Be prepared: Trails should never be trials

Ken Marcella, D.V.M., The Mane Points

Warmer weather and nicer days can only mean one thing -- time to get out and enjoy the world from horseback! As you prepare for summer riding, it is a good idea to spend a little time thinking about possible trail emergencies and how you might deal with them. Being prepared and having a plan is the best thing you can do for yourself and for your horse.

Getting there is half the battle, so be sure to check your trailer. Look for any sharp or bent corners, nails or screws, broken panels, damaged floor boards or anything else that could be harmful to your equine cargo. Check the corners of the interior ceiling for spider or insect nests.

A properly conditioned horse will be fit enough to avoid routine muscle strains and tendon damage, so make sure that you have done plenty of exercise and training before attempting difficult trails or long rides. But even the best-conditioned horse can encounter problems.


Cuts, scrapes and falls are perhaps the most common types of trauma seen on the trail. Smart riding and knowing your trail are the only means of prevention, and having a good emergency kit that you are comfortable using is the best means of treatment for such problems.

Minor wounds should be cleaned and flushed using Betadine or Nolvasan solutions (use water from your canteen, a stream or pond to make a dilute solution and use a large syringe to actually flush out dirt and debris). If necessary, a protective bandage can be applied. Deeper or more severe wounds may need veterinary attention, but they can still be cleaned and wrapped until assistance arrives. Direct, strong pressure will stop almost all bleeding so gauze, a towel or even a shirt can be used in this manner. Elasticon wrap, vet wrap or even duct tape can be used as bandage material on the trail. Keeping your horse calm and relaxed in these situations also helps reduce bleeding because it lowers blood pressure, so always try to act calmly and reassuringly in such moments.

You will be sharing the trail with many other creatures so be prepared for insect stings and bites. Some horses can have strong reactions to insect bites, so you may want to include an antihistamine or steroid injection in your emergency kit. As with any and all medications, discuss possible use and the method of administration with your veterinarian. It may be advisable to get some help "practicing" at home before a real emergency situation occurs. This applies to wrapping legs, treating wounds and giving any medications. It is also advisable to get some pointers from your veterinarian as to how to perform a physical exam and what the "normal" values are for certain physical parameters.

Snake bite

Snakes are a potentially dangerous trail hazard. Most snakes just want to be left alone. Snake-horse encounters are usually the result of surprising a snake under cover of leaves or grass or stepping over a log in the trail only to find a snake sunning itself on the other side.

The good news is that most snake bites in horses are not fatal. But they still can cause massive swelling, severe pain and long-lasting tissue damage and even lameness, so they should always be treated seriously.

Bites on the nose and face and bites near a major blood supply are the most serious. Many experienced trail riders carry two six-inch pieces of ordinary garden hose. Snake bites on a horse's muzzle can swell so dramatically that the air passages can be closed off and the horse can suffocate. Lubricating the pieces of garden hose and inserting them into a bitten horse's nostrils can be life-saving in certain situations.

If your horse is bitten, keep it calm. Increased blood flow causes the poison to be further spread throughout the body, so keeping the horse's blood pressure low is important.

Move your horse as little as possible. Get it to a trailer by walking slowly. Place a wide band such as a handkerchief or shirt about two inches above the bite. The band should be tight enough to restrict the veins and lymphatics draining the area but not so tight as to stop arterial flow into that area. Release the band for a minute or so every 15 minutes to reduce the risk of tissue damage.

Always have a snake-bit horse examined by a veterinarian. Treatment for shock, and treatment aimed at neutralizing the venom and controlling tissue damage should be the main focus.

Avoiding snakes on the trail is the best method of prevention. Check grassy areas, rocks and logs before tying up your horses at rest stops. When walking and riding, make some noise so that other animals can hear you coming and slither away.

Metabolic problems

Metabolic problems are also of concern while on the trail. Many horses can become dehydrated and can overheat. Always use electrolytes when exercising in hot weather and stop frequently to make your horse drink. Standing in creeks and ponds can help control heat trauma as well.


Horses that work too hard on the trail, don't drink appropriately or that are stressed in some way, may colic. These horses are sometimes in pain and they may refuse to move forward, they may paw, roll or show any of the usual signs of abdominal discomfort. Keep these horses walking slowly and try to get them veterinary attention.

Anti-spasmotic, pain relieving drugs such as banamine may be needed to halt the colic pain and fluids may be necessary to correct possible electrolyte abnormalities.

The best treatment for colic on trail is prevention. Do not override your horse and stay consistent with feed and water even when trail riding.

There is no sure-fire way to avoid all trail emergencies and if you ride often enough, something is bound to happen. Be prepared, plan ahead and you should be able to deal with whatever trials the trail may have for you.

Kenneth L. Marcella, D.V.M., is based at the Chattahoochee Equine Center in Canton, Ga.

1997-2004 Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points magazine, July 2004, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.
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