How to Handle 5 On-Trail Emergencies

Nothing is as exhilarating as the feel of your horse beneath you along a beautiful trail. The wind rustles the trees and tall grasses, the scent of the forest floor reaches up to you, and the only other sounds may be the chirps of birds, a babbling brook, and the clip-clop of your horse’s tracks as you move through the miles. Nothing could be finer; not a worry in sight. Your mind roams free as you absorb the beauty of the day and totally “connect” with your eager horse.

And then, disaster strikes. Your horse is injured, miles away from help. You know you’ve got to take immediate action-but do you know what to do?

Here, I’ll tell you how to handle five trail emergencies: laceration, rope burn, spearing, eye injury, and a twisted shoe. (In part two, I’ll tell you how to manage colic, choke, tying up, a pulled tendon or sprain, and a rattlesnake bite.) I’ll tell you how to manage each crisis using an emergency first-aid kit, and what to do in a pinch. Your goal will be to execute a quick fix until you can seek veterinary treatment.

I’ll also give you a list of supplies that can make all the difference when applying timely first aid.


The injury: You’re riding along, and suddenly something rips open your horse’s hide. Perhaps your horse has gotten hung up in hidden wire, doesn’t quite clear a downed tree with sharp branches, or clips his leg on a sharp rock. Or perhaps he lacerates his lower legs on sharp rocks or hidden metal pieces as you cross a creek; his legs aren’t well armored to defend against sharp objects

What you should do: Climb off, and assess the damage. To stop bleeding, apply a compress: Lay a clean, nonstick dressing over the wound, then tape it snugly with a roll of Elastikon. If your horse has suffered leg injury (and is well mannered), hold the leg in your lap to elevate the limb as best as possible. An artery may take 30 to 60 minutes to clot sufficiently. Hand or finger pressure directly over the wound site will also help to stem the flow. If you’re near your cooler, apply ice over the wound and bandage to constrict blood vessels, which in turn will stem the flow of pumping blood. Once the blood stops its steady ooze through the bandage, you can slowly make your way to veterinary assistance.

If you have a hemostat (locking clamp) in your first-aid kit, use it to grasp the spurting vessel and clamp it down, then give it a tiny twist to stop the bleeding. Or, you can use needle-nose pliers, or the pliers contained in a Leatherman multipurpose tool in the same way. (Note: Stay out of harm’s way when you grab the vessel; it’s often situated close to a nerve, and your horse will abruptly let you know if he’s not happy with what you’re doing.)

If you see a skin flap or puncture that’s not gushing blood, then you needn’t be quite as panicked about administering first-aid. It’s still a good idea to apply antibiotic ointment and cover the wound to keep it from drying out. Or, mix 1/2 tablespoon of salt with a quart of water, and soak a compress (or pieces of gauze) in the salt water, then lay it over the wound to keep it moist. Or, you can use a little Superglue to seal the top of the wound. Use any glue sparingly, as it’s difficult to remove later when you’re able to properly clean and treat the wound.

The most serious laceration is one that punctures a tendon sheath or joint. In this case, it’s best to cover the wound and seek veterinary help as quickly as possible.

In a pinch: Rip off the bottom four inches of your T-shirt, and make a bandage compress out of the material. Wrap the material around the wound, and bind with duct tape, if available. If not, tear the ends of the T-shirt, and tie them in a knot around your horse’s leg. Elevate the leg if possible, apply pressure, then wait patiently. Resist the temptation to peek to see whether the bleeding has really stopped. You’ll disturb the clot, which means you’ll have to start the laborious process all over again.

If the bleeding won’t stop, make a temporary tourniquet with a piece of latigo from your saddle or with a leather throatlatch. Leave it in place above the wound for no more than 15 minutes. A tight leg tourniquet can injure your horse’s tendons. If you leave it for too long, it can interfere with adequate blood flow through his limb. However, judicious use of a tourniquet can prevent excessive blood loss. (Note: Your horse can lose up to two gallons of blood before he suffers a life-threatening cardiovascular crisis.)

