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June 13, 2023

First Aid for Horses on the Trail

Be Prepared to Care for Your Horse in Remote Areas

By Alayne Blickle, Horses for Clean Water

Matt and I do a lot of trail riding. We know that once we head down the trail with our horse buddies and out into the backcountry, we leave the security of cell phone coverage behind and enter the space where anything can go wrong—and sometimes it does. “A lot of common sense is what’s needed,” says Jack Gillette, Jr., DVM, when asked how to handle equine health issues out on the trail. 

Gillette, who comes from a ranching background in Central Oregon, has been in practice for over 30 years. He specializes in equine medicine and surgery at his business, Wildflower Veterinary Services, in Washington State. 

Gillette is an advocate of offering client education. “I try to teach and get people informed. It’s proven to be effective because I hear how horse owners who’ve attended seminars have been able to help their horses at home and in the backcountry.” 

A past member of both the American Horse Council and the American Animal Health Association, Gillette is an active member of Back Country Horsemen. Each year he packs in with horses and mules to Mount Rainer National Park, as well as to other national parks and forests. One of his educational specialties is the backcountry equine first aid seminar he offers regularly to members of Back Country Horsemen and the horse public.

Here are a few of the horse health issues that can happen out on the trail and Gillette’s management suggestions:

Colic

Other than getting them out as soon as possible to be treated, Gillette says, “There’s not a whole lot you can do. Most people think that if you walk them (the colicky horse) that will help. In most cases what happens is you end up with an exhausted, colicky horse. The best option is to pony the horse out and get to help.” 

Carrying Banamine in your first aid kit for this situation is also helpful. “Get injectable (intramuscular) versus the oral paste form,” offers Gillette. “When a horse is colicky, Banamine paste doesn’t work as well orally since the gut has shut down. Use injectable Banamine intramuscularly and then get them to where they can be treated,” says Gillette.

When we head down the trail into the backcountry, we leave the security of cell phone coverage behind and enter the space where anything can go wrong, and sometimes does. Photo Courtesy Alayne Blickle

Wounds

“Have a selection of different wraps in your first aid kit,” suggests Gillette. Telfa pads, vet wrap, brown gauze, and Elasticon along with Novasan salve are the basics. “Slap the wound with Novasan, cover with Telfa pads, wrap with brown gauze and vet wrap. Cover with Elasticon.” 

For places where you can’t wrap, use AluSpray (aluminum hydroxide spray), an occlusive spray which allows drainage to seep out of the wound but keeps dirt and bugs out. Clean the wound as best as possible, then use the spray. “You can get antibiotics if you need them once you get out (and get to a vet),” offers Gillette.

Eye Injuries

For these, Gillette explains that the horse owner needs to be on top of things right away. “Have human eyewash in your kit. If there’s dirt in the eye, wash it out (with the eyewash). Triple antibiotic ointment will keep it lubricated and not scratch it further.”

Exhaustion

Equine exertional rhabdomyolysis, or tying up, is a problem that damages muscle tissue in horses and is usually due to poor conditioning or an electrolyte imbalance. “If you think your horse is getting tired, get off. If they have an increased heart and respiratory rate, don’t keep going. Let them rest and don’t overtighten the cinch,” says Gillette. 

“I see a lot of that in horses that are out of shape and are being pushed too hard. We need to let our animals do the same as we would for ourselves.” Also, check with your local vet to see if you live in a selenium deficient region of the country. If so, be sure your horse is on a selenium supplement, and not a selenium salt block (which is meant instead for bovines). 

Gastric Ulcers

“Ulcers don’t start on a trail ride,” explains Gillette. “What happens is you have an animal (with ulcers) who gets overstressed and then things get worse. When acid produced in the lower portion of the stomach bounces up on the upper squamous cell layer of the stomach it can cause ulcers.” This usually happens to a horse who already has ulcers, when riding a very nervous horse, or one with an empty stomach. In all cases Gillette advises offering forage to your horse before riding or strenuous activity.

Insect Bite Reactions

Permethrin 7% spray is Gillette’s recommendation for repelling biting insects, including ticks. Gillette does carry antihistamines to treat insect hyperreactivity. A backup for horse owners would be the human antihistamine Benadryl, the off-label dosage for which can be obtained from the Internet.

Photo Courtesy Alayne Blickle

Dehydration

This affects a lot of animals in hot weather. “At every stream you cross, give your horses plenty of time to drink,” suggests Gillette. He also cautions that the use of electrolytes paste is contra-indicated if a horse is not drinking at all or has no access to water since osmotic gradient equilibration can pull fluids out of circulation back into gut, creating problems. “Avoid allowing them to drink too much or drink extremely cold water all at once. Let them drink a bit and pause. Then take them back to drink more.” 

For very dry areas you may need to pack in extra water and a collapsible bucket. “If they are picky about water, you may want to put electrolyte powder in their water three to four days ahead of time to disguise the water at the new place.”

Sunburn

Horses with white noses or faces can be predisposed to sunburn. “In those cases, you can use human sunblock lotion to prevent burns,” says Gillette. Ingestion of some types of toxic plants such as St. John’s Wort, buckwheat, some clovers, or even some medications, can cause increased sun sensitivity. 

Try to be aware of all the risk factors and plan ahead. However, Gillette tells everyone the most important first aid preparation we can all do at home is this: “Teach your animals to stand still and be treated.”

Check out the Horses for Clean Water website for information on upcoming events, online classes, private consultations, tip sheets, and other resources for horse keeping and land management. Visit the Sweet Pepper Ranch website for info on our horse motel or glamping tent.

See this article in the May/June 2023 online edition:

May/June 2023 Issue

Alayne Blickle
Alayne Blickle, a life-long equestrian and educator, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program that “wrote the book” on caring for horses and land. Known for her enthusiastic, fun and down-to-earth approach, she is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horses and livestock owners for over 20 years. Alayne teaches and travels throughout North America and abroad, and also runs Sweet Pepper Ranch, an eco-sensitive guest ranch and horse motel in Southwestern Idaho where she and her husband raise top-notch reining horses and beautiful grass hay. For more information contact Alayne at [email protected] or 206-909-0225.

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