Tips to keep you and your horse healthy on the trail
With trail riding season in full swing, you might have already heard that one or more of your trail buddies’ horses are dealing with lameness or other health struggles. Layups due to injury or illness can cost you, both in veterinary bills and in time lost from your favorite activity.
Although it sometimes seems that horses disproportionately invoke Murphy’s Law, there are proactive steps you can take to increase the likelihood your four-footed trail-riding buddy stays healthy and happy all season. Riding the right horse is first and foremost. A level-headed horse will keep both himself and you safe and, on the trail (as in most life situations), health and safety go hand in hand. Although trail riding is a carefree stroll through nature for some horses, others aren’t cut out for it.
“A trail horse will come across challenges that are never seen in an arena or on the farm,” says Kristen Reiter, DVM, a veterinarian from Oak Harbor, Washington, who has participated in informal and organized rides for 23 years. “Riding a horse that sizes up the obstacles and creatures it encounters, thinks them through, and has minimal spook response will be safer than the horse whose flight response outweighs its reasoning and thought processes.”
Andy Shaw, who manages the Appaloosa Horse Club’s annual 100-mile Chief Joseph Trail Ride, in Idaho, adds that a calm, sturdy, well-conditioned horse that covers ground (doesn’t just poke along) without jigging and fighting for his head all day provides the most enjoyable ride.
Reiter and Shaw answered 17 of our questions about keeping your horse sound and healthy throughout the ride season.
1. What’s the best way to start the season?
Begin by having your veterinarian perform a thorough checkup several weeks before your first scheduled ride. He or she will be able to determine if your horse is physically fit and sound enough for the rides you have in mind. You can also get a blood draw for a Coggins test at that time, along with the necessary health certificate for crossing state lines if you need it.
“Remember, though, that a health certificate is merely a written certification that your horse doesn’t appear to be affected by any communicable diseases,” Reiter says. “It’s not a declaration of your horse’s overall health and fitness. An underweight horse can be issued an official health certificate for travel, as can a horse with noncontagious disease such as lameness secondary to arthritis or unmanaged Cushing’s disease. In either instance the horses mentioned aren’t ideal candidates for a trail ride.”
2. Does my horse need vaccinations if I only trail ride him?
Absolutely. When you trail ride, you have no idea what pathogens (disease-causing organisms) other horses might have been exposed to, says Reiter. You also might encounter mosquitoes that can transmit diseases such as Eastern or Western equine encephalomyelitis and West Nile virus, wildlife that can spread rabies, and microorganisms in the environment that cause diseases such as tetanus. There are also venomous snakes.
“Riders participating in an organized ride where horses travel from across the country, often boarding along the way, may also wish to protect their horses with influenza and rhinopneumonitis vaccinations,” she adds, or, if you ride in rattlesnake country, the snakebite vaccine. “Share your travel plans with your veterinarian, and ask what she recommends.”
3. What kind of shoes will protect my horse’s feet?
Have your horse shod a couple of weeks prior to any extended ride, and ask your farrier for advice for your particular location. He or she might recommend hoof pads or boots to protect against stone bruises.
Reiter says trail riders’ opinions vary concerning shoeing, pads, borium, boots, and going barefoot. Trail conditions obviously play a role, as does each horse’s hoof strength and health. “I’ve ridden my gelding along 230 miles of gravel railroad bed over 2 ½ weeks and completely decimated a set of shoes that were placed just prior to the ride,” she says. “Conversely, I have a friend who has ridden her horse along multiple legs of the Chief Joseph Trail Ride without any shoes at all. Choose what works best for your horse. I always err on the side of caution and, in addition to shoeing, I bring a full set of properly fitted boots in case a shoe is wrenched off or thrown. I put one pair in my saddlebag and keep the other in my trailer.”
4. How should I condition my horse so he’s up to the ride?
Shaw says to train in terrain and at elevations similar to what you’ll experience on the organized ride.
Based on his experience, he’s found that a good rule of thumb is to ride at least 10 miles per session, three times a week, for at least four weeks prior to any long-distance or otherwise challenging ride.
