Horse Trail Ride Injuries - Be Prepared

Trail riding is enjoyable for both horse and rider, but horses face injury when riding through unusual terrain
Trail riding is enjoyable for both horse and rider, but horses face injury when riding through unusual terrain

I love heading out on the trail with my horses. It is one of the best times I can have with them and adds to our relationship as partners. No matter how much you prepare, there will come the occasion when nothing you could have done will prevent an injury; so here are some of the most common trail injuries, how to treat them immediately, and how to take preventative measures to avoid some of them.

Stone bruises on horse's feet

A stone bruise occurs when the horse sets its foot down on a stone and bruise occurs on the sole of the foot. The horse will immediately experience pain, from mild to marked, and may exhibit immediate lameness. Quickly get off and check the affected hoof.

How to toughen your horse's hoofs

Durasole is an iodine based product that is formulated for application on a horse's sole. This is a good off-the-shelf product for toughening hoofs.

Do-it-yourselfers - Mix a 7.5% povidone-iodine product such as Betadine Scrub with table sugar into a thin paste. Commonly called Sugardine, this concoction should be applied to the sole and crevices on either side of the frog to harden the sole, and prevent thrush.

If there is a creek or shallow water nearby, walk the horse to the creek and allow them to stand in the cooling water. Then place a sport boot on the affected hoof and walk the horse out. When you get home, check with your veterinarian or farrier for further treatment, if needed.

You can toughen your horse's sole by using iodine. I treat my horses' feet with iodine in a spray bottle. I pick up each foot, turn it upright, spray the sole, hold till dry, and repeat every day for 10 days after each trim.

Horse sprains and strains

Your horse will probably let you know almost immediately when a sprain or strain occurs. The level of pain will depend on the severity of the injury. Pain and swelling can be mild to marked. Indication of pain will depend on the horse, some are stoic and some are not. It is up to you to know what is and is not normal for your horse.

Here is where the ounce of prevention comes in. Your horse should be in condition for the type of trail riding that you do. If you are in a competitive trail event, you should be conditioning your horse at least 4-5 times a week using an arena, round pen, local trails, and if able, the swimming program offered by equine sport rehabilitation places. Taking a horse out on trail without some form of conditioning is like you going from the couch to a 5k with no preparation; injury will occur.

USE COMMON SENSE ON THE TRAIL: If you are in deep sand or on a rocky trail, don't go pedal to metal. Trotting and cantering on severe trails will guarantee a soft tissue injury. You may have some latitude IF you and your horse train on this type of terrain REGULARLY and your horse is used to it. If your horse strains or sprains, use your cell phone, have a backup trailering plan in place, or be prepared to hand walk your horse off trail and back to the staging area.

Cuts and scrapes in horses

A laceration is a fancy name for a cut in the horse's skin. Lacerations can have a clean or jagged appearance; the wound edge depends on what caused it. Lacerations usually produce copious amounts of blood and often look worse than they actually are. The exception to this is a laceration in joint areas. On a joint laceration, you should get the bleeding stopped, cover the wound, and figure out how to get the horse to a vet immediately.

Again, knowing your horse and their ability to deal with pain is your BEST gauge for knowing how to deal with superficial wounds. At the very least, cleaning and using a topical wound spray immediately is the best treatment. Whether the ride continues depends on the wound and your horse and judgment.

An abrasion is when a portion of the skin has been removed. It may simply be a rub or there may be swelling involved. Most abrasions are caused by tack. One way to prevent abrasions is simply to get yourself in the habit of doing regular tack checks both before the ride and during. This allows you to fix any problem on your tack before it causes an abrasion on your horse's skin.

Horse eye injuries and irritations

Eye Injuries/irritations can be caused by any number of things: dust, pollen, insects, or a casual brush against something. The first sign will be your horse either shaking its head or trying repeatedly to rub it against something. Dismount and examine the eye, look for debris, a scratch, or just flies all around the eye. Whatever is causing the irritation will determine the treatment. You can use a soft, damp cloth to clean around the eye, eye wash to flush the eye, or a roll-on fly treatment around the eye. They now have fly masks specifically for trail riding. If the eye is injured, as soon as you get home see the veterinarian.

The key to preventing lasting eye damage is quick and decisive veterinary treatment. Eye injuries/irritations are just ONE good reason why you should work with your horse at home, getting them used to you or your vet getting close and handling ALL portions of their head and making it so that they stand calmly and quietly for these procedures.

