Not-So-Happy Trails

More and more horse owners across America are turning to trail riding as their recreational equine-based activity of choice. Breed registries such as the American Quarter Horse Association, American Paint Horse Association, and Appaloosa Horse Club are recognizing this phenomenon and are encouraging it with special awards for miles ridden.

As more horses take to the trails in all parts of the United States, the potential for equine health problems and injuries increases. Unfortunately, many riders, especially newcomers to the backcountry, do not have a solid base of knowledge concerning what to do when a crisis arises and a veterinarian is not available.

The key to remedying emergency situations is to be prepared in advance. Horse owners should sit down with their veterinarians and ground themselves with information on how to handle various emergencies on the trail. With the help and advice of a veterinarian, they also should have at their disposal an equine first-aid kit whether they are weekend trail riding or traveling for days in the mountains.

To illustrate the types of emergencies that can arise when riding away from home, we'll describe three scenarios involving real incidents and what was done on the trail to remedy them. We will describe how the scenarios played out, and what the experts say might have been done differently in some cases.

Scenario 1

It had been a long, sometimes grueling trip from Shelbyville, Ky., to Nye, Mont., and the jump-off spot on the Stillwater River. My wife, Linda, and I had hauled our two riding horses and three pack mules cross-country for a week of riding and fishing with friends in the Beartooth Mountains.

Memories of hours behind the wheel faded quickly as we rode along the Stillwater beneath Cathedral Peak, then camped for the night along the river and enjoyed a dinner of fresh-caught brook trout. We left camp the next morning in high spirits and began the climb toward Jordan Pass at about 10,000 feet elevation. On the other side of the mountain was our favorite camping spot. On the map it was listed only as Fish Lake. To us it was "Lake Serenity" because of its beauty and tranquil surroundings.

We were getting near the top on a very rocky trail when Tammy, a lovely buckskin pack mule, stepped into a small hole that contained a sharp, jagged rock on the side. The result was a deep wound that wasn't dripping blood, it was spurting it.

Scenario 2

We now were living in Wyoming and four of us decided that it would be a grand adventure to be dropped off at Jake's Fork near Meeteetse, Wyo., spend four days riding across a mountain range, then get picked up at Double Cabins north of Dubois, Wyo.

We packed lightly and had only two pack horses for the four of us. Linda and her aunt dropped us off and were to pick us up four days later as we leisurely made our way across the mountains. All went well in the beginning. We found a lovely camping spot, with the only problem being that the river was low and refused to yield us the trout dinner that we craved. The second day also was uneventful, other than riding through a downpour, as we drank in the beauty of the mountains around us.

The third day featured a long, hard climb to the top of the mountain before our descent to Double Cabins. After a steady climb, we entered a huge bowl. In every direction that we looked was higher terrain.

"How do we get out of here?" one of my companions asked.

"Look up there," I said, pointing to the skyline. There's the trail."

"Naw," he said. "Can't be. Only an elk could get up there."

It was the trail, but it had been a little deceiving from where we originally viewed it. It was definitely a rugged climb, but the trail was wide and very safe. Eventually, after pausing numerous times to let the horses blow, we topped out. We snaked our way down, found a nice camping spot along the river, began setting up our tents, and allowed our hobbled horses to graze.

Suddenly, my big sorrel gelding, Dollar, lay down and began to roll. He was in obvious agony, and it kept getting worse. Colic? No, I knew in a flash it was something else. Dollar was tying-up (exertional rhabdomyolysis). He was in such acute pain that he would lie down, mindless of whether he was in rocks or on smooth ground and begin thrashing about. There was no way to keep him on his feet.

Scenario 3

My friend Dick Houston from Pine River, Minn., was elk hunting in Colorado. He returned to camp early one evening to find one of his horses in extreme pain, lying down, and rolling. The horse was colicking. Dick and his hunting party were deep in the mountains far from a veterinarian.

What Would You Do?

In each of these scenarios, the horses and mule involved were in a compromised, health-threatening situation. The humans involved were short of carrying power in rugged mountainous terrain. In each case, something had to be done. Here is how the three scenarios played out.

Scenario 1: Bandaging a Wound

We were fortunate that Linda has worked at some outstanding veterinary clinics through the years, including the referral center of Scott Bennett, DVM, in Simpsonville, Ky.; Hugh Behling, DVM, of Simpsonville, Ky.; and G Bar G Veterinary Clinic in Riverton, Wyo., operated by Glen Gamble, DVM, and Gunda Gamble, DVM. Although Linda was doing accounting work for these vets, her ongoing love and compassion for animals resulted in her doing about as much veterinary techician work as book work.