5. What ride-specific training will my horse need to stay safe?
“Your horse will need to stand tied quietly to just about anything—trailers, picket lines, high ties across trees or strung between horse trailers, trees, and bushes,” Reiter says. “Hobbles can also come in handy. And many trail riders pack portable corrals appropriate for their storage capabilities, their horse, and the terrain, but acclimate your horse to them in the safety of your pasture at home,” to make sure he doesn’t try to escape.
If possible, she also recommends practicing walking over all types of bridges (wood, metal, concrete, with sides and without); through safe water, mud, and bog crossings; and over rock shelves.
“A horse that’s trained to sidle up to a fallen log is an extra bonus for those who have difficulties mounting from the ground,” she adds. “And try out trail gear before the ride. Saddlebags are cumbersome and can be floppy. The additional weight behind the saddle can feel weird to a horse and turn (your ride) into a rodeo as the horse bucks to free itself of the extra baggage.”
Shaw adds that you need to know your horse is safe around other horses. If he doesn’t like to be ridden up on from behind, tie a red ribbon to his tail so others know he might kick.
“We also like to keep horses in groups of buddies,” he says. “You can use a buddy-sour situation to your advantage to get a horse across a creek or other obstacle.”
6. What should I know about feeding on overnight rides?
Know ahead of time that some organized rides provide feed, some don’t. And state or national lands might require visitors to use certified weed-free hay to prevent noxious weed invasions. To avoid colic issues from switching forages, Shaw recommends getting certified hay well ahead of time and avoiding feed type changes (hay to pellets, etc.).
To fulfill her hard-keeping horse’s need for ample forage, Reiter provides weed-free hay in a slow-feeding bag whenever she’s off the trail or cooling down.
7. What do I need to consider about tack and equipment?
Clean, well-fitting tack in good repair and padding to avoid sore backs and rub spots are must-haves.
“You need to log hours riding in your gear to scrutinize your horse’s withers, back, and girth (area) to know if your saddle, pad, and cinch are properly fitted and appropriate to the extended periods of use,” says Reiter. “I’m a big fan of mohair cinches and wool pads for both English and Western saddles.
“Pulling collars instead of standard breastcollars free up horses’ shoulders and allow them better reach for those tough climbs,” she adds. If you ride English, a Y-shaped or yoke-style three- or five-point attachment provides the same mechanics. “Don’t even think of trail riding without a breastcollar unless the area you’ll ride in is flat as a board. Saddles slide with ascents and descents and can cause painful rubbing that breastcollars and cruppers can prevent.”
Reiter also emphasizes the importance of having clean tack and pads. “That grass blade stuck to the bottom of your saddle pad will become abrasive after five hours under the saddle and can create a painful rub or gall,” she says. “I usually carry duplicates of everything—pads, bridles, cinches—so I can use dry gear every morning and (clean) the encrusted sweat and dirt off of the tack as needed. This way, my horse heads out each day on the trail with clean tack.”
8. How important is grooming?
Reiter can’t stress enough the importance of grooming your horse and paying particular attention to where the tack will lie. Clean the crusty dried sweat off his girth area and back, she says, and inspect him for rubs and galling after riding.
Also monitor for bit rubs. “If an area is inflamed or swollen, consider different-fitting tack for the next day,” Reiter says. “Slather (a cream) on the skin lesion to protect it and help dry it up.”
Carry a hoof pick on the trail so you can dislodge rocks from shoes, she says, and pick out your horse’s feet after every ride.
“A sponge bath after a particularly dusty and hot ride can be a great reward,” Reiter adds. “And I always make sure that I clean any dirt from (horses’) eyes and nostrils if we’ve been in particularly dusty areas.”
9. How can I prepare for weather changes?
Depending on where you live, your horse might tolerate sudden temperature and humidity changes quite well. But if you live in a warm climate and will be riding in the mountains, you’ll need to plan accordingly.
