How to Handle 5 On-Trail Emergencies

We are going to tell you how to handle five crises while trail riding: colic; choke; muscle cramps; a pulled tendon or sprain; and a rattlesnake bite. Read in this article to see how each of these are handled.

We are going to tell you how to handle five more crises: colic; choke; muscle cramps; a pulled tendon or sprain; and a rattlesnake bite. In a separate article we discussed handling five other emergencies.

The condition: There are a couple of serious emergencies for which you will have few, if any, emergency solutions. Colic is one of these, as is choke (which follows). Colic symptoms include the following changes to your horse’s vital signs:

• Elevated heart rate (higher than 44 beats per minute at rest; listen with a stethoscope).

• Elevated respiratory rate (higher than 20 breaths per minute at rest; watch his rib-cage movement).

• Elevated rectal temperature (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit; use a rectal thermometer).

• A lack of or overactive intestinal sounds. (Listen with a stethoscope.)

• Discolored mucous membranes. (Check under your horse’s upper lip; pink is normal; very pale or a purplish cast can be a sign of shock.)

• A capillary refill time longer than three seconds. (Press against his gum and count the seconds until normal color returns; this is also a sign of shock.)

Other signs of colic include:

• Pawing at his belly with a hind foot (a sign of gut pain).

• Trying to lie down/roll (also a sign of gut pain).

• Lack of manure (meaning an intestinal blockage) or diarrhea (meaning an intestinal inflammation).

What you should do: First, try longeing your horse at the trot for about 10 minutes to see if that will relieve some gas and cramps. A walk won’t do the trick in most cases; you need to get him into a vigorous trot to get his gut in gear. If that doesn’t help, then reach into your first-aid kit, and pull out the dose of intramuscular sedative your vet might’ve been willing to supply you with for just such an emergency. The sedative will help relieve your horse’s gut pain so that you can get him to a veterinary facility. Wait about 10 minutes for it to take effect, then walk him back to your trailer or the barn. Don’t ride him, in case the pain causes him to throw himself on the ground.

Many folks are tempted to give a colicking horse a dose of Banamine paste (only available from your veterinarian). This isn’t necessarily a good idea for several reasons:

• You should never give your horse a prescription drug unless advised to do so by your vet.

• Banamine is poorly absorbed from your horse’s stomach if he has poor gut motility (movement of the digestive system), as is often the case with colic.

• Oral medications take several hours