Camping With Your Horse
Whether it is the increased stress of daily life or the baby-boomer generation wanting to experience the roots of their pioneer forefathers, more and more people are setting out to see the country from horseback. As a result, equestrian campgrounds have multiplied throughout the country and the design of horse trailers has changed drastically to cater to the comfort of weekend or week-long campers.
Consideration for the horse's welfare should come first when traveling. In most cases where problems arise, it is because a rider becomes complacent or just doesn't recognize trouble brewing. Avid endurance riders and sports medicine veterinarians Julie Bullock, DVM, of Staunton, Va., and Nancy Elliot, DVM, of Pescadero, Calif., say precautions start before you leave home.
Before You Leave Home
"Horses should be fully vaccinated a month or even two months before leaving home," says Bullock, who was the assistant Chef d'Equipe (the manager of a national equestrian team responsible for making all arrangements for team competition abroad) for the USA East endurance squad at the 2001 Pan American Championship. "If you wait a week before leaving to vaccinate them, their immune systems will not have time to make antibodies, thus they will not be protected," says Bullock. "And if they require a vaccine that they have never received before, chances are it will require more than one shot to create a protective level of antibodies in the horse."
Elliot, who specializes in acupuncture, spinal care, and management of sport horses, says that besides vaccinating for the normal diseases of influenza, rhinopneumonitis, and tetanus, "A rabies vaccination may be prudent, and, in some popular camps, the strangles vaccine may be recommended. Call an equine veterinary practice near where you're going," she continues, "and ask what they recommend for that area. Besides, it's a good idea to have the name and number of a local veterinarian for the area you will be in."
Almost all states and campgrounds require a current negative Coggins test, typically the original copy only, and some additionally require a health certificate within 30 or even 10 days. For Canada, a special import/export paper is also required. Check with your veterinarian or your state veterinarian for the specific regulations for your destination and for the states through which you will be hauling.
Before loading your horse in the trailer for the trip, Bullock advises observing and examining the horse carefully. "Does he have any cuts or abrasions? Did he eat his breakfast? Is he acting normal? Does he have a snotty nose? Is his manure normal? What is his temperature? A horse's temperature should be around 99-100°F (37.2-37.8°C)," Bullock explains. "It can rise with excitement of the preparations to be loaded, but anything over 101°F (38.3°C), definitely 102°F (38.9°C) or more, is a red flag. Call your veterinarian--the horse could be incubating a virus. You could arrive with a very sick horse after stressing his system further with travel.
"Make sure he has all his shoes on tight and that he trots out sound before loading him up in the trailer," she adds. "It is amazing how many horses come off of a trailer lame. The question is, how many went in the trailer lame? Although I've seen unhappy haulers that kick the inside of a trailer and come off with a hind limb lameness, a significant number probably went in the trailer lame."
Stabling in fixed stalls is generally the safest; some equestrian campgrounds offer clean stalls and fresh bedding. However, there are facilities where stalls will need to be cleaned prior to stabling your horse, and you must bring your own bedding. Always check the stall for protruding nails, broken boards, or wire that can injure your horse. Pack a hammer and nails, just in case, along with your manure fork and muck bucket.
In these community stalls, Bullock recommends using your own feed and water buckets rather than any that might be provided. This will reduce exposure to parasites and, perhaps, contagious diseases.
Setting Up Camp
If you're camping away from a stabling facility, "The location of your camp is important," says Valerie Kanavy, two-time World Endurance Champion and a veteran equine camper. Tragically, Kanavy lost a star endurance horse when neighboring horses got loose and stampeded through her camp late one night, taking her horses with them. When the horses were finally found, Kanavy's horse was so badly injured that he had to be euthanized on the spot.
"I now look for an area removed from the traffic flow," she says. "That way, should horses get loose, they won't be as apt to run through my camp."
Kanavy, who travels all over the United States, Canada, and Europe with her horses, suggests identification tags on each horse's halter in the event one gets loose in the camp or on the trail.
She also stresses, "Don't become complacent about how you stable or tie your horse and where you store your grain and hay. For instance, if you store the grain in the horse trailer, close the door. Even though your horses may be tied or penned away from the trailer, they could get loose and get into the grain."
Besides securing your horse, keeping your dog on a leash at all times, and turning your generator off when the sun goes down are other ways to be a good neighbor.
"By dark," says Kanavy, "try to have everything done around your camp. Don't be banging buckets or making a lot of noise after dark. And while a big party can be fun, take it where you won't be disturbing those who don't want to party. Be considerate of your neighbors."
Portable Fencing and Picket Lines
"When a facility doesn't offer stalls or corrals," says Bullock, "the lightweight, portable metal corrals are the next best thing to a fixed, solid corral. And I use electric fencing only with seasoned horses."