Rope Burn

The injury: You stop for lunch and tie your horse, or picket him to a solid object. While you eat and commune with nature, he becomes entangled in the rope, creating a real mess in a very short period of time.

What you should do: Pull out your pocketknife, and cut the rope so your horse doesn’t inflict more damage to himself. Then assess the damages. If you can, immediately place the burned leg in a cold creek or apply ice to temporarily sooth the pain. Smear Silvadene cream or Desitin ointment on the injury, and apply a light bandage to keep dirt from grinding into the painful tissues. Get your horse back home for immediate veterinary attention.

In a pinch: Use the T-shirt approach, and apply ointment to keep the tissues moist. In lieu of ointment, I’ve heard lip balm can provide some relief for the short term, although I’ve never actually tried it.

Tree/Branch Spearing

The injury: You’re riding along a densely wooded trail and your horse skewers his belly or torso with a sapling or branch. As horses can be bullies with their weight and size, your horse may continue forward. The result of his brute force may be a terrible looking wound. You stop to find a long, large piece of the forest impaled in his body.

What you should do: The location of the object will dictate whether or not you can or should remove it on the trail. Keep in mind that you could pull it out only to find that it entered some large blood vessels, which will then bleed profusely. On the other hand, the only way you may be able to get your horse off the trail is to remove the object. If you opt to remove it, be ready for anything. There’s no recipe for handling this event; just be mentally prepared, and use good common sense.

Eye Injury

The injury: You horse runs into something head first. Or, a branch whips back and slaps him in the eye. This is a painful injury, but not life threatening.

What you should do: Use a syringe filled with saline solution to rinse off any debris, then lubricate the injury with antibiotic eye ointment to relieve the sting and pain. When treating an eye injury, use only medication specifically meant for the eye; otherwise you’ll do more harm than good. (Tip: Always pack a couple of tubes of eye ointment in your saddlebag; you can safely use the medication on all wounds, and the tubes don’t take up much space.) Bandage a serious wound with gauze to protect it from the sun, wind, and debris, and to keep the tissues moist.

In a pinch: If you’re worried about debris contamination, splash water in the injured eye repeatedly. If you don’t have saline solution, mix 1/2 tablespoon of salt in a quart of water. Bandage a serious injury with a T-shirt compress and duct tape until you can get your horse to help.

Twisted Shoe

The injury: Your horse stumbles and stops. You get off to find a sprung shoe-that is, one that’s twisted yet still attached to the hoof. Your horse is unable to put his foot down flat, so he has difficulty walking.

What you should do: Using a rasp or the file from a Leatherman tool, file away the clinches on the outside of affected hoof. Try to pry the shoe off a little at a time with closed pliers, banging the shoe down with a rock to expose the top of each horseshoe nail. Pluck out each loosened nail with open pliers. With a little tenacity, a lot of patience, and elbow grease, you’ll be able to remove the shoe. After you do so, make sure a nail hasn’t broken off in the hoof wall; if it has, try to pull it out. (Most of the time, a broken nail won’t cause much of a problem.) With the shoe off, apply an Easyboot or Old Mac boot. If your horse has lost a hind shoe, he might be okay without a boot, but if he’s lost a front one, a boot will help protect him from soreness as you return home. (Tip: Affix at least one boot to your saddle that will fit your horse’s unshod front foot. It’ll take only moments to apply it to the hoof, and then you can continue your ride with no interruption.)

If you’re riding along and hear a jingle, a shoe is either loose or trying to detach from your horse’s hoof. In this case, it might be best to simply place a boot over hoof and shoe, and head home. If you need to remove the shoe, position your horse’s foot so that a rock lies directly beneath the head of one of the loosened nails. Then use a round rock to pound the screwdriver part of a Leatherman tool directly over the nail clinch. If you don’t have a screwdriver, use a rock to bang directly on the clinches while holding another rock firmly against the head of the nail. Once the shoe is off, apply a boot.

In a pinch: If don’t have a hoof boot, lead your horse down the trail slowly. Try to find soft footing. Return directly home or to your trailer.

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