On the trail, Reiter says, be prepared for any weather. “The mountains can bring all sorts of unexpected changes,” she says. “I left camp one morning on a bright, sunny day. We lunched in the colorful wildflowers but, not even an hour after remounting, the skies grew dark, the wind picked up, and the heavens dumped an icy-cold deluge. I’d left my rain gear in camp. I was saturated, cold, and miserable the several hours it took for us to ride back.”
For this reason she recommends packing good rain gear, such as an oilskin Aussie coat. Carry gloves and a jacket or riding vest for warmth, if needed.
In these situations bringing along a blanket—even just a sheet—could be advisable. Keeping your horse dry is generally more important than protecting him from cold, says Shaw.
“Pack for the region,” Reiter adds. “Often the temperatures plummet when the sun sets. I bring a waterproof winter blanket, a rain sheet, and a fly sheet and mask for my horse. Packing all the horse luggage suggested and utilizing it is reserved for point-to-point or wagon-wheel rides where riders return to the trailer every evening. For those … packing in their gear, this equipment is pared down to the bare essentials.”
As for temperature changes the other direction, “If I’m concerned they are getting too warm, I will apply cool water to their necks, particularly over the jugular vein to help drop their temperature,” Reiter says. “If I feel they are compromised because of the heat, I will dismount, loosen their cinch, and walk alongside them to let them rest. Whenever water is available, I allow them to drink and will use a sponge or towel to soak them down, remove the dried and encrusted sweat, and cool them.”
10. What should I do if I’m lost?
Rule No. 1: Never ride without a buddy, says Shaw.
“The U.S. Forest Service utilizes the STOP procedure,” says Reiter. “As soon as you realize you’re lost, stop (stay where you are), think (retrace your steps mentally, recall landmarks), observe (if you’re still on the trail, you can safely backtrack until you get to a fork, looking for hoof prints to guide you), plan. If you’re not confident in your plan, stay put, preferably with an unobstructed view of the sky, and lay the brightest piece of clothing you have on the ground.”
Tie your horse safely to a tree, untack, and get comfortable. “Obviously, if you have phone service, call for assistance,” she says. “For backcountry riding, a satellite phone can prove invaluable in the case of an emergency and lack of adequate cell signal.
“If your horse is tired or injured, make him as comfortable as possible: Provide water if available, take off his bridle, put on his halter, loosen his cinch, and unfasten his breastcollar so he can lower his head. If he’s hot and you have some extra water—I stress ‘extra’; don’t give him the last of the water you need to survive a hot day—(put some on a cloth and) wipe his jugular veins to cool him off.”
11. How long can a horse stay out on the trail without water, especially in hot climates?
“I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to offer a horse water if you encounter it, but on many of the rides I’ve done, horses aren’t interested in water until the lunch break (four hours into the ride) or even a bit after,” says Reiter. “Obviously, the need for water increases with the degree of work, the temperature, humidity, and how well-hydrated he left camp. In a perfect world, I’d offer my horse water every two to three hours and spend breaks in the shade if possible.”
12. What if my horse won’t drink from natural water sources?
Shaw says he’s had horses that drink any chance they get and others that don’t want to drink from creeks or other bodies of water. “(On the Chief Joseph Trail Ride), we provide water for the horses in troughs, and they get an opportunity to drink in the morning and the evening, so they may prefer not to drink from a creek or pond out on the trail. The reality is, if a horse is really thirsty, he’s going to drink.”
But if you’re concerned, says Reiter, “you could carry a CamelBak (wearable hydration pack) with water from home, as well as a collapsible bucket or bowl, and offer him a drink halfway through the day.
Be sure to load him up with water when you get back into camp, either offering from water you’ve stowed away in a tank or by adding water to his hay or grain. I utilize oversoaked beet pulp to get more water into my horses when needed.”
