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Trail Survival Challenge – Views from Veterinarians – July 2014

TB_jul2014For this edition of the Trail Survival Challenge we’ve gone high tech and used social media to gather the questions that our group of experts is going to help us with. Throughout the article you’ll also find links to more information. Enjoy this High Tech edition of Trail Survival Challenge.

Back in late April we asked TrailBlazer Magazine’s Facebook friends to submit their questions about camping with horses and mules.

As a trail rider who puts a lot of miles under my saddle in remote wilderness areas I was glad to see the number of questions that people had about dealing with medical concerns for their animals. Accidents can happen anywhere and anytime. And as any veteran trail rider can attest; camping is no exception. So what can we, as active riders who like to get out and explore new areas, do to help care for our trail buddies in case of a mishap, and what can we do to prevent such accidents?

To help answer these very important questions let’s hear from the good folks at the McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital, in Spokane, WA. Their dedicated vets and staff spend significant time in the saddle and on the trail when they’re not serving horse owners and trail riders across Washington and Idaho.


Q – I’m setting up my first aide box, what items have people learned they needed and not had it? I want to be prepared for all I can. Yvonne C.

Yvonne is right on track with this question. By acknowledging that accidents can happen we can prepare ourselves for how to handle them. But what are the must have items that you should make sure to have on hand for those just in case situations?

  1. Only the best for my animals. You simply must order a pre-made kit that contains all of the essentials. Price is of no concern.
  2. My horse is healthy and has common sense. I have no need for a first aid kit.
  3. Moderation in all things. Build your own first aid kit with input from your veterinarian and common household items that can multitask.
  4. I don’t need a first aid kit. My riding buddy is a veterinarian.

Yvonne’s question will fielded by Doc Parker of the McKinlay and Peters Equine Hospital. Raised on a mule ranch in Idaho, Doctor Parker grew up on horseback before earning her DVM degree in 2005.

TBjul2014-9Regarding answer 2; As much as we all love our horses we have to acknowledge the fact that at least 99.9% of them will have some sort of emergency in their life. It’s not a matter of “if” they will have a problem; it’s a matter of “when” and “how bad”. Our obligation as horse owners is to be as prepared as possible.

As for reply 4, I often joke about the fact that, even as a veterinarian, I am no good without my first aid kit. I can talk to you all day long about horse emergencies and how to respond to them, but if I do not have the appropriate equipment/supplies with me I am unable to offer relief to the horse. Take the time to educate yourself on common equine emergencies and have an appropriate first aid kit available.

Which brings us to answers 1 and 3. How and where you obtain the necessities for your kit is irrelevant. What matters is that you have them and that these essential items are readily available to you in an emergency.

Having two kits is ideal. One that stays in the barn or trailer that is a bit more extensive and another that is smaller, with just the bare basics, which can fit in your saddlebag.

For the barn kit I recommend having a stethoscope, a card listing normal vitals, gamgee or bandage cotton, brown gauze, 4 x 4 gauze, a few rolls of vet wrap, telfa pads, elasticon, bandage scissors, exam gloves, triple antibiotic ointment, electrolytes, a thermometer, bute paste, banamine paste, 35 and 60 cc syringes, betadine solution, betadine scrub and your veterinarian’s phone number.

For the trail kit I recommend having a roll of vet wrap, gamgee, a 35 cc syringe, a telfa, brown gauze, 4 x 4 gauze, a few pairs of exam gloves, triple antibiotic ointment, banamine paste, a thermometer, hydrozine tablets or Benadryl (anti-histamines), betadine scrub, betadine solution, your veterinarian’s phone number and two foot long sections of garden hose to stick up your horse’s nose and maintain open airways in the event of severe head swelling.

My first introduction to the McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital was at a Backcountry Horsemen of Washington meeting where the guest speaker was from the MPEH and spoke on this very subject. The presentation made me re-evaluate the contents of my first aid kit and prompted the creation of a separate first aid kit for trail emergencies. Now I have two first aid kits; one for my trailer which contains a wide assortment of items and a smaller version which lives in my saddle bags. Between the two packs I can provide care for my animals until I get to the vet.

