Horses & Snake Bites: Everything You Need To Know About Dealing With Them

Most snakes keep out of our way but horses are curious creatures that will stick their heads out to investigate something which means that snake bites on horses sadly aren’t as uncommon as we’d like them to be. That said though, hopefully, you’ll never have to deal with your horse being bitten by a snake but if you’re unfortunate (or more to the point if your horse is) then it’s important to know what to do and what not to do.

With snakes covering practically every corner of the States, snake bites are something that are sometimes unavoidable which is why I thought it would be helpful to write this article. I wanted to put my experiences, as well as those of many vets, to good use and help other people deal with the consequences of snakes biting their horses.

Which snakes are most likely to bite horses?

In America, there are only four types of poisonous snake that can and do bite horses. The most common bites come from rattlesnakes while horses are far less likely to be bitten by coral snakes. This is partly due to the fact that they have smaller mouths and aren’t able to bite as well as some other snake species. As a general rule snakes are more scared of us (and horses) and will keep out of their way, but snakes like the Water Moccasin (or Cottonmouth) are very territorial and will defend their territory.

While the rattlesnake can be found throughout America, not every snake is so widespread. The table below will help you to know what snakes can be found in which states.

Species of snakeAppearance of the snakeLength of an adult snakeHow snake shows its annoyedWhere the snake is foundRegion where the snake lives
CopperheadsCopperhead snakes can easily bite a horseTan colored body with darker hourglass-shaped bands18 to 36 inchesVibrate tailRocky or wooded areas as well as near water.Eastern United States, but can be found as far as Texas.
Coral SnakesCoral snakes are less likely to bite horsesRed, black, and yellow bands around the entire body20 inches Rattle tail which makes a popping soundWooded, sandy or marshy areas, often under piles of leaves.Southern United States
Water Moccasins / CottonmouthsCottonmouths can be found in southern statesBrown, olive, or black body with darker cross bands. Young snakes are lighter with yellow tails Up to 36 inchesVibrates tail, sometimes making a rattling soundIn and around water such as rivers, lakes and even standing water.Southeastern United States
RattlesnakesRattlesnake bites are by far the most common type of snack bite in AmericaTriangle head, cat-like pupils, and rattle tails1.5 to 6.5 feetCoil up and rattle their tail, making a loud buzz/rattleMost areas, like to lie near logs or open areas.Throughout the United States

What are the most common places where horses are bitten by snakes?

Horses are extremely curious but don’t have hands to investigate things in the way we can which means they have to use their noses to suss out whatever’s caught their attention. This means that the majority of snake bites occur on the nose, muzzle, or around a horse’s head.

The other common place to suffer snake bites is around a horse’s lower legs. This normally happens because neither the horse nor the snake realizes each other are there and when the horse puts a foot down too close the snake feels threatened or provoked so attacks as a way of defending itself.

Snakes can strike in any direction and with a distance that’s around two-thirds of their body length so a horse doesn’t need to touch the snake in order to startle it.

Can a snake bite kill a horse?

Some people think that a snake bite can’t really hurt a horse because a snake’s venom is designed to kill small animals such as rodents, but this isn’t the case. While the snake would have to inject an awful lot of venom to kill a healthy horse there are occasions when a snake bite can kill a horse. 

The severity of a snake bite is dependent on a number of factors such as the type, size, and age of the snake, how long ago it ate, how much venom was injected as well as where the horse was bitten. The age of the horse along with its overall health and the sort of treatment it receives can all play a role in how serious the bite will be.

Young foals along with old and sick horses are more likely to suffer a fatal reaction to the venom than a healthy, active, mature horse.

While snake bites can cause extensive tissue damage, as well as heart and nerve damage, only around 9% of all bites are fatal. This might sound like a high number (which it obviously is) it’s far less than the 25% we had just 15 years ago.

Leg bites are very rarely fatal but facial bites, especially around the muzzle, can be far more serious. Not necessarily because of the venom itself but because of the swelling it causes around the airways. This often blocks the airways which means that, unless you’re able to intervene, the horse is at risk of dying from asphyxiation.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that a large number (around 50%) of snake bites are ‘dry’ which means that, whiles the snake has punctured the skin, it’s injected little or no venom. You can tell the difference pretty quickly between a dry or envenomed bite (a bite where venom is injected) because the envenomed bite will start to swell within a few minutes, if not instantly.