13. What do I do if my horse gets dehydrated or starts tying-up during a summer ride?
For a horse with a history of tying-up (a muscle condition also known as exertional rhabdomyolysis, caused by exhaustion, overexertion, or dietary and electrolyte imbalances, among others), do your best to find him water, says Reiter. “Dismount, loosen the cinch, hand-walk him (if he isn’t actively tying-up), and try to find him water,” she says. “If he’s tying-up, the most important thing to do is remain stationary; walking during an episode can actually increase the damage. If your horse has a genetic predisposition to tying-up, you may have worked out a treatment protocol with your vet and have the medications needed to make him more comfortable. A sedative injection combined with a dose of phenylbutazone can alleviate his discomfort until the signs pass. Only after the signs have subsided should you attempt to walk your horse in from the trail. Provide multiple breaks, stopping every 20 to 30 minutes or so. If the sun is setting, set up camp and make a night of it. Then walk him out the next day. If he isn’t responding or if he’s getting worse and you can’t phone for assistance, you may need to send your riding partner for help.”
14. What if wildlife threatens?
The best thing to do, Shaw says, is stay calm. “I’ve encountered elk and bears and different things, and usually the horse will alert me by stopping and pointing his ears at it,” he says.
“(These wild animals) don’t want to encounter you any more than you do them,” adds Reiter. “Remember that you’re safest on your horse; do your best to stay aboard.”
If you run into:
- Cougars, “make yourself look bigger than you are,” she “Hold your jacket out to increase your body mass.”
- Bears, be loud, and don’t surprise “At Yellowstone one year, our scout sus- pected bear were nearby,” she says. “He had us count down our column, the first rider shouting, ‘One!’ the second, ‘Two!’ and so on. It was a way to make noise to scare off the bear, while not alarming those who might panic if they knew a bear was near.”
- Moose or bison, give them “We’ve seen moose on the Chief Joe and walked 150 horses by them,” Reiter says. “As long as you give them their space and just keep moving, they appear to keep to themselves.”
15. How should I deal with adverse reactions to bugs?
Reiter recommends carrying fly spray that contains sunscreen to extend its efficacy and a fly mask with fine mesh that won’t interfere with your horse’s vision. If your horse is hypersensitive, your veterinarian can prescribe medications such as oral or injectable corticosteroids to use on an as-needed basis, unless your horse is so hypersensitive that he needs daily oral corticosteroids as a preventive measure.
16. What about handy bandaging hacks?
Reiter says that when you’re on the trail, you’ll use what you have to fix whatever injuries your horse presents. She always carries a quilted leg wrap and a rolled standing bandage or a package of Vetrap in her saddle bag. “Feminine pads make great absorbent bandages for a bleeding wound,” she adds. “I also carry a tube of phenylbutazone and one of flunixin meglumine for pain control. Most veterinarians will prescribe oral medications for emergency use.
“While out on the trail, your goal is temporary stabilization until help becomes available,” she adds. “If your horse suffers a major injury, your goal is not to repair it trailside, but to stabilize it the best you can so you can get back to camp and locate veterinary assistance. Ideally, with a major injury, you shouldn’t move the horse too much. On the trail in the backcountry, you may not have an option, in which case you would find the shortest distance to roadside access and arrange for a trailer to come pick up the horse, rather than try to limp it back to camp.”
17. What if my horse is prone to gastric ulcers?
It’s far better to stay ahead of an ulcer than to treat it. “Any stressful event can exacerbate the issue—traveling cross- country, eating different native grasses, limited grazing, surrounded by unfamiliar horses and activities,” says Reiter. “At the minimum, the ulcer-prone horse should be on some sort of ulcer supplementation. If he’s particularly stressed, you might consider proactively treating with omeprazole while you’re away from home. Try to keep his meals the same as at home so you don’t compound his stress with gastrointestinal changes and challenges. Horses with ulcers or propensity to forming them do better with unlimited forage. For this reason, I allow my horses to graze and grab mouthfuls of grass when we trail ride. One study suggests that beet pulp may decrease the risk of developing ulcers, as well.”
Trail riding can be the calming activity you need when you’re stressed after a week of work or, simply, life’s challenges. For a positive experience on the trail, know your horse, understand his needs, and provide for them pre-emptively.
When you know you’ve done all you can to prepare for any eventuality, you (and your horse) can relax, forget your cares, and enjoy the beauty around you.