For a complete list of all the items I keep in both of my first aid kits visit 


Q – What is the best way to keep a horse contained while camping: Picket line, portable electric corral, fence panels with run in to the trailer, hobbles, ground picket, etc.? Jane J

You might not think at first glance that Jane’s question is a medical concern. I will respectfully disagree and say that how we secure our animals when we’re camping can be a large reason why we may have to dig into the first aid kit that we’ve discussed previously. Many other Facebook responders had the same concerns as Jane with their own variations on the highline question. How do you do you keep your horse contained while camping?

  1. Containment? Horses are meant to be free with their manes flowing in the wind.
  2. My horse ground ties, there’s no need to restrain him; he contains himself.
  3. Use the best method that is available to you while also keeping LNT rules in mind.
  4. I tie my horses with bungee cords.

Riders that opt for answers A and B are soon referred to as hikers.

Response C is the most accurate but still leaves a lot of questions. A large portion of how you’ll contain your animals is dictated by the rules set forth by the land manager of the area you’re camping in. For example in many areas portable corrals are no longer permitted because irresponsible riders have failed to use “Leave No Trace” methods. And of course high lines work best when there are trees nearby.

That being said highlines are part of the lingua franca of horse camping so let’s dive in.

During the summer months my animals spend more time away from their barn than they do in it. As such I’ve had to learn the various methods of holding them either at the trailhead or in the backcountry, where a lost animal can cause much worse problems than just a long walk back to camp. Of all of the various methods for securing stock that I’ve used I prefer the highline above all else. I’ve used electric fence setups, hard fence panels, etc. and all worked well when conditions were optimal. Optimal, however, isn’t a common occurrence. A properly rigged high line will ensure your animals remain in the same place where you left them the night before.

The highline at it’s most basic is simply a line strung between two high points to which our mounts are secured during the times that we’re not riding.

For a detailed examination and video showing how to set-up a highline visit 

It seems that any discussion about highlines soon turns to the issue of how long a lead line we should use to secure our animal to the highline. If the lead is too long your mount can easily get a leg over or get tangled. Too short and he can’t lay down to sleep, perchance to dream.

To answer the question of horses needing to lay down to sleep we have Doctor Lynch. Doc Lynch earned his DVM in 2000 and has practiced equine medicine in Kentucky, California, and Washington.

TBjul2014-2Many people assume that since horses can “sleep” standing up, they never need to lie down. This notion is false because sleep is such a complex phenomenon. Sleep has been divided into multiple stages based on muscle activity, brain activity, and the presence or absence of Rapid Eye Movement (R.E.M.). For simplicity, these stages can be condensed into two categories: R.E.M. sleep and non-R.E.M. sleep. Horses can enter non-R.E.M. sleep while standing, but to enter R.E.M. sleep, they need to lie down. If a horse begins to enter R.E.M. sleep while standing, they will stumble and potentially fall, and this does happen with certain sleep disorders, including sleep deprivation.

How much sleep does a horse need? In general, herbivores/prey animals require much less sleep than predators. Most horses sleep 3-5 hours a day, 30-60 minutes of which is R.E.M. sleep. Horses can skip R.E.M. sleep for a few days, but it will eventually catch up with them. Therefore, giving your horse the opportunity to sleep lying down on extended trips is a good practice.

So there you have it, just as our sleep patterns are disrupted when we camp so are our horses. In general neither human nor equine are terribly harmed by it over the course of just a few days.

I have two lengths of lead rope that I use when camping with my horses. During the day if we’re around the camp, where I can keep an eye on them, the horses stay on the high line with enough lead that they can lay down and roll if they desire. At night when we’re turned in and I can’t immediately resolve a tangle, I tie the horses high with only a few feet of lead line. The horses can still drop their heads but the lead is too short for them to lay down or get a leg over it. They may not be as relaxed as with a longer lead but they’re safer. Neither do I use break-aways. The last thing I want is a loose horse in the backcountry. Those stories rarely end well.

Regarding answer D and the bungees that I all too often see horses tied with. In my opinion a bungee is terrible accident waiting to happen. I say that after having used them and suffering the consequences. If and when a 1,000+ pound animal pulls against an elastic cord (regardless of how heavy duty it is) that cord will break and the heavy metal clip will be launched with considerable force, most likely at your animals head. After an experience like that he’ll certainly be head shy if not blind.


