Donna Campbell Smith is author of five traditionally published books and three independently published books, plus many magazine articles.
Gene Glasscock, long distance rider, had reached Texas. He and his two horses, Tennessee Walkers named George and Frank, were making a 20,000 ride to each of the US capitol cities. This particular night they were sleeping under the Texas sky. In the morning Gene noticed a swelling the size of a silver dollar, but didn't think too much of it. But by nightfall he saw the swelling had worsened to the length of a dollar bill and as thick as his hand. George never showed any sign of feeling sick, but the hair sloughed off and the two fang marks were apparent. There was no vet available, so there was nothing Gene could do but go on to the next town. It took about three weeks for the hair to grow back, and then George was good as new. Gene guessed the horse must have rolled over on the snake in the night.
Once warm weather arrives, so do cold-blooded creatures, including snakes. In the United States, only a few species of snakes are poisonous. They are the copperhead, water moccasin, several varieties of rattlesnakes and in the extreme southeast, the corral snake. Knowing what to do in case your horse is bitten can mean the difference in a serious or not so serious situation.
Rattlesnakes are the most likely species to strike; they are very aggressive. But, for the most part a snake doesn't bite unless you threaten him. When trail riding watch the path ahead of you, and avoid stepping over logs and going through thick brush where you can't see what's ahead of your horse. Check with your state's wildlife department to learn which poisonous snakes are in your area and learn how to identify them. The old adage, "the only good snake is a dead snake" is simply not true. Snakes are important in controlling small vermin such as rats and mice. Avoidance is better than killing every snake you see.
Several factors determine the severity of the venom's effect on the horse. The size of the snake and the size of the horse, location of the bite, the health of the horse, and the time it takes to get treatment for your horse all determine how dangerous the effect of the bite.
As a rule larger snakes have more venom to inject into their victims. Of course the smaller the horse the more harm can be done by the poison, so a foal is more likely to suffer severely than a full-grown horse.
The most dangerous place for a horse to be bitten is on the face. That is because the swelling from the venom can cause suffocation. A curious horse that encounters a snake in the pasture is likely to drop its head to better see the snake and then be bitten on the face.
If the nostrils swell shut, a piece of garden hose inserted into the nostril can keep the horse's airway open. If you are trail riding and a poisonous snake bites your horse, do not gallop him home for help. Running will only increase the heart rate, speeding up the horse's blood circulation, and sending the poison throughout the body at faster rate. Keep your horse calm and walk him home. On a trail ride, the bite will probably be on the horse's leg, which is not normally fatal. The horse is such a large animal that the venom is reduced by the time it reaches vital organs. You should get veterinary help as soon as possible.
First aid until the vet arrives is to treat the bite like a puncture wound by washing it with soap and water and applying an antibacterial medication. The old advice of cutting a ‘X' and sucking out the blood is no longer recommended for horses or humans that have been bitten by a poisonous snake, because it increases the danger of infection. An antivenin is available, but very expensive. The veterinarian's treatment will include a tetanus shot and antibiotics. She or he might also give drugs to combat inflammation such as steroids. The vet will also look for signs of shock and treat accordingly.
The venom causes tissue to break down and swell, and like in the case of George, the Walking Horse, the skin may slough off. This will require antibacterial dressing to ward off infection until it heals.
To learn to tell the difference between non-poisonous and poisonous snakes you can study pictures of poisonous snakes at trailquest.
If Your Horse Does Have a Life-Threatening Reaction
If your horse's whole body starts to swell, or if the horse has trouble breathing because swelling has obstructed its airways call your vet immediately. The vet may advise you give the horse an anti-inflammatory drug such as banamine or phenylbutazone to reduce the swelling. Keep the horse still and calm. If the air passage is closing pass a short length of garden hose down the nostril as a first aid measure until the vet arrives. This is something you ask your vet to show you how to do before you need the knowledge.
The vet will also prescribe antibiotics and treat the wound as a puncture wound.
Factors that affect the severity of a snake bite to your horse include the amount of venum the snake injects, the size of the horse, the health of the horse (especially its immune system), and the location of the bite.