Although Kanavy continues to use electric fencing after the loss of her prized horse, she states, "It isn't the safest method. But because I usually travel with several horses, I need to be able to make separate pens when fixed stabling is not available. There is no way I could carry enough metal pens for the number of horses I haul."
She also advises that if you do use electric fencing, make sure it is hot, and that you check it each time you set it up. "People tend to get comfortable using the electric wire," she says. "Their horses have stayed corralled a number of times, so they don't bother electrifying it, or maybe the battery isn't working anymore and they don't bother replacing it.
"But from experience," Kanavy emphasizes, "I can tell you that the horses will figure out that the wire isn't hot and that it is easy to just walk right through it."
She also recommends the tether poles. "A tie line hangs from an overhead pole, which is attached to the side of your trailer. This pole swivels, allowing a horse more freedom of movement than just tying to the trailer. With this setup, a horse can also lie down."
Picket lines are the traditional way to secure a horse while camping. The line needs to be taut, not sagging. Whether you tie the horse to the trailer, a tether pole, or a picket line, you must be careful to leave him enough lead rope to lie down, but not get a leg hooked over the rope.
"There are some tie ropes available that are stretchy, like bungee cords, and coiled, spring-type lines that can be very useful in keeping the horses safe while tied," Kanavy adds.
Know Your Horse's Limits
"The most important thing is to know your horse's fitness level and keep that in mind whenever you're planning any outings," says Elliot. "By staying well within your mount's capabilities, the chance of getting into health-related problems is minimal.
"The most common non-accidental health problem I've encountered with pleasure riders is asking too much of their horses," she says. "For instance, a group gets together for a ride with one or more riders on unfit, chunky horses. Then they try to stay up with the moderately fit Arabian-type horses. The unfit horses struggle along, sweating and panting twice as much as the others, and they are at risk for dehydration and its after-effects--cramping, impaction colic, or exhaustion and subsequent collapse.
"Unfortunately," she adds, "I've seen some of the worst metabolic crashes after big social rides where an inexperienced rider goes along with the crowd."
Elliot, who has more than 5,000 career endurance miles in addition to vetting many of the rides, recommends that riders go out in separate groups according to their horses' fitness levels. For the unfit horses, going fewer miles, over easier terrain, or both, keeps riders from getting frustrated and horses from being overworked.
However, if you want to be able to ride longer and over challenging terrain, plan ahead by getting your horse fit. Elliot says, "If you plan to ride hilly trails for three or four hours or more a day, over several consecutive days, you need to start a few months ahead to condition the horse's whole body--cardiovascular system, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
"You can get a horse fit doing three or four days of work per week, starting off with sessions of 30-60 minutes of walking and some trotting. Gradually add in hills, increasing the trotting if you're going to be doing much trotting, or increasing the length of the ride once a week, until doing two to three hours is no big deal. Ring work, especially with some collection or exercises to engage the hind end, is a fine substitute for one or two rides a week."
According to Elliot, if a horse isn't used to going out in a group, he's going to put out a lot more effort than that required for the same ride at home by himself or with a buddy. "Having him fit will help prevent him from getting in trouble with nervous energy," she says.
"One way to tell if your horse is ready for the task at hand, and to help avoid lameness problems, is to take him on one of your harder training rides, then don't hose or wrap legs if you're accustomed to doing so. Then, the next morning check his legs. If the legs fill more than normal, if there's heat anywhere, or if he moves out stiffer than normal, he probably got a little stressed and would benefit from more fitness training before the big event."
On the Trail
Signs of pending problems are almost always there, you just have to listen to your horse to understand them. Elliot suggests watching for excessive sweating or heavy breathing, especially if other horses don't seem to be working up a sweat or huffing and puffing. Also note if there is increased tripping or stumbling, lagging behind with a lack of motivation, a reluctance to go uphill, and/or not being interested in eating when others horses are grazing at rest stops.
If you think there might be a problem with your horse, stop and rest him for 10-15 minutes, then check his pulse. "His pulse should come down to around 60 beats per minute," Elliot explains. "But if it's staying elevated, that is a clear sign that he's overdoing it. Let him hang out for 15 to 30 minutes, and during that time encourage him to eat grass and drink.
"If his heart rate returns to the lower 60s, but he's reluctant to move on willingly, he could just be leg-weary or muscle-fatigued, and needs you to help out by leading him back to camp on foot instead of riding him," she adds.
There are a few situations on the trail that will be made worse by simply leading back to camp or to some access point where help can get to you. These include when a horse:
- Pulls up short and is severely lame;
- Doesn't want to put weight on a limb (possible fracture);
- Locks up and demonstrates hard, painful hind end muscles, with possible trembling, takes very short steps behind, and often has increased sweating (possible tying-up); and
- Is wounded with probable arterial bleeding (pulsing spurts of bright red blood).
