Keeping Your Horse Healthy on the Trail

Keeping Your Horse Healthy on the Trail

Knowing horse health care basics, first aid, and how to handle an emergency is important, especially when trail riding.

Photo: iStock

Ways to prepare for, prevent, and handle potential emergencies

There’s something special about trail riding. On the open road, horse and rider share a sense of freedom, adventure, and bonding. However, a nice ride can quickly become a nightmare if something goes wrong. Knowing horse health care basics, first aid, and how to handle an emergency is important for all who ride, but it’s especially crucial for those who spend time far away from civilization on the trail. In this article our three sources have provided tips for staying safe and handling potential trail emergencies.

“A precursor to any great trail ride is preparation,” says Robert Eversole, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International instructor, trail riding and camping enthusiast, and owner of TrailMeister.com, based in Spokane, Washington. “Having a good idea of what to expect before arriving at the trailhead is the best way to ensure that memories from the ride are pleasant ones.” 

Training and Conditioning First

This preparation begins with physical readiness of both rider and horse for the rigors of trail riding. Lifelong horseman and veterinarian Doug Thal, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, owner of Thal Equine, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and creator of Horse Side Vet Guide, says trail riding can involve long hours in the saddle and more physical exertion for the horse than ring work requires. 

The biggest problems Eversole sees are horses and/or riders that are not physically ready for the trail. “All too often riders will attempt a strenuous ride without considering their animal’s ability,” he says. “This is most common in the spring when we’re all ready to hit the trails after being cooped up all winter. However, instead of properly conditioning their mounts, some riders will push too hard too fast. Just as we wouldn’t run a marathon without preparing first, we shouldn’t ask our mounts to either.”

“Take small rides first, and get horses used to the routine,” says Thal. “You should be used to the altitude, physically fit, and comfortable in variable outdoor conditions.”

As far as skills, Eversole suggests a few things riders should learn before taking to the trail, such as how to read a paper map and use a compass and how to spend an unplanned night on the trail. 

Then there are safety considerations to make. Trail riding alone can be risky, and many find riding in a group more fun. But select your mounts carefully: While experienced riders can ride novice trail horses, having several green horses on the trail at one time can spell disaster. Having a calm, collected, expert trail horse along can help another horse learn how to behave on the trail. 

Trail riding alone can be risky, and many find riding in a group more fun.

Photo: iStock

Even with all these factors in mind, don’t forget to remain cognizant of your own horsemanship experience. “Be a confident rider and horseman before putting yourselves at risk by adding in other variables,” Thal says.

Right Before the Ride

Your ride dates are set and travel arrangements made. Our sources offer their best tips for preparing the week before and on the day of your trail ride. 

  1. Check the weather, dress appropriately, and bring necessary clothing to stay warm and dry. 
     
  2. Get started early so you don’t get caught riding after the sun sets.
     
  3. Always wear an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet. It could save your life.
     
  4. Always clean and inspect tack several days before the ride in case anything needs replacing or repairing. 
     
  5. Learn basic human and horse first aid, carry a pocket guide, or use a smartphone app. 
     
  6. Be comfortable giving equine medications so you’ll be prepared if an emergency arises. A veterinarian can teach you this important skill. While some medications, such as phenylbutazone (Bute) and flunixin meglumine (Banamine), can help a horse in distress on a trail ride, Thal stresses that these prescription drugs can have serious unfavorable side effects if misused. “They need to be dispensed by a licensed veterinarian and should only be used as directed by your veterinarian,” he says. “They can be particularly problematic in horses that are dehydrated, causing kidney failure. Be sure you are comfortable with the benefits, limitations, and side effects of these medications before using them.”
     
  7. Discuss your horse’s feet with a farrier to see if he needs shoes, boots, or is properly trimmed to go barefoot. Wesley Elford, DVM, of Mayville, Wisconsin, a four-star FEI endurance veterinarian and endurance rider, for instance, advises riders to ask their farrier to trim and/or shoe the hind feet of a horse that has a tendency to overreach so the horse can’t pull a front shoe off. 
     
  8. Give the horse his usual breakfast before the ride and his usual dinner for recovery after the ride. “There is evidence that feeding hay before riding may be good for the horse’s intestines,” says Thal, and if you decide to supplement the forage with grain, “gradually introduce any new feed over days prior to the event. Do not make changes at the time of the event.” 
     