What are the dangers of snake bites on horses?

Unless the snake has injected all of its venom (which they rarely do as it’s also fatal to them) most horses are big enough and strong enough, to survive an envenomed snake bite but that doesn’t mean that snake bites aren’t serious.

The biggest dangers involved with snakes biting horses are the risk of asphyxiation and shock rather than succumbing to the toxic effects of the venom. When horses are bitten the area starts to swell which can result in their nostrils being blocked and eventually suffocating the horse if action isn’t taken quickly.

The biggest risk of snake bites on horses is asphyxiation as the swelling prevents a horse from breathing

How do you know if your horse has been bitten by a snake?

A lot of snake bites happen while the horse is turned out which means that you may not witness the attack as it happens but there are a few things you should be on the look out for. 

The most obvious sign your horse has been bitten by a snake is the presence of one or more (typically two) puncture wounds that are around an inch apart. If the horse has a dark, or thick coat, or was bitten on the leg the puncture wounds might not be visible but you may see a small amount of blood near the wound site.

Bites on the face may cause painful swelling around the area of the bite as well as a small amount of blood in one or both nostrils.

Other things to look out for are:

  • A wobbly gait or weakness when walking
  • Laboured or loud breathing
  • Colic like signs such as sweating or pawing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sloughing of the tissue around the bite
  • Cardiac arrhythmia 

Other more serious signs include:

  • Collapsing
  • Paralysis
  • Shock
  • Inability to breathe

If your horse suffered a dry bite that had gone unnoticed for a while then it’s possible the wound may have abscessed. This is commonly treated with a sterile wash and antibiotics.

What should you do if a snake bites your horse?

When a horse is bitten by a snake it can be serious and require swift intervention but if you’re already prepared and know what to do it could make a massive difference to the outcome.

1) Call your vet IMMEDIATELY

If your horse is bitten by a snake (or you suspect they have been) then you should call your vet immediately, regardless of whether it’s a dry or envenomed bite. Snake bites, especially around the muzzle can be extremely serious and time is of the essence so don’t hesitate. 

2) Stay calm (and keep your horse calm)

Seeing your horse being bitten by a snake can be a frightening and worrying thing but it’s important you try and stay calm. Your horse is relying on you so you’ll need to stay calm and focused, there’ll be plenty of time to panic later.

It’s also crucial that you keep your horse calm too, if you don’t then any venom that may have been injected will travel around their body much quicker. The less you move your horse and the calmer you keep him the less toxin will be absorbed into his bloodstream.

3) Keep your horse’s airways open

Snake bites around the face (and especially the muzzle) can very quickly swell and restrict your horse’s airways making it impossible for him to breathe. This can happen very quickly so as soon as you see your horse has been bitten on the face you’ll need to intervene.

You can do this by lubricating two ten-inch sections of garden hose with petroleum jelly or cooking oil and inserting them into your horse’s nostrils. You should continue slowly pushing them in until you’ve either inserted 4 to 5 inches or they become harder to move, whichever happens first. Once they’re in place use a bit of medical tape to keep them in place.

You should also keep your horse’s head as low as possible, this will help to prevent the venom from spreading.

4) If you have to move, do it slowly

If you need to travel to get help then dismount and slowly lead your horse to where you need to get to then put him in a stall or small corral and keep him quiet until help arrives.

If you need to move your horse after a snake bite lead them slowly
5) Wash leg bites

If your horse has been bitten on the leg then you can wash the wound with soap and water (or just water if you don’t have any soap) while you’re waiting for the vet to arrive.

7) Keep your horse cool

If your horse is hot then you can sponge him down with cool water but be careful to avoid touching the bite area as this will be extremely painful.

Some vets recommend using ice but others say you shouldn’t due to the risk of frostbite. I asked my vet what she recommended and she said that you can use an ice pack on the area to reduce the swelling but you shouldn’t leave it there for more than ten minutes.

What shouldn’t you do if a snake bites your horse?

To some extent what you shouldn’t do is more important than what you do actually do, after all doing the wrong thing is at best ineffective but at worst puts your horse at risk. Instead, call your vet, secure your horse’s airways then wait.

1) Don’t try and remove the venom

Whatever you don’t try and remove the poison yourself, either by cutting it out or by trying to suck it out. Neither will work and both could put you and your horse at further risk. Trying to cut the poisonous out could result in you accidentally cutting a vein and the venom going directly into the bloodstream, Sucking it out, on the other hand, doesn’t work and could put your health at risk too.

