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The Horse Who Cannot Stand Up

Every winter, we see a number of horses who are “down”, that is unable to stand up under their own power. The causes of this varies widely, from injury due to falling on ice to malnutrition. However, regardless of the cause, these horses need careful first aid care.

First of all, if you find one of your horses unable to get up, do NOT spend a lot of time trying to ascertain the cause or to get the horse up. Call for veterinary assistance right away. The sooner these horses are treated the better chance we have of being able to save them. After you have called for the vet, call any friends you have who are available. Sometimes getting a down horse up involves shoveling, digging, and other manual work that requires a number of people.

Once you have made the phone calls, assess the situation. DO NOT attempt to make the horse stand. Horses have in these situations often have a limited amount of energy. We want to conserve this energy for the time when the horse has received the medical treatment and supportive help it needs to be able to actually get up and stay up. Check for any foreign material, wire, etc that may be caught on the horse, Remove it ONLY if you can do so safely and without agitating the horse.

Especially in the winter, most down horses are hypothermic. Bring them buckets of warm water and let them drink all they want, but do not force them to drink or try to squirt water down their throat. If the horse will eat, give it some grain and hay as this will increase body temperature and blood sugar. Cover the horse with a blanket if possible, but remove all leg straps and surcingles first so that the horse does not get entangled if it tries to stand. Remember that being unable to stand is very frightening for a horse, so move slowly and talk softly. It may be best if the person who the horse trusts most is able to stay with them while others handle phone calls and other necessities.

If you find the horse is seated in a bowl or trench in the snow or mud, you can begin trying to dig them out while you are waiting. In order to be able to stand, the horse needs to be in a relatively flat area. Sometimes geriatric horses will lay down and melt the snow underneath them. When they decide to stand up again, they are now in a hole that the senior horse does not have the strength to get out of. DO NOT attempt to drag the horse or lift the horse with a tractor, bobcat or other motorized device as this can result in severe injury to the horse. If the area the horse is in is snowy, icy or muddy, get kitty litter or sand to spread on the ground and provide traction.

Whether a horse who can not stand on their own will survive depends a lot on the cause of the problem. Some problems, such as fractures or brain disease are not easily treated. However, following these basic guidelines will help maximize your horse’s chance for a successful recovery.


Denise Bickel DVM
Whole Horse Veterinary Services
Phone # 517-474-4050
Fax # 517-764-7710
3906 Seymour Rd
Jackson, MI 49201


Hours--Mon, Thurs, Fri from 11 am to 8pm, and Sat and Sun 10 am-4 pm

Whole Horse Veterinary Services. 
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