Q – What is the best course of action to take if your horse is bitten by a venomous snake on the trail? Rachel P.

Dangerous encounters with the natives is always a concern in the back of our heads while trail riding. Be it an unfortunate encounter with the aforementioned reptile or an irked mama bear, how you handle the situation will determine whether or not you and your horse ride another day. So how would you handle this nightmare event?

  1. Put the spurs to him and get back to the trailer as fast as possible.
  2. Dismount and slowly lead your animal toward help.
  3. Cut an “X” over the bite and suck the venom out.
  4. Always carry a length of garden hose to help the horse breathe.

Rachel’s question will be addressed by Dr. Peters who was a farrier for 11 years prior to earning his Veterinary Medicine degree in 1996. Not only a healer of horses and mules, Doc Peters is a regular in the cowboy mounted shooting world.

TBjul2014-3I believe this question and set of answers was posed by a particularly dastardly professor. Answers 1 and 3 would obviously both be bad choices. Both “2” and “4” have merit but there is no “5” that says “2&4”. Venomous snake bites can be very serious. About half of all snake bites are “warning” bites where the snake does not inject venom so nothing really happens. Well….except for the fact that you probably got bucked off and broke your tail bone! On the other end of the spectrum I have seen leg bites swell to the size of a telephone pole. In some cases your horse could even die from the complications of a venomous snakebite.

Answer 2 implies that you be calm and keep your horse calm. That is easy to say, but so difficult to do. How can one be calm when a rattlesnake just bit your horse? You must act calmly, efficiently and quickly. If you are anywhere in cell range call your veterinarian ASAP. Calm yourself and your horse. An elevated heart rate in your horse just moves the venom around faster. (An elevated heart rate in you makes you move faster without accomplishing anything.) Depending on how far away from veterinary help you are you may need to give a dose of Banamine and an antibiotic. (Discuss amounts with your own veterinarian.) Finally, also depending on how far away from your trailer you are, start moving that way immediately, but calmly.   The sooner you get it in the trailer and towards help the better.

Answer “4” also has merit, but also drawbacks. It sounds easy. “Put a tube up their nose so they can breathe in spite of severe swelling.” I can tell you from experience, it ain’t! Horses don’t particularly like having a tube slid up their nostril. Horses that just got bit on the nose REALLY don’t enjoy it! In some cases it could be life and death so you may need to “cowboy up” and get it done. A word of wisdom: You don’t need to do it twice. Your horse will be able to breathe just fine from one nostril.

Finally there is debate about whether to use or not to use the rattlesnake vaccine. My opinion is if you live in rattlesnake country then use it. While it was specifically developed for Western Diamond Back rattlesnakes, it does have some cross protection for other rattlesnake species. It is not a perfect vaccine but it’s better than nothing. At the very least it will reduce the severity of symptoms your horse will have to endure.

This is just a quick response to this important question on snakebites. It is meant to get you thinking and learning more. I strongly recommend you talk in depth with your own veterinarian about how to be prepared for this potential emergency.

Although venomous snakes live in large portions of the U.S. most of us have never seen one in the wild thanks in large part to their excellent camouflage and shy habits. Hollywood’s assertions to the contrary, snakes want nothing to do with us. We’re too large to eat and they’re much more interested in basking in the warm sun and enjoying the tasty rodents that are the principal constituent of snaky nirvana. Unfortunately snakes can be quick to take offense to a careless step or an inquisitive muzzle.

Most equine snake bites don’t occur while riding but rather while horses are grazing. The equines combination of poor close-up vision and curiosity is the reason why most horse snake bite cases are on the face. Trail rider snake encounters typically occur when riding through tall grass, where the snakes are hunting for their dinner, or when riding across sunny rocky areas where these cold blooded reptiles like to sun themselves. In these instances, snake bites are most often confined to the horse’s legs.

While a hermetically sealed arena could perhaps be safer, it’s in no way comparable to the grand views and vistas we’ll find while trail riding. Trail riding entails risk, and think twice before riding with anyone who suggests otherwise. It’s how we address those risks with prevention and forethought that can make the difference between an unfortunate occurrence and far far worse. For my part when riding in “snaky” areas I carry a short length of garden hose to insert into my horses nostril to keep his airways open in case he’s bitten on the nose. I’ve never had to use it and hope that I never will.