"Even on some of these 'do not lead' situations," explains Elliot, "you may have to make a decision about moving toward help as best as possible if help cannot get to you. Obviously, any of these situations will require veterinary assistance ASAP."
Water and Electrolytes
To prevent dehydration, let the horse drink along the trail as much as possible. Also let him drink when you're finished riding. However, if the horse has worked very hard and might be dehydrated because there was little water on the trail, offer smaller amounts and walk him around until he is cool and hydrated.
"The horses that you hear about that drink large amounts of water and then get painful belly cramps do so because they're dehydrated," explains Elliot. "These horses may have some decreased gut activity and some drier intestinal contents, and putting a large volume of water in their stomachs stimulates immediate intestinal motility that can be painful.
"In this situation, free access to water and lots of walking to see if the cramping will pass are the best approach," Elliott adds. "But know that drinking water didn't cause the problem; the lack of water was the cause. So allow your horse to drink freely every chance you get on the trail."
Carrying a tube of electrolytes in your saddle bag could be a lifesaver for your horse or someone else's. Elliot explains, "Use of electrolytes is indicated if your horse has been out for more than an hour or two and if he's been sweating heavily. For instance, on a hot, humid day, when you are riding hard, give a dose just before leaving and another part-way through the ride.
"But if you're riding well within your horse's capabilities and doing the sort of work he's used to, you probably don't need the electrolytes for a ride of a few hours, as long as he eats well back at camp and has access to salt, preferably loose salt. If all you have is block salt, chip some up into little pieces so it's easier for him to get enough if he needs it.
"When purchasing electrolytes, check the ingredients," she instructs. "Some pastes have more sugar and other ingredients added that dilute out the salt, and probably won't do much to help your horse. Find an electrolyte that has amounts of the individual electrolyte contents of sodium (Na), potassium (K), chloride (Cl), and calcium (Ca), for example, listed in grams (g) as opposed to milligrams (mg). You need several grams of these electrolytes to make any difference, and many of the pastes supply too little.
"In a pinch," she says, "you can mix half light salt and half regular salt and add one to two tablespoons of this mix to the horse's feed, or syringe it into his mouth--mixed with a little water--if he won't eat it."
After the Ride
The best way to cool out a hot horse is to ride at a walk for the last mile or two. If you can't do this and "if it's a warm day, sponge or hose him off, scrape off the excess, and walk around for five minutes or so," says Elliot. "If he still feels hot after walking him a little, sponge him some more. If the air temperature is cold, you might need a light sheet that breathes, especially over the hindquarters.
"A cold day is when it's most important to come in easy, so he finishes cooled out and doesn't risk getting chilled when he stops and is still wet with sweat. If he is, you'll want to walk him more to allow him to cool off without his muscles getting tight," instructs Elliot.
"If your horse has no problems after a ride," Elliot says, "offer his normal feed ration. Soaking the hay a little in water or giving a sloppy mash will help with improving hydration and makes it less likely for a possibly tired or somewhat dehydrated horse to develop an impaction. A slurry of beet pulp or bran is great for getting a lot of water into the gut where it is needed.
"It's best," reiterates Elliot, "to give a tired horse wet food in case dehydration is present to minimize impactions."
Check your horse an hour after the ride and the next morning to determine if you should go out again. Make sure he doesn't have heat or swelling in his legs, a sore back, girth galls, or saddle or tack rubs, and that he trots out soundly and fluidly. His eyes should be bright and his appetite good.
"The most important thing is knowing what is normal for your horse. You can pick up subtle signs before any real problem develops," Elliot declares. "Knowledgeable riders will almost always feel something isn't right long before anyone else can tell--even veterinarians. Believe your horse. Erring on the side of being conservative doesn't hurt anything."
Graetz, K.; West, C. Hauling Horses. The Horse, June 2001, 30-42. Article #45 at www.TheHorse.com.
Geor, R. Take It With You. The Horse, April 2001, 109-118. Article #2770 at www.TheHorse.com.
Geor, R. Chilling Out After Exercise. The Horse, July 2001, 89-94. Article #897 at www.TheHorse.com.
Sellnow, L. 10 Tips On Getting Ready for Spring. The Horse, March 2003, 32-47. Article #4168 at www.TheHorse.com.
About the Author
Genie Stewart-Spears resides with her husband on Runamuck Ranch in southern Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest. Now a pleasure rider, she competed in endurance for 10 years and has served as the Media Chairperson for the American Endurance Ride Conference. Her photography and articles appear in several equine magazines and many books, brochures, and advertisements.