  9. Eversole always carries an equine first-aid kit with him on the ride, and he recommends a rider in your group do the same. “Your equine veterinarian can help you create a first-aid kit and also help you learn how to use it effectively,” he says.

Our three sources also suggest packing the following with you on the trail:

  • Human and equine first-aid kits;
  • Electrolyte paste or powder;
  • Multipurpose tool with a sharp folding knife
  • Trail saw for clearing debris;
  • Halter and lead rope;
  • Hobbles, if a horse is accustomed to wearing them;
  • Sunglasses and a hat for when not wearing a helmet;
  • A headlight and flashlight;
  • Flunixin meglumine and phenylbutazone;
  • Ophthalmic antibiotic ointment;
  • Triple antibiotic ointment (Neosporin);
  • Thermometer;
  • A map and compass;
  • Cell phone (for emergencies), but keep it in a shirt or jacket pocket so it stays n you in case you become separated from your horse;
  • A hoof pick with brush;
  • Baling twine or duct tape;
  • A garbage bag;
  • A small towel or bandana;
  • Salt packets to make a saline rinse; and
  • Emergency contact numbers for a veterinarian, farrier, and local large animal rescue group.

Hitting the Trail

It’s “go time,” and your group of horses and riders is fit and ready to have fun. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and camaraderie of a trail ride, but stay alert and cautious at all times. “Riders should be continually monitoring their animal’s condition during a ride and adjusting accordingly,” Eversole says. “If your horse’s flanks are heaving as he tries to catch his breath, then stop and rest.”

A horse’s rest needs depend on his fitness and the weather conditions. “I like to stop every 10-15 minutes going up steep inclines and turn my horse across the slope and let him sit for a few minutes,” says Thal. He also recommends letting horses graze on the trail for a few minutes every hour to keep forage moving through their GI tract.

Riders might have to deal with unexpected challenges or inconveniences on the trail. These can include debris blocking the trail, low-hanging or wayward branches, horses spooking or bolting, etc. Do not assume your horse can jump an obstacle. Before jumping anything, check the other side to be sure it is safe. Do not jump an obstacle that is above your horse’s knees.

Even with planning, preparation, and careful progress down the trail, “accidents can and do happen,” says Eversole. “It’s how we react and address these eventualities that will determine the outcome of the rest of the ride and whether or not you’ll ride or walk back to the trailhead.”

The following are some problems you and your horse might encounter on the trail and how to handle them. 

Colic, Heat Stroke, Dehydration, and Exhaustion

Water, food, and rest are very important for ensuring trail horses don’t suffer from these conditions. Thal says colic is the most serious problem a horse might face on the trail, many times due to dehydration from reduced access to water. Prevention is key. 

“Offer drinking water at every water crossing and up to every hour,” he says. “You can use commercial electrolyte pastes or powders to encourage drinking. Allow the horse to rest. Allow horses to acclimate to altitude (which can accelerate dehydration).”

For the reluctant drinker, training beforehand, dismounting and loosening the girth during water breaks, bringing water from home to offer at the trailer, or flavoring water for several days beforehand and at the campsite can help.

If a horse does colic, Thal recommends calling your veterinarian, if possible, to determine whether you should administer a dose of flunixin meglumine, offering water in small amounts, and keeping the horse walking. If you do elect to give medications, note the dose and time of administration. Thal also suggests feeding only small amounts of hay for four to six hours post-flunixin administration, because flunixin’s tendency is to mask colic signs. “You don’t want the horse gorging on hay or grass if it feels better only because of the Banamine,” which can actually worsen a condition like impaction.

Keep an eye on the horse’s response to exercise, heat, and humidity. Most horses sweat to cool themselves, but panting is not normal. If the horse looks like he is in distress, cease all exercise until he’s cooler. “Heat stroke is a complex syndrome that can happen even when the temperature is not greatly oppressive,” says Elford. 

Signs of heat stroke and dehydration include dry and very red or very pale mouth and gums, loss of skin elasticity, poor capillary refill time (the time it takes for the gums to return to pink after being pressed with a finger), increased heart rate, and sunken eyes and wrinkled eyelids and tissues around the eyes. 