Hoof injuries

Loose or lost shoes can lead to hoof damage, which can sometimes be significant. Not all loose shoes need to be removed, however. If the loose shoe remains aligned with the sole, then you can wrap the hoof with duct tape and secure the shoe temporarily. It is best to remove a twisted shoe as leaving it on could cause further damage to the hoof wall or lead to a bruise or puncture to the sole. With any type of hoof injury I would recommend using a boot for the walk home and until the shoe can be re-set. Horses that are not used to being barefoot can actually increase the damage if you're not careful.

Horse heat exhaustion

One could write an entire article on the dangers of heat exhaustion and why conditioning is important. Suffice it to say that heat exhaustion with dehydration is the most serious injury that can afflict a trail horse. Overheating in horses is quite common on hot days when a horse still has remnants of its winter coat, or in the summer months or on humid days. Symptoms include: profuse sweating, or not sweating at all, membranes being red, and heavy breathing. Paying attention to your horse and knowing what is normal and not is the best prevention.

Should your horse exhibit any of these symptoms, STOP RIDING IMMEDIATELY. Dismount and remove all tack (this is also why you should always carry a rope halter/lead combo). Begin to cool your horse off. If you are near a stream or water, walk the horse to the edge and submerge all four feet. Take a sponge and make it sopping wet and begin to sponge down the horse's largest vein locations: head, jugular vein, area inside elbows and hind legs, and along the bottom of their chest where the arterial thoracic vein is located. This vein runs toward the front leg into the chest and cooling the area is the FASTEST way to drop body temperature.

You can also offer oral electrolytes, BUT only do this when small, frequent amounts of water can be offered. After a period of resting, an overheated horse should be able to recover and resume normal activities.

Here again is a prime reason for conditioning your horse in EVERY season. Horses can be fine in the spring, fall, and winter with minor conditioning, but work them on a hot summer or humid day and see how fast they and you can crash.

A trail rider's first aid kit

Like the Boy Scouts say, "Always be prepared." If you are a handy-dandy type, you can create your own portable first aid kit. If you follow this route, your kit should have the following items:

  • Water
  • Collapsible water vessel
  • Salt packets or electrolytes (replace every season)
  • Small, soft towel
  • Betadine ointment
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Gauze pads
  • Rolled cotton
  • Self-adhesive vet bandage
  • Eye rinse
  • Cotton swabs
  • Hoof boot, such as Easyboot
  • Duct tape
  • Ophthalmic ointment
  • Pocket knife and hoof pick OR one of those really cool multi-use Swiss Army-type knives (you should carry these all of the time)
  • Rope halter and lead (either under bridle or combo bridle, or attached to your saddle - this is a carry-along ALL of the time, as well)
  • All contact information, in case you and your horse are separated

More about Miriam

Miriam Rieck goes out on trail rides regularly as a competitor in Competitive Trail events and for pleasure. She firmly believes that trail riding in the great outdoors serves to renew the spirit, nourish the soul, and keeps her in harmony with her mares Nan and Misty.

There are many types of pre-packaged equine first aid kits on the market, and as long as they have all of the items listed above, you will be equipped. You should also be carrying a human first aid kit, as well. Armed with these kits, a cell phone, water, and some form of trail mix in your saddle bags, you will be able to handle any of these common trail-related equine injuries.

Dig deeperTM

Trail riding is a wonderful activity for all horses. It builds strength, coordination and confidence, and creates a powerful bond between horse and rider. Proper conditioning of the trail horse will reduce the chance of injury. Consider interval training for your horse as a great way to prepare for the trail.

Being prepared to treat the injuries that happen on the trail to both horses and humans is a must for all trail riders. Carrying the necessary first aid kit will get you home safely. Learn more by visiting our horse first aid health center.

About the Author

Miriam Rieck

After a lifetime of loving horses, Miriam had her first horse at age 41. With Nan she has learned about breeding, foals, health issues, hoof issues, eye issues and is still learning how to become a better riding partner with Nan. She works on this with Nan while riding in Texas Trail Challenges.

With Misty, her second horse of the herd, she gained confidence on the trail riding in NATRC(North American Trail Ride Conference) and Misty is her go to girl. Her horses are her Zen place in life.

Miriam has been writing her entire life and began getting published in her early 20's. All of her work has been of the informative article type and always on topics she has become familiar with in the personal arena first. She currently lives in Central Texas but is looking at a state address change in the near future. She loves writing for Equimed and looks forward to a long future with them.

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