Horse Was Bitten by Poisonous Snake on Face
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith
Robin C on August 02, 2012:
My sons horse was bitten on the jowl - two distinct round puncture wounds, 1/2 inch apart, draining light pink fluid. I assumed snake bite and called our vet right away. Horse presented with swollen face, rapid breathing (78 breaths per minute!) and total absence of sweating in 90+ degree weather. Since we have a boarding barn and own 5 horses of our own, I have a reasonably well-stocked equine "farmacy". Vet instructed 7cc injectable banamine, 6 cc injectable dexamethosone, 1 tbs tri-hist granular antihistamine, and 6 cc albutural gel by mouth. Administered all above, cleaned the punctures with cool water, mild soap and applied Neo-sporin salve. Five days of treatment later, the 21 YO pony is fine, although the puncture area has developed a significant scab area. We had a very, very similar experience with my son's 12 YO TB eventer in terms of symptomotology, but did not find puncture wounds, so we assumed allergic reaction to ...? Took twice as long to resolve, because we had no clear diagnosis. Long story short, FAST recognition and diagnosis of snake bites with appropriate treatment can make all the difference. Both are fine, and back to work, but there were some very scary moments!
badgirl8 on December 30, 2011:
The story is really sad .
Shay on September 30, 2011:
My mare was bitten by what i think is a rattlesnake (just went out to feed and noticed the bite) and its not bothering her however its oozing puss. Its right between her eye and nostril. I think after she gets some meds in her we will try the Kerosene trick about the swelling. However i am a little concerned due to she is a little underweight(Not a dramatic amount) , and i hope that dose not affect the recovery to much
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on August 03, 2011:
Wow, Akin, that is interesting. Thanks for posting that remedy.
akin on August 03, 2011:
My horse was snake bit yesterday...twice in the face I believe. After the trip to the vet with the typical vet meds, he prescribed soaking a towel in kerosene and wiping his face with it. After a night of more swelling I started the kerosene. His swelling tonight is half of what it was this morning. The kerosene is an old "cowboy" trick and I must say it has almost totally alleviated the intense swelling that shut one nostril and significantly inhibited the other. No one including the vet knew why it works, but who cares, it saved my horses life.
dctack on May 14, 2011:
My quarter horse was bitten this morning by a snake. I found 1 puncture wound and 1 scratch on the side of his face. One nostril was very swollen. Under the advice of a retired vet,(my regular vet was out of town and the vets taking his calls were out of state or couldn't see him for 5 hours!)I gave him 10 cc's banamine iv, 12 cc's dexamethsone im, and 15 cc's penacillian im. It's been 12 hours, he's still swollen but confortable enough to graze. He's always been 'nosey', hopefully he will be more careful where he puts his nose. I always carry a fully stocked vet emergency kit, after today I'm going to add pieces of tubing to it.
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on April 25, 2011:
Dave I am so sorry to hear about your mini. I hope he recovers fast. it sounds like you have done all the right stuff.
dave on April 25, 2011:
my mini stud was copperhead bit this morning on the nose.3 ccs (300# mini) banamine, then 4cc dexamtenasne steroids and 5 cc penacillin swelling continued all day
csp67 from Burlington, NC on August 10, 2010:
thanks for this article but im a little late tho. my horse got bitten 2x on the nose 2 days ago. Since we live in NC we are assumeing it was a copperhead. He's doing MUCH better now but that was some scary stuff!!it was about 730pm sunday night,he was halfway through his hay.my friend that i board with was mixing his feed when he all of a sudden he started running around his pasture, throwing his head, neighing like a crazy man. she got to his stall and dumped the feed but he would not come in to eat,then he ran up to her and just wanted to rub his face all over her(shes 70 so that's not a good idea!)that's when she noticed a pretty good swelling on his nose. by the time she grabbed a halter and came back, his entire nose had swelled so much that the halter barely fit!! he was having a lot of trouble breatheing on his left side then the right side started to swell.so She hit him w/some banamine and waited for the vet. the vet tranked him just so she could get near him calm enough to examine him because he was twitching, jerking his head and "swaying" his head like a head shy horse does.the twitches and jerks were like he was having a seizure like swaying drunk?? (sorry ive had very little sleep and that's the best i can decribe it) The vet decribed it as his entire nose would be burning and throbbing w/pain and spreading :( she stayed for about 3 hrs ($$$) to watch him as there are major side affects to CH bites. she has put him on 24mg of penicillin, 10 SMZ's, 1000lb oral dose and wash the bites and put an ointment on them- 2x day!! he was UTD on his tet shot and vaccines, so now i have to baby him, keep him cool,calm and watch his stools and his temp and ESP his water in take as the swelling and all the meds can dehydrate him.....he swelled to about the size of a large cantalope.its been about 2 1/2 days since he was nosey enough to get bit twice and the swelling is at about 50% than what it was.Hes a 6 1/2yr old,tri colored appendix gelding.he plays w/everything in the pasture,hoses,plastic chair,his rubber horse ball....hes a big baby and so pitiful! hes never been sick, but hes been such a good boy being poked all day.silly boy!i didn't think of taking pics as im treating him very early and later at night(meds are every 12hrs)sorry this is so long,ive haven't selpt much since this started--THANK GOD SOMEONE IS HOME 24/7 WHERE I KEEP HIM!!thanks for reading....
