It sometimes seems that horses have a talent for getting themselves in trouble. Usually, it’s the environment we keep them in that is the real problem. No doubt, wild horses occasionally get cast, but it’s common in our domestic horses, and while it can happen to horses in pastures, getting cast is more likely to happen when a horse is in a stall.
What Is Cast?
A horse is said to be cast when it gets stuck on its back or side and a bit like a turtle, can’t get its feet under it to stand up again. The horse's legs may get jammed against a wall or fence, caught in a rope, its own halter, or blanket straps, stuck under a feeder, rail or another object, or the horse might lie down in a hole or hollow in the ground and not be able to scramble out of it.
If your horse has fallen, or has laid down and is unable or unwilling to get up, but is not cast, call your veterinarian immediately.
How Do Horses Get Cast?
Horses that lie down in their stalls may lie down too close to a wall, and be unable to stretch out their legs to get up again. A horse may roll in its stall and get stuck with its legs up against a wall, or tangled in a hay feeder. A horse will roll to scratch itself and get comfortable, or a horse might roll if it has colic. If a stable blanket gets shifted while the horse lies down, it can get tangled in the leg straps and be unable to stand up. In the pasture, horses can get cast when they lie down too close to fences or other objects. Even lying down in a hollow, or against a hill can prevent a horse from regaining its feet. Sometimes soft footing makes it hard for a horse to stand up after lying down. In the winter time, horses that lie or fall in deep snow can become cast. Horses can fall in trailers, and be unable to get up. Many horses, especially youngsters scratch their ears with a hind toe and can get tangled in their halter. Once tangled, the horse may fall and be unable to get up.
What Happens When a Horse Gets Cast?
When a horse becomes cast, two things may happen. Feeling entrapped and unable to regain its feet can cause a horse to panic. As it flails and struggles, it can injure itself. The struggling horse can also hurt anyone who comes near. Although it seems trivial compared to what the panicking horse can do to itself and to the people trying to help it, it can also damage the stables, fences or anything else it strikes. If a horse is cast for a long time, something called reperfusion injuries can occur. The weight of their own bodies restricts blood flow to various areas of the body. When the horse stands on its feet again the blood flowing back into the affected areas causes pain and inflammation. Besides reperfusion injury, blood can pool in the muscles on the underside of the horse and nerves can become damaged by the pressure of the horse’s own body weight. If the injuries from struggling and/or damage due to pooling blood are severe enough the horse may have to be euthanized. Blood can also pool in the lungs.
Eventually, the horse can suffocate. This is why if the horse is not found for many hours when it becomes cast, it may die.
What to Do When a Horse Becomes Cast
First of all, stay calm. Don’t panic, and don’t approach the horse until you have assessed the situation and determined the safest strategy for getting the horse on its feet. Some horses will calm down when they sense help is on the way. Some may continue to struggle, causing themselves more injuries and potentially injuring anyone in the way. Remember too, that a horse can appear to calm down, but then begin to struggle again. Check if the horse is breathing and what injuries it might have. A very messy stall might mean you’re also dealing with a horse with colic. A horse that seems confused may be suffering from a concussion or a neurological problem. If the horse appears to have any other problems beyond simply getting itself into a bad spot, call a veterinarian.
You will probably need some help to get the horse on its feet again. Stay out of reach of the horse’s hooves. If you can safely do so, pull on the horse’s mane so that its front feet and head are further from the object it’s cast against. That may give it just enough room to scramble to its feet. Don’t just pull on the horse’s head and neck as this could cause spinal injuries.
If you can’t safely free the horse’s front end, you may need ropes or lunge lines. Don’t put yourself between the horse and whatever it’s cast against. Reach over the horse, or over the object. Loop the rope around the horse’s lower legs, and pull the horse back over. Just be very sure to stay out of reach of flailing hooves, or head and neck.
How to Prevent Your Horse From Becoming Cast
Horses that spend most of their time turned out are less likely to get cast, although it is still quite possible. Banking bedding against stall walls may help prevent a horse from getting close enough to a wall to get trapped. Make sure all blankets fit well, and that leg and belly straps aren’t too loose. If your horse wears a halter all the time, be sure it is the breakaway type so if the halter catch on anything or the horse puts a hoof through it while scratching, the halter will break easily.
If your horse insists on rolling in its stall, anti-cast back bands can prevent it from doing so. Be sure that gaps under doors and feeders are either tight against the floor or high enough that a horse can’t get stuck beneath them. Stalls with rails, rather than solid walls are not a good idea. If your horse digs holes in deep bedding or dirt floors, try to keep the surface as flat as possible. If you use deep bedding methods, be sure that the surface is flat and even.
Preventing and Dealing With Falls in Trailers
In a trailer, you may need to remove any other horses, and if possible, partitions. Be sure the floors are non-slip. Some people dislike putting bedding down in their trailers because they feel they make the floor slipperier. Others feel bedding makes the footing more secure. What you choose will depend upon the type of mat already in your trailer. Always use quick-release snaps when tying your horse in the trailer. When driving, drive slower than you normally would, and take it easy on turns and bends. Stop and start gradually, doing everything you can to give your horse a smooth ride.
If your horse does go down, you’ll need help. Be very cautious working in the small confines of the trailer. Depending on how the horse lands, it may be better to pull it out the front, than the rear—providing, of course, the front door isn’t too small.
Remember not to panic and work slowly, always looking after your own safety first.