more quickly than that of other animals, creams or ointments are usually a better choice than powders or sprays (most of which contain substances like alcohol, which tend to dry out tissues). Even some poultices are available pre-packaged. Most wounds will heal best when exposed to air, but in the summertime, or any time that insects are plentiful, you should apply something to the wound that will not only aid in healing but will also repel flies.
As mentioned earlier, comfrey is an excellent choice for healing wounds because of a substance it contains known as allantoin. Allantoin tends to promote cell division and speeds up cicatrization, or the formation of scar tissue. This type of product, again, is not recommended for deep wounds, where you want to encourage healing from the inside out, but is very effective for shallower injuries. Other excellent preparations are available, containing hypericum and/or calendula. To encourage healing from a systemic aspect, add some garlic, calendula, cider vinegar or echinacea to the horse's diet to help him fight off infection. Don't forget the psychological aspects of healing either! Give a few drops of the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy© in the mouth or on a piece of apple as soon as you notice the injury. This tends to reduce the amount of stress that always accompanies injuries and that's definitely an important aid to healing.
Remember, always consult your veterinarian whenever you're not sure. It's always better to ask when you don't need to, than not to ask when you do. The only foolish question is the one you never ask!