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on August 05, 2010:
TJ, it sure sounds like a snake bite. If anyone has a picture and would like to share a link that will be great! Meanwhile I look around on the Internet and see what I can find.
TJ on August 05, 2010:
I wish these kinds of articles would show you pictures of what a snake bite on a horse's leg may look like. I believe one of my horse's was recently bitten by a poisonous snake. She came up to be fed in the morning and her back leg (above the feltlock) was swollen up bigger than a small basketball. There were two identical marks on each side of leg which appeared to have "split wider" with the swelling. She had been fine the night before. I figured it had to be a snake (I live in Arkansas) because it is unlikely her leg would have swelled up that badly and that fast if she had simply cut herself on a fence or something. Our vet (who never saw the actual injury) gave us a shot of Banamine to give her and had us keep her leg on ice the whole day til the swelling went down. It has now been a week since the incident and her leg is still marginally swollen but appears to be healing. Ironically, through the whole thing, she never appeared to be sick or even lame. Not sure what to make of our incident, but it would have been nice to find good pictures to compare her wounds with to see if they really did match a snakebite.
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on April 06, 2010:
Oops! Thank you Bee for catching my error. Fixed it:o)
bee h on April 05, 2010:
he changed horses midway through the article. first george, then frank was bitten.
Natural Horsemanship on March 28, 2010:
I hate that snake.. :]
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on July 09, 2009:
Yes, that is a good idea, to carry the piece of hose with you when out on a trail where a snake bites is possible. Thanks for adding your comment.
jasfcca from Cave Creek, Arizona on July 09, 2009:
After living & riding in the desert for many years, the main thing I have always been told is to carry a piece of garden hose in case your horse gets bit on the nose as the nose would swell up so the horse would not be able to breathe. Biting is a defense for rattle snakes and most won't bite unless cornered. I have been face to face with them and I'm not sure who was trying to get away the fastest, me ot the snake. I have had my horse walk over the top of one and the rattlesnake just kept going. The closest call was when we stopped on the trail for a minute and while my horse was grazing, a rattlesnake started rattling pretty close to where his head was. I freaked out and pulled his head up and away form it, my horse just moved over and went back to eating. I know my all the dogs I have had seem to know to stay away and even have a different bark when they come across one. I think the animals sometimes know more than their owners and we should listen to them. Oh and one other tip, watch what color sunglasses you wear. Some glasses like blueblockers, blend the desert colors making it hard to see rattlesnakes.
Gypsy Willow from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand on May 13, 2009:
Useful information that one doesn't want to put to the test! Thanks
Donna Campbell Smith (author) from Central North Carolina on April 18, 2009:
I was watching a PBS special on snakes the other night. The guy says they don't "want" to bite you because that will be wasting venom on something they cannot eat. I don't think I want to test that theory;o)
Mardi Winder-Adams from Western Canada and Texas on April 18, 2009:
Thanks for another great article. Being in Texas and bringing my horses down from Alberta I was always worried about them being snake bit. So far so good - dogs have been snake bit but not the horses. It seems that most animals know to stay away from snakes and riders have to give the horse the benefit of the doubt if he or she seems hestant to walk through brush or along wet places where snakes may be present.