“Prevention of heat stroke is best,” adds Elford. “If one must use their horse in the heat, they need to supply the horse with needed electrolytes so that the horse doesn’t become depleted of the necessary calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese. These electrolytes are necessary for normal body functions, and they are highly concentrated in the horse’s sweat.”

Elford says horses usually can exercise without problem if their body temperature stays below 103°F. If a horse overheats, he needs immediate help. Elford suggests applying water all over the horse’s body until his temperature lowers to 101-102°F (yet another reason to pack a thermometer in your first-aid kit!). Scrape the water off the horse’s body so it’s not trapping heat. 

“There is no truth to the old fallacy that cool water shouldn’t be put on the big muscle groups like the rump muscles or the back muscles,” Elford says. “If a horse is in need of cooling, the whole horse’s body needs to be cooled.”

If water is not available, Elford suggests riders look for the breeziest and shadiest spot where the horse can rest and cool off, or walk him slowly without tack, which will create air movement to help evaporate the sweat. If walking does not cool the horse, allow him to stand.

Bug Bites and Stings

Spray-on or wipe-on insect repellents can help ward off annoying and dangerous insects, such as horseflies and bees. Thal says your veterinarian can provide an antihistamine prior to a ride if you fear an allergic reaction from bug bites. 

Wounds

Both horses and riders can sustain wounds, cuts, or lacerations. “Many wounds are minor and do not need treatment (by a veterinarian),” says Thal. “These include most head and body wounds and upper limb wounds.” For lower limb wounds, Thal suggests letting the horse stand in water and, if needed, administering Bute to control swelling. Clean and bandage the wound to keep dirt out. “Talk to your vet about having an antibiotic (on-hand) for the trail,” Thal adds. “Above all, be able to stop hemorrhage with a pressure bandage.” 

Snake Bite 

If your horse gets bitten by a venomous snake, he will need veterinary treatment as soon as possible. Keep him as calm as you can until the veterinarian can make an assessment. Treatment approach depends on the type of snake (if known), severity of the bite, amount of venom injected, tissue damage, bite location, and other factors. A veterinarian might use fluids, pain medications, antibiotics, a tetanus booster, antivenin, and wound care approaches to treat your horse. Effects of snake bites can actually occur months after the bite, so continue monitoring your horse well after the initial injury. 

Lost Shoes

A simple lost shoe can become a major problem on a trail ride, says Elford, who advises riders to take action immediately, making sure nothing detrimental happens to the horse’s foot. What to do really depends on terrain, however. If on soft ground, Elford says you might be able to continue riding if you avoid rocky areas. If it is too rocky, then end the ride immediately and lead your horse back to the trailer or barn, especially if he is lame. 

“The issue becomes of concern when one is riding on rocky trails or along roadsides that have gravel on them,” he says. ”The hoof capsule can get worn down pretty fast when riding is done on pretty abrasive surfaces, and then the horse starts to bear weight directly on their sole.” 

Elford suggests riders carry hoofboots. “There are many different kinds,” he says. “The essential thing is that the boot must be able to fit the horse being ridden. They can be carried in a small saddle bag and can really save the day if a horse needs some protection immediately.” 

Tying-Up

Tying-up, or exertional rhabdomyolysis, refers to a range of muscle disorders in horses. A horse that ties up might exhibit pain and/or profuse sweating, tremble or have muscle spasms, and/or be unwilling to move. 

Thal says, “I would give a single dose of flunixin meglumine or Bute if you have it, offer water if that is possible, loosen the girth or remove the saddle, let the horse rest 30-60 minutes or until the medication begins working and he is willing to move forward slowly, and then try to lead him to the closest reasonable destination (camp or trailer). 

“I would try to avoid pushing the horse hard against his will, as this tends to worsen the signs,” Thal adds. “If the horse can walk, lead him at a slow, steady walk until reaching the destination. Rest frequently for a few minutes at a time if the horse seems to slow, and then continue.”

Take-Home Message 

Any number of unexpected things can happen on a trail ride, but proper preparation and training can equip you to confidently and skillfully handle most any situation. For more information on how to handle various health conditions, TheHorse.com and your veterinarian are invaluable resources. As Roy Rogers sang, “Some trails are happy ones, others are blue. It’s the way you ride the trail that counts. Here’s a happy one for you.”

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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