She knew, based upon her hands-on experiences with veterinarians, that a pressure bandage was needed to stop the bleeding of Tammy's injured fetlock. She had packed a first-aid kit that included supplies to fashion one.

The problem was she had to work fast. The accident had happened on a narrow, rocky trail with some steep drop-offs. The longer we remained stopped, the greater the danger of someone getting into trouble as the horses in the group became impatient. There was no time to properly cleanse the wound. There was time to stop the spurting blood, then move on to a safe place for further treatment. She had learned that a horse can lose a gallon or more of blood without endangering survival, but she also had been taught that the quicker the bleeding is stopped, the quicker the wound can begin to heal.

Linda placed some gauze pads directly over the wound. Next, she quickly wrapped the pads with soft cotton material. Then came Vetrap to hold everything tightly in place. The bandaging stopped the flow of blood, but to do so, strong pressure had been applied to the fetlock. We were concerned that if we left it on too long, circulation in the fetlock would be adversely affected.

We mounted up and rode for about 20 minutes until we came to a meadow. Here we stopped and Linda removed the bandage, cleansed the wound (which was no longer bleeding) with Betadine, and rewrapped it, only not as tightly this time. She also used Elastikon to cover the Vetrap and further stabilize the bandage.

We also administered penicillin as a guard against infection, and phenylbutazone (Bute) to ward off inflammation and swelling. We rode on to our destination and camped for a few days at Serenity, fishing and allowing Tammy to recover. Linda redressed the wound regularly, and when we left that area, Tammy was walking normally with no sign of soreness.

Behling said that our concern about having the wound tightly wrapped might not have been warranted. Wrapping tightly with Vetrap over gauze pads and cotton bandaging, he says, normally doesn't damage circulation even if left in place for more than an hour or even two hours.

He also recommends that a first-aid kit contain either an antibiotic paste or sulfa pills rather than liquid penicillin. He said that these forms of antibiotic are easy to transport and are easily administered. Also, he added, they are not temperature-dependent. For example, they won't freeze if the temperature plummets.

Behling also recommends that all trail riders' first-aid kits contain phenylbutazone to work against inflammation when an injury occurs.

"It's like a person taking an aspirin," he says. "It's normally the next day when the injury will result in soreness and stiffness, and Bute helps work against that."

The important thing, he says, is to be able to deal with the wound when it occurs. Although a horse can indeed lose a gallon of blood without negative effects, Behling feels it is important to stop the blood flow early and get the wound covered.

"If you don't have the necessary bandages," he said, "that could mean using your handkerchief and some duct tape."

Scenario 2: Tying-Up

The solution to the tying-up problem with Dollar can be traced to information I have obtained from Stephanie Valberg, DVM, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, who has been my prime resource when writing on the subject.

Dollar apparently is afflicted with the type of tying-up that carries the rather convoluted name of polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM; see article #4193 at Without going into too much detail here, this syndrome causes the muscles to store glycogen that they can't burn because of an abnormal polysaccharide (a carbohydrate) in the muscle. The result is muscle cramps of varying severity. It generally affects docile Quarter Horses, draft horses, Paints, Warmbloods, and even a few Thoroughbreds.

Dollar certainly fit the prototype. He's a non-registered muscular horse who looks like he is carrying a little draft horse blood along with Quarter Horse genes. He had suffered what we now believe was a tying-up episode on another trail ride, but some unusual circumstances were involved, so we didn't realize at the time that we were dealing with that problem specifically.

Thanks to Valberg's comments concerning emergency treatment of a horse tying-up, I had packed in the tranquilizer acepromazine and some flunixin meglumine (Banamine). When a horse ties up, Valberg advises a 10-step approach to be followed. Here are seven of those steps that could be put to use on the trail:

Step 1--Stop exercising the horse. Do not force the horse to walk.

Step 2--Call your veterinarian. (This would not be possible in many places in the mountains, but if one has a cell phone and can get through, it is wise to call for advice.)

Step 3--Blanket the horse if the weather is cold.

Step 4--Determine if the horse is dehydrated due to excessive sweating. In a well-hydrated horse, pinched skin will spring back quickly and saliva will be wet, not tacky. Keep in mind that skin of an older horse will not spring back due to loss of elasticity.