2) Don’t apply a tourniquet to the wound

You might be tempted to put a tourniquet around the wound to stop it from spreading but this won’t work and carries the risk of cutting the circulation which could cause other problems further down line.

3) Don’t apply heat to the bite area

You should also avoid applying heat to the area (and keep it out of the sunlight if possible), heat will help to speed up the spread of the venom.

4) Don’t try and find (or kill) the snake

No matter how tempted you are don’t waste time trying to find, trap or kill the snake (either for identification or revenge). You’ll not only waste time but will put yourself and your horse at risk of further strikes as the snake will feel trapped.

How can you treat a snake bite on a horse?

Snake bites can be extremely serious and even fatal in some cases so it’s important to leave the treatment of them to your vet who will know exactly what to do.

The first thing that your vet will do will be to stabilize your horse and help them to breathe if their airways have completely closed. This may include performing a tracheotomy which will involve making a small incision in your horse’s windpipe and inserting a tube to allow them to breathe. They may also give your horse fluids intravenously if their face is too swollen for them to eat or drink properly.

Depending on the severity of the bite and the overall health of the horse, your vet may use an antivenin to counteract any effects of the venom, although this is most effective when administrated within the first 24 hours. Most horses don’t need the antivenin though and make a full recovery without it.

Your vet may give you horse an antivenin after a snake bite

Once your horse is stable your vet will treat them with a course of antibiotics to deal with any infection, give them pain killers, and, if necessary, a tetanus booster. 

How long do horses take to recover from snake bites?

Depending on the severity of the snake bite a healthy horse can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to recover from the critical stage (such as the swelling of the airways) of a horse bite, but some horses can take up to a week. After that time they should be checked every 3 to 6 months for signs of secondary complications such as heart or kidney damage, anemia, or respiratory complications.

While some horses can take a couple of months to fully recover others can make a complete recovery within just a few days. This does, however, depend on where the horse was bitten and how much venom was injected.

What can you do to reduce the risk of a snake biting your horse?

Snake bites can happen all year round but 90% of them happen between the months of April and October when the weather is warmer. While you’re out riding during this time you should be careful to avoid long grass, poorly maintained areas (with logs and or rubble where snakes can hide), standing water, and rocky outcrops. If you’re riding at night then you should also avoid paved roads as much as possible because many snakes will be attracted to them when the sun goes down.

Using strong lower leg wraps can help to reduce the impact of any bites because, while the snake’s fangs are sharp, most strikes that occur when the snake is startled are spontaneous and the snake doesn’t have time to plan where he’s going to bite. This means that he may miss completely or just brush the horse and with leg wraps this greatly reduces the severity of the bite.

Leg wraps can help to protect your horse from snake bites

It’s also worth mentioning that if you walk (instead of trot or gallop) a lot then snakes are more likely to keep out of your way. This is because, although they’re deaf, they’ll feel the vibration of you approaching and have time to move. If you’re traveling faster though they won’t have as much time to move and you could find yourself in striking distance if you get too close. I’m not saying you have to plod everywhere but if possible check any areas out before galloping through.

The number one thing you can do to reduce your horse’s risk of being bitten by a snake though is to trust them and their instincts. This might sound silly but your horse will be on the look out for snakes (and other scary things such as bits of plastic) and will probably notice something long before you do. If they seem hesitant it might be because they’ve seen a snake so always give your horse the benefit of the doubt.

You should also carry a snake bite kit with you when you’re riding away from the yard, just in case the worst happens. You don’t need much at all, I only have a couple of strips of tubing, some petroleum jelly, tape, and a bottle of sterile water in mine.

Related questions

Are horses scared of snakes?

Horses are hesitant animals that have very strong survival instincts and, as a result of this, are naturally scared of snakes. Some horses will even strike out at something they think might be a snake. While horses are wary of snakes they are also extremely curious and will often stick their necks out to investigate something if they’re not sure what it is.

Is there a rattlesnake vaccine for horses?

Yes, there is a vaccine that can offer some protection against rattle and copperhead snake bites and is regularly used in areas where there is a high risk of these snakes attacking. The vaccine, which is administered in three separate injections each one month apart, offers the most protection four to six weeks after the last dose. It’s advised that a booster dose should be given every 6 months. The cost of each dose is approximately $30.

Further reading

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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