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Dealing With Trail Riding InjuriesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · August 30, 2013

Trail riding is popular with many horse owners. It’s always fun to get out of the ring or arena, see some new country, and spend an enjoyable day with your friends and their horses. However, if a horse gets sick or injured while you’re a long way from the barn, veterinary help can be hours away. It will be up to you to deal with the problem, make your horse as comfortable as possible, and decide how to get back to a location where you can get professional assistance.

One of the most common problems for trail horses is sudden lameness. Horses that show lameness at home or that have just recovered from an injury are obviously not good candidates for trail riding, but sometimes a horse will come up lame in the middle of the ride. You’ll have to attempt to find out where the pain is, eliminate or treat it, and avoid making the situation worse. Start by dismounting and checking your horse’s legs and hooves (this is why you carry a hoof pick). Clean and carefully examine each hoof. Sole bruises from rocks or frozen ground won’t be seen right away but can be very painful. Putting protective boots or shoes with sole pads on the horse before the ride can prevent bruising, but there’s nothing you can do on the trail to treat bruises after they occur.

A horse that falls, slips, or takes an awkward step may become lame because of a soft-tissue injury. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments can also be damaged if horses are asked to run faster or longer than usual, jump obstacles, scramble up steep hills, traverse mud or deep sand, or carry heavy riders for miles. Usually lameness from these injuries is easily seen and may become worse if the horse is asked to continue on the ride. There may be heat and swelling around the injury, though these signs may not develop until later. If lameness is at all severe or if it worsens, get off the horse, let it rest for a few minutes, and lead it home.

Minor abrasions and cuts to the lower legs are easily seen and may not cause lameness. Unless these injuries are large, deep, or near a joint, they are usually not serious enough to end the ride. Rinse the injury (drinking water or a bottle of saline should be in your pack), bandage with a clean handkerchief or bandanna to keep dirt out of the wound, and continue the ride if the horse doesn’t seem to be in pain. More serious injuries and those that are bleeding profusely will need to be rinsed and bandaged with a pressure bandage. If there is any question that the horse is in moderate pain or the injury seems to be severe, stop the ride and walk the horse back.  

An unfortunate but fairly common scenario is one in which unfit, overweight horses are taken on a long, strenuous trail ride on a hot day. After several miles, these horses are sweating heavily and are becoming exhausted. They may be reluctant to continue, showing disorientation, fast and labored breathing, an elevated heart rate, poor coordination, and severe muscle cramping. If they are forced to continue, these horses may actually collapse and die on the trail. What went wrong?

Horses should be properly conditioned by weeks of less strenuous riding, slowly building up in effort and length of workouts, before they are asked to carry a rider on a long ride over terrain that is likely to be more demanding than a flat pasture. Older horses and those that are overweight or in very poor condition will take longer to become fit.

When they sweat, horses lose salt and other electrolytes that their bodies require for the proper function of nerves and muscles. By using a commercial paste or powder that contains sodium and other electrolytes, you can dose the horse at rest stops on the trail, replacing what he has lost and avoiding many problems. If you are not sure how to use electrolyte replacement products, check with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist.

Be sure your horse is well hydrated before the ride, and take advantage of all water sources on the trail. Especially during hot, humid weather, choose a trail where you know water will be available. Plan to ride during the cooler parts of the day to avoid dehydration and heat-related problems for your horse. If a horse does become overheated, stop riding, remove his saddle and pad, and get him to a shady spot where the breeze can blow on him. Use water from a stream or pond to pour over him. Don’t stop this treatment until his breathing and heart rate become normal, and then walk him slowly home.

Severe muscle cramping, known as “tying-up,” can begin gradually or have a sudden onset. Tying-up has a number of causes, among which are fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte depletion, and metabolic issues related to abnormal muscle function. The muscle spasms may be so painful that the horse will be unable to move. You can take steps to prevent tying-up—begin with a well-conditioned horse, provide water and electrolytes, and don’t ask the horse to do more than his age, size, and fitness level can handle. If the horse has had tying-up episodes at home, consult an equine nutritionist about changes to the horse’s diet.

To summarize, be prepared for trail riding with a conditioned horse and a suitable choice of trail type and length. On the trail, carry basic first aid supplies, water, and a cell phone to call for help. Rest horses at reasonable intervals, especially during hot weather. Tend to lameness, injuries, or fatigue at the first signs of a problem. End the ride before the horses become exhausted. After you finish the ride, check all horses for injuries and contact a veterinarian for anything more serious than a minor scrape. Keep an eye on your horse for a few days after a strenuous trail ride, as some problems may not show up right away.