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Treating Eye Injuries in the Horse

Feeding the horses one winter morning, my heart sunk when I discovered that one horse had injured her eyes. Her slinky style hood had been displaced, and the bottom section of the eye holes wedged tightly into her eyes, covering them entirely. Her upper eyelids protruded over the tightly stretched material. With a sinking heart, I approached her carefully, talking reassuringly so she would not be startled.

horse eye

I carefully removed the slinky hood. Neither eyelid was torn, but both were watering profusely and swollen shut. The horse’s right eye had a swollen fleshy ridge on the underside of the upper lid.
When your horse gets an eye injury, it can look horrible and generate a high level of concern. Many times, even a horrible looking eye can be successfully treated at home, but it does require prompt action and careful monitoring.

With an equine eye injury, the two priorities are to relieve inflammation/pain and prevent infection. Once you have that under control, you just protect the horse’s eye(s) so they can heal.

  • My horse weighed approximately 1000 pounds, so I gave her 10 cc Banamine to help with pain and swelling. Banamine can be injected IV, but not in the muscle. If you can’t give an IV injection, you can give it orally. Simply draw up the dose in your syringe, then remove the needle and administer it orally like you would give paste wormer. Banamine does have a strong and disgusting taste, so you may want to offer the horse a little sweet feed afterward, to help them get the bad taste out of their mouth.

If there is obvious debris or foreign objects in the horse’s eye, (dust, shavings, dirt, a splinter, etc) flush the eye well with sterile saline solution. The saline solution for contact lenses works fine for this purpose.

  • The next step is to treat the injured eye(s) with antibiotic ophthalmic eye ointment. I have had good results with Vetro-Gen, which is gentamicin sulfate but there are several brands available. All come in a tiny 1/8 ounce tube. The ointment is placed in the corners of the injured eye, and then gently worked into the eye. With most eye injuries the first day is the most critical, and the ointment should be applied often-at least every 4-6 hours. In this case, because the swelling was severe I treated the eyes every 3-4 hours the first day.

Depending on how the eye responds you may need to continue at high frequency for several days. Even when the eye improves and normalizes, it’s wise to administer the ointment a couple of times a day for a few days to be on the safe side. It’s easy for a horse’s eye to become infected, and infection can lead to irreparable damage, up to loss of vision or the entire eye.

As the eye heals, it must be protected, both from dirt and from bright light. The horse may want to rub the injured eyes because they itch. Shavings, dust, insects will all be attracted to the moisture around the eye both from watering eyes, and the ointment you are applying. A fly mask can work well for this purpose. The horse can see, but the eye(s) are protected from dust and it also keeps some of the light out.

Once the initial swelling and tearing subside, it’s important to inspect the horse’s eye for any ulcers or damage. Any abnormalities (white spot, possible cut/tear/hole, cloudiness, etc) should be discussed with your vet and may require additional diagnosis and treatment. In this case, the eyes started showing improvement on the first day. This horse started with eyes that were swollen shut, and while she “blinked” the eyes barely opened due to swelling and pain.

By early afternoon, after two treatments, the swelling was subsiding and her eyes were open almost halfway. It was clear that she could see out of both eyes. By midnight, the left eye looked almost normal, and the swelling was 75% improved in the right eye.

There is a hot pink line which is a reflection of her neck warmer, and the white spot was created by the camera flash. The right eye still shows some swelling but is dramatically improved. What does not show up in the photograph, but can be seen in person, is a faint cloudy area, violet/blue in color, on each eye. This is not normal, so even with the dramatic improvement, this is a horse that needs to be seen by a veterinarian to ensure everything possible is done for a complete recovery.

In summary, during the first 24 hours, this horse’s eyes were treated 8 times and protected by a fly mask. Based on this level of improvement, she will be turned out for some exercise and start to resume a normal schedule– but both eyes will be treated several times a day until they look 100% normal. And, since there are faint cloudy areas on each eye, she will be re-evaluated by the veterinarian now that the swelling is down.

This article is not a substitute for veterinary consultation and /or treatment but it is meant to encourage you that horse’s eye injuries can make a good recovery if treated promptly and frequently. Not all equine eye injuries are the same or will respond the same, but diligent treatment will maximize the chances for the best results.

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