Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Equine head trauma Part 1: Some facts

A friend of mine called me a few days ago. When she went out to the barn, she found her horse had a huge horizontal bump across his forehead between his eyes. She thinks he cracked his head on the top of his dutch door. He had a lot of nasal discharge but was otherwise okay, it seemed. I know and like this horse, so I spent an evening doing research on traumatic head injuries in horses. I'm not sure that there are 'fun facts' about head trauma, but there are certainly some fascinating facts...

Facts about the horse's head...

  • The skull acts as a crumple zone to protect the brain.
  • The head is a vascular area, which is good and bad. Good, because blood promotes healing, but bad because heads will bleed a lot when injured.
  • Heads are not commonly injured, thank goodness. When there is a head injury, the most common occurrence is a horse rearing and falling backward. Unfortunately, this type of injury frequently involves brain injury/damage.
  • In head injuries, bleeding in the nose/ears is common.
  • The occipital bone (back of skull/top of neck) is the most commonly fractured area, usually the result of a flipping over injury.
  • Generally horses who sustain a skull fracture do not fracture just one area. Any force sufficient to fracture one area will typically travel across the surface and fracture other areas too.
  • Hits to the head which don’t cause bone fractures can result in a bony lump, a callus. It forms 4-6 weeks after the injury between the bones of the skull and is seen most commonly across the forehead between the eyes.
  • The facial nerves are just under the skin, with one major nerve on each cheek and over the back of the jaw. Any damage to the cheek area may cause nerve damage. "Chances for recovery from facial paralysis are poorest if the nerve is damaged high, such as where it leaves the brain. " (Thoroughbred Times)
  • Young horses may be more susceptible to fracture of the basilar bones because "the suture between the basisphenoid and basioccipital bones remains open until 2 to 5 years of age." (Veterinary News)
  • Serious brain injury can occur w/o a fracture.
Part II will focus on symptoms/assessment and diagnosis of head trauma.


Head injuries in horses: from minor to life threatening from the Thoroughbred Times

Helping horses survive traumatic head injury from Veterinary News


  1. I had a TB mare with big and permanent bump on her head between her eyes. My vet told me it was most likely the result of a starting gate accident and that it happened pretty frequently.

  2. Yikes - head injuries...

    I had a gelding rear up in the barn and cut his head open from between the eyes up into his forelock. It was awful looking - not much blood, actually, but just open and nasty looking. Needed a lot of stitches and about 2 months to heal up and the swelling to go away. Horse and I were never able to get over that incident, I ended up selling him.

  3. We had a mare that our neighbor brought in for us to train and as he was leading her from the arena she reared up and flipped herself over and knocked her head. Of course it was a Saturday night when all the vets where out on emergency calls- it was one of the worse nights of my life. We ended up keeping her alive(something I always wonder if was the right thing to do) and she ended up doing better, but was always a pasture pet after that. An interesting end point was that we ended up having to put her down after a couple of years because she wasn't able to fully utilize what she ate and started getting thin no matter what we did- which our vet says can be a result of the brain trauma- the body systems start shutting down- the same thing can happen to the old, old horse.

    On the plus side- not all head injuries are as bad. We had a POA mare that fractured her jaw in her stall (still a mystery as to how). The vet gave us a good prognosis and it healed very well. It was funny because he prescribed soaking alfalfa pellets for her because she probably wouldn't want to chew for the first while- this was after she cleaned up her morning hay without a second thought. We were at a show and she had a hood on when we fed, so we didn't notice what had happened until we took the hood off to groom her- she always had been an easy keeper.

  4. I have to share this story.

    My parents' landlord went riding on someone else's horse boarding his place, got dumped, and broke his leg. When finally mobile again, he decided he was going to go punch the horse in the nose. He hop-crutched his way to the stable and took a big swing. The horse, with no idea what he was on about but being no fool, put her head down.

    As you might expect, no head trauma for the horse, but the landlord broke his hand on her skull.


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