Step 5--Provide small sips of water. Electrolytes (potassium, sodium, and chloride) can be added to the drinking water. (Electrolytes in powder and paste form can be packed quite easily.)

Step 6--Relieve anxiety and pain. Drugs, such as acepromazine and Banamine, she says, might be prescribed by the veterinarian.

Step 7--Remove grain and feed only hay and/or grass until signs subside. (If one is camping in the mountains, it would be likely that the animals would be grazing rather than having grain available. However, if grain has been packed, it should not be fed, with the horse allowed grass only.)

After I administered the drugs, Dollar demonstrated almost immediate relief, but later appeared to be tying-up again. I repeated the drug administration, and he was fine. (Note: I am not a veterinarian; prepare as I did and contact your veterinarian to discuss the matter before you head out on the trail.)

Fortunately, the remainder of the trip was downhill, and Dollar made it just fine without another episode.

Epilogue: Dollar now has a new home. While we do a lot of cattle work on horseback, our passion is trail riding and camping. I simply wouldn't permit a repeat performance of tying-up if I could help it, and that meant no more mountain trail riding for him. Dollar was sold as a working cow horse with the owner being made fully aware of the tying-up episodes and what brought them on.

Scenario 3: Dealing With Colic

When Dick realized that his horse was colicking, he immediately began doing what has been the time-honored approach--walking the horse. That didn't help, so he stripped the cook shack of all the cooking oil available, fashioned a funnel of sorts, and forced the oil down the horse's throat. That didn't resolve the problem, so he made his way to a nearby hunting camp and got more oil. The horse remained colicky.

Dick decided that he had to get the horse to a veterinarian. He set off on the long ride, ponying the ill horse. After riding much of the night, they came to a stream. The horse stopped, defecated, and took a long drink. Just that quickly, the problem was over. By now Dick was almost out of the mountains, so he continued the journey, loaded the horse into a trailer at the trailhead, and hauled him to the veterinarian. The practitioner told him the problem was over and nothing more needed to be done for the horse.

Glen Gamble takes issue with some of the things Dick did. First of all, he says, it is questionable whether using oil is all that helpful. Second, it is not a good idea to use vegetable oil because it is not inert, but is digestible. Thus, he points out, adding a digestible oil into the intestinal mix could have exacerbated the problem rather than helped it. Third, a horse might get the oil in his lungs, which could possibly kill him.

What every trail rider should include in a first-aid kit, Gamble says, is Banamine. When colic occurs, it should be administered as a painkiller to reduce the horse's misery level while his body works to resolve the problem.

"Some horses will colic when in severe pain," Gamble says. "If a horse suffers a painful injury, Banamine should immediately be administered as a means of preventing colic."

A number of experts, including Jack Snyder, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, of the University of California, Davis, says, keeping a colicking horse on his feet and moving often isn't necessary. Snyder, who spoke on the subject at Horseman's Day held in conjunction with the 2002 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, says that if the horse is rolling or behaving violently, he should be walked slowly. However, if he is not rolling or becoming violent, he should be allowed to stand or lie quietly.

The key is to prevent colic if you can. For example, some horses don't travel well. We once had a nice filly which would tend to colic after being hauled in a trailer for a few hundred miles. Obviously, she was not a good trail riding prospect for us since we like to travel from one part of the country to another with our horses.

Internal parasites are also a major cause of colic, according to Noah D. Cohen, VMD, MPH (master of public health), PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, of Texas A&M University, whose paper "Preventing Colic" was presented at the 2001 AAEP Horseman's Day. Cohen and two other colleagues also prepared a paper titled "Dietary and Other Management Factors Associated With Colic in Horses," which was published by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2000. The report sought to determine the factors associated with colic. It studied 2,060 horses in Texas relating colic to horse management, medical treatment, and diet.

An important finding was that internal parasite infestation is a significant cause of colic. The survey showed that a regular deworming program decreases the chances for a horse getting colic because it controls fecal parasite eggs and tapeworms, organisms whose migration in a horse's gut can cause considerable irritation.

That being said, it is not wise to deworm the horse just before heading off on a trail ride. There is always the potential for the dewormer to irritate the intestinal tract and bring on a bout of colic. The same is true with vaccines. They should be administered well in advance of a long trail ride in case the horse has an adverse reaction.

Colic also can be caused by gastric ulcers and extreme weather changes (whether from the weather itself or management changes due to by poor conditions is not known).

