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Upside Down!

You may have had horses all your life, and it’s possible that you’ve never experienced an upside down horse. It might also be that you own a horse that gets cast on a regular basis. “Cast” in the equine world refers to a horse that is down and can’t get back up because of the position he or she is in. The horse is usually up against a wall, sometimes truly upside down, with all 4 legs sticking straight up into the air. Others will be found on one side with all 4 legs tucked in and their hooves against the wall. They get in these crazy spots and aren’t able to gather everything together to get up. It takes a certain amount of momentum for a horse to rise, and this gets difficult when he is on his back or jammed next to a wall or another obstacle. Horses can and do get cast next to fences, round pen panels, feeders, or any immovable objects. Our first clue that a horse is cast in the barn is usually the loud banging of feet against a stall wall.

Years ago I knew a mare named Daisy who would get cast at pasture with no wall or object in sight. She preferred to lie down in gullies. I think she liked the depressions in the earth that must have been like a giant cradle for her. After a nap in the sun she would try to get up and end up with her legs waving in the air, like an upside down beetle. This happened so regularly that if her owner didn’t see her grazing as she looked out from her kitchen window, she’d head out to the rescue. Through trial and error she knew just how to slide ropes over Daisy’s legs. When the mare made an attempt, her owner pulled on the ropes and flopped Daisy onto her side. From there Daisy would jump to her feet and start eating grass. As the mare got older and a little arthritic, getting up became more of a problem, and she had to be fenced off from her favorite pasture depressions.

Colicky horses are apt to lie down and roll to find a comfortable position, and may get cast in the process, but in my experience, most cast horses don’t start with a belly ache.

Finding your horse cast can be unnerving. Every so often I get a midnight call asking me to come out and tranquilize their cast horse. This is really not necessary. Cast horses will lie still for a while and then go through some all-out efforts to get up. As they struggle, they scrape and bang their feet against the stall wall. It sounds like someone trying to knock the barn down with a sledge hammer. So, while it’s scary, it is not a medical emergency. If you keep your cool, you can straighten things out yourself with the help of a couple of friends. If the horse is on its side with legs all jammed up against a wall, the safe way of getting him untangled is to spin his head end away from the wall. Approach the horse from the horse’s back. Never get next to the wall near those active legs. Position your team along the length of the mane, and have everyone grab two good handfuls. Then all pull together in a co-ordinated effort straight back. This will rotate or spin the front end away from the wall. Now the down animal has enough room to get up by himself. This spinning is most easily done in a stall with a smooth floor but is hard to do on dirt.

If your horse is against the wall and truly upside down, the technique is different. The goal here is to get the animal back on its side with the legs in the middle of the stall instead of against the wall. Carefully slide a rope over the front and hind legs that are next to the wall. Ideally the loop should be just under the hoof, around each pastern. It is best not to tie a knot. Just make one turn around the pastern so that the ropes will drop off once the horse is right side up. Using ropes gives you good leverage and keeps you out of harm’s way. This is a three person project. One for each foot, front and rear, and one to cushion the head as it comes over. The two on the feet pull steadily towards the middle of the stall to flop the horse onto its side, away from the wall. When the legs come over, the body has to follow. All hands should be ready to move out of the way quickly as the horse comes over. This procedure should be done quietly, with the person at the head reassuring the horse the entire time. Once the horse is on its side everyone should leave the stall and give the horse a chance to rest for a few minutes. Usually he will soon get up by himself.

Some horse owners report that banking the bedding in the stall very heavily ( 3 or 4 feet out, and at least 2 feet high) against the walls will keep their animal from getting cast. You can also attach anti cast strips to the stall walls. This can be anything from a simple 2 x 4 to the commercially available hard rubber strips designed for this purpose. Screw the strips or the wood into the wall at about the same height as a chair rail in a house. This gives the horse something to dig into with his feet and helps him away from the wall.

A prevention that has worked for some is an anti-cast roller. It looks something like a vaulting rig, and it goes around the horse’s wither area and cinches up like a saddle. There are big iron rings on the top which make it impossible for a horse to go all the way up on its back. The problem I see with them is that you never know when a horse is going to get cast, so as a true preventive, it would have to be worn all the time. Unless you have a horse that repeatedly casts himself there would be no point in making this investment.

It’s probably not a bad idea to have two 12 foot ¾ inch diameter (or more) soft cotton ropes in the barn ready to use for a cast horse. Having one for each leg works best. Lunge lines and lead shanks can be used, but they can be hard on your hands and on the horse’s legs when you are trying to flip him over.

Getting cast is just another interesting thing about horses and the situations they can get into.

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