Q – Is there a formula for how much weight your horse can carry. If so, what is it? Shannon C.

As much as I like this question I almost decided to pass it by because it’s a very hard question for anyone to answer and anyone hoping for a simple formula will certainly be disappointed. That being said lets give it a try! How much can your horse carry comfortably?

  1. That is not a question to ask in polite company.
  2. Mules can carry a rider and whatever else with no problem.
  3. It depends.
  4. Cavalry horses carried 20% of their body weight.

Not only is Doctor Parker our first aid kit guru, she also holds national certifications in equine chiropractics. I’m very glad that Doc Parker has agreed to tackle Shannon’s question. It’s a problem that many of us have wondered about.

Answers 1 and 2 are best left out of the equation and response 4 well, let’s just say that those days are long gone. Which leaves us with 4.

I’ve mulled over this question for several days. The reason this is such a difficult topic to address is because there is no simple blanket answer. It is important to consider how much weight we ask a horse to carry but there are many other variables that are equally important to consider. Age, breed, condition, size, and conformation of the horse and duration, intensity, and terrain of the ride all have a potential to affect the horses health as much as the weight load.

As a veterinarian, and an equine chiropractor, I find that the distribution of weight and how well the tack fits is often the most important and most over looked variable. A 100 pound person with an ill-fitting saddle can cause more stress to a horse than a 250 pound person in a properly fitted saddle. Just as easily, a 100 pound person who sits unevenly in a saddle can cause more stress to a horse than a 250 pound person who does ride evenly. This also holds true for pack animals. Even weight distribution and appropriate placement are critical.

Just like people, horses have many body systems that need to stay healthy for them to continue to perform at their best. This includes their cardiovascular system, respiratory system, nervous system, and their musculoskeletal system. If we train and condition their cardiovascular, respiratory, and musculoskeletal systems through regular exercise and we don’t add undo stress to the nervous system and musculoskeletal systems by uneven weight distribution then a bit of extra rider/tack weight is easily managed by the average healthy horse. Regular veterinary care, and chiropractic care as needed, will also allow you to go farther, faster and add more weight to your horse without concern.  

As a fan of going into the backcountry without a pack animal, I’m always very concerned about how much weight I’m asking my animals to carry. At this point in my life my main riding horse, L.T. comes running to the gate when he hears me hook up the trailer. I assume, and hope, that means he’s equating the trailer with fun and a long day on the trail. After all if he didn’t want to go he could easily hide in the back corner of the pasture in the same manner that he does when the vet makes a visit.

The weight carrying guidelines found in the 1920 US Cavalry Manual of Horse Management suggested that a horse should not be asked to carry more than 20% of his body weight. This 20% figure, which was substantiated by a 2008 study conducted by the Ohio State University, also includes saddle, tack, and other equipment in addition to the rider’s weight. Not mentioned in the cavalry manual, but implied, is that they based these figures on well conditioned horses and riders, meaning that an overweight horse cannot carry more weight by virtue of their extra bulk

The 20% goal that the professional horsemen of old used is a hard target to hit. Consider a horse that weighs 1,100 pounds, if he’s in shape the Cavalry manual says he shouldn’t carry more than 220 pounds. The average US citizen weighs 178 pounds giving us only 42 pounds capacity for whatever else we take along with us. Heck, many saddles weigh more than that! As I said 20% is my goal, the reality is that I often exceed the Cavalry’s limits. The key point is to work diligently towards that 20% mark. As an example, L.T. weighs 1,000 pounds giving him a Cavalry capacity of 200 pounds. When I camp without pack stock my saddle and tack weigh a total of 44.5 pounds, I weigh 170 pounds, and my camping equipment and food weigh just under 10 pounds. With this arrangement you can easily see that I’ve burdened L.T. with 24.5 pounds more than he should be asked to haul. It’s not perfect and I’m always looking for new ways to drop ounces without sacrificing safety.

Here’s an interactive calculator that will show you how much weight the Cavalry says your horse should carry.

TBjul2014-4Well there you go, for more of your trail riding and horse camping questions answered. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this month’s lineup and our High-Tech links for you to find more information on these topics. Until next time keep those posers, questions, and quandaries coming and I’ll do my best to have them answered by the foremost horsemen in the nation.