Cohen says study results have shown the association with weather changes and colic, but that more research needs to be done to pinpoint the exact effects. Snyder indicated the same in his talk, pointing out that a number of colic cases had to be dealt with at the Olympic Games in Australia in the wake of a severe storm.

Weather changes often are experienced by trail horses, especially when riding in the mountains. It might be 75°F (23.9°C) during the day, with the temperature dropping more than 40°F (4.4°C) at night with cold rain, sleet, or snow.

When riders are in a campground or at a trailhead, they can blanket their horses when inclement weather strikes. This is not always possible when riding deep into the mountains. Blankets mean extra weight for the pack animals, and they normally are left behind.

Thus, it is highly important that one's trail riding horse on such ventures is not prone to colic from acute weather changes. Unfortunately, that tendency might not rear its head until the horse is placed in that sort of situation.

It is important to note, Cohen says, that because of either genetics or continued problems in feeding or management, horses with a history of colic are at risk to colic again.

Gamble's recommendation for trail riders: Be sure to have some Banamine in the first-aid kit. And, he adds, there are several ways to administer the drug. The preferred approach is to administer it intravenously, he says. However, many riders will not feel comfortable or skillful enough to take this approach. When that is the case, Gamble advises that the owner administer Banamine orally because it seems to be more effective than when administered intramuscularly. Simply draw the Banamine into a syringe, remove the needle, and squirt the solution into the horse's mouth in the same manner as when deworming with paste. Banamine is also available in paste form.

Common Problem: The Lost Shoe

Perhaps one of the most frustrating occurrences on a trail ride is losing a shoe. You ride through a deep, muddy area and emerge with only three shoes, or your horse hooks a shoe on a tree root or rock and tears it free. If you are riding a rocky trail, the bare hoof will suffer, so attention is needed immediately. The foot might not require first aid, but unless the matter is dealt with immediately, the hoof can wear down quickly and become sore.

If there is a member of the group who is proficient at shoeing, the problem can quickly be remedied. Carry some extra shoes and nails, plus a rasp and hammer. However, not everyone is capable of nailing on a horseshoe.

For those folks, there is no replacement for the Easy Boot, which is a temporary shoe that can be placed on the hoof and snapped into place. If the Easy Boot is the correct size, it can be used for several days or until you get back to a trailhead, where someone can replace the lost shoe.

Unfortunately, Easy Boots aren't one-size-fits-all solutions. I have struggled to get a small Easy Boot on a big foot and can remember one incident of trying to keep an Easy Boot on with duct tape when it was too large for a small foot. It kept falling off no matter how much duct tape we used. Check out your horses' feet before you leave for a trip, and determine what you will need to accommodate them if a shoe is lost.

Eye Injuries

A type of injury on the trail that many veterinarians advise the amateur against treating--other than the most basic of procedures--involves the eye. There is great potential for doing more harm than good if one is not a veterinarian.

At the AAEP Horseman's Day held in 2000, K. Gary Magdesian, DVM, Dipl ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC, of the University of California, Davis, told horse owners that the best first-aid approach to these problems is to protect the eye from further injury by not allowing the horse to rub it, and protecting it from light and flies. This might involve fashioning a patch to cover the eye.

Signs of eye injury and pain, he says, include squinting, tearing, a cloudy cornea, and a narrowed pupil.

Bowed Tendon

Something that isn't all that apt to occur on the trail, but which can rear its head, is a bowed tendon or tendons. Clinical signs, says Magdesian, include a warm, painful, and swollen tendon combined with obvious lameness.

The leg should be iced as soon as possible and the horse moved as little as possible, he says. If one is far from the trailhead, a cold mountain stream might have to suffice. A support wrap should be applied to the limb, Magdesian suggests, and the horse should be rested.


In Scenario 1, we discussed a deep cut and the way in which it was treated. However, there are other wounds a horse can suffer on the trail. Magdesian separates them into two categories. Open wounds, he says, are classified as abrasions if they are partial thickness through the skin, and lacerations if they penetrate the full thickness. Another category is puncture wounds, which are penetrations by nails or other foreign bodies. He said that closed wounds are classified as contusions (bruises), hematomas (blood in a tissue space), or seromas (accumulation of serum as the hematoma organizes.)

Most abrasions, he says, are not serious and do not require sutures. He recommends that they be treated with antibiotic ointment daily.

Lacerations, Magdesian says, should be sutured to hasten healing and minimize scars. The ideal time to suture wounds, he says, is within the first six to eight hours after the injury occurs. If you are close to the trailer, get off the trail and to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If possible, a tight wrap can be used to help keep the edges of the wound together until a veterinarian can stitch it.

If the laceration occurs farther away from civilization, getting immediate professional help might not be possible. If there is someone in the group competent enough to perform the procedure, fishing line will do in an emergency situation, says Behling.

Magdesian recommends that horses with wounds should be boostered with tetanus toxoid vaccine if it has been more than six months since their previous vaccination. Rather than carry tetanus toxoid on a trail ride, it would behoove the horse owner to be current on the tetanus toxoid shots or get the horse a booster soon after returning home.

For many horse owners, peroxide has been the cleaning solution of choice for open wounds. However, Magdesian says, peroxide should be avoided as it is irritating to tissues and will delay healing.

Saddle Sores

Saddle sores and cinch sores can compromise a trail horse's ability to perform. There is really no excuse for these to occur because the owner should have made certain that saddle and pad were appropriate for the horse before heading out on a long trail ride.

When these problems do occur, there is little one can do other than try to ameliorate the problem. This might involve cutting out a portion of the pad over a sore area or hiking instead of riding.

Basic cleanliness is a must. The sores should be cleaned in the same manner as any laceration or abrasion. In this case, the proverbial ounce of prevention (in the form of ensuring good saddle and pad fit for each horse before leaving home) is worth a pound of cure when saddle and cinch sores are involved.


A horse which suffers a broken leg on the trail constitutes an emergency of the most dire nature. Depending on the severity of the fracture and how far from help you are when it occurs, it might be possible to stabilize the injury and get the horse out. In other cases, that might be impossible. Trail riders who venture into rugged backcountry should be prepared to euthanize a horse if he sustains a serious fracture.

Here's a personal anecdote: It was our first pack trip into the mountains, and we had one pack horse. The horse was inexperienced, and so were we--embarrassingly so. Without suffering through details, suffice it to say that the pack horse lost her footing on a narrow, rocky trail, fell, and went sliding down a very steep, rock-strewn slope. There she lay.

As I clambered down the slope toward her, fearing I would find one or more legs fractured, I was struck with the realization that no one in the group had a firearm. If her leg or legs were badly fractured, I faced the grisly task of cutting her throat with a pocket knife.

Thankfully, her legs weren't broken; when we got her up on her feet, everything was fine. However, we no longer pack in anywhere without taking a firearm. And we have been trained by our veterinarian on the best places to use a bullet for euthanasia.

Normal Health Ranges

In his AAEP Horseman's Day presentation, Magdesian outlined normal health parameters for a horse so that an owner can better determine if a problem truly exists. Here are the normal parameters that he listed:

  • Heart rate--28-44 beats per minute;
  • Respiratory rate--eight to 20 breaths per minute;
  • Temperature--99°-100.8°F (37.2-38.2°C);
  • Mucous membranes--pink and moist (lip, gums, nose, eyes, vulva);
  • Capillary refill time--one to two seconds (check the gums); and
  • Nasal discharge--serous (clear) nasal discharge is normal.

First Aid

Our experts suggest these items for a first-aid kit:

  • Thermometer;
  • Flashlight;
  • Bandage material (such as cotton, sheet, or quilt padding), Vetrap, Elastikon tape, brown gauze, sterile gauze pads, and track bandages;
  • Easy Boot (that fits the horse);
  • Antibacterial soap, such as Betadine or Nolvasan;
  • Ivory soap;
  • Antiseptics, including Betadine, Nolvasan, and alcohol;
  • Water-soluble wound dressing, such as Furacin ointment and/or Nolvasan ointment;
  • Fly spray or ointment;
  • Hoof pick and hoof knife;
  • Shoe pullers and hoof rasp;
  • Phenylbutazone (Bute);
  • Splint;
  • Sterile saline solution;
  • Veterinarian's phone number or 1-800-GET-A-DVM;
  • Banamine;
  • Acepromazine;
  • Electrolytes in paste or powder form,
  • Needles and suture material;
  • Syringes;
  • Duct tape;
  • A pair of sharp scissors; and
  • A roll of medical tape.

One of the most important items to always keep with you is your veterinarian's phone number. With the proliferation of cell phones today, the veterinarian is often only a dial tone away. However, when trail riding, it is best to use that number before you go. Your veterinarian can be your best trail partner by advising you what to do when an emergency arises before you hit the trail. 


See the following article categories at


Basic Health Care:

Emergencies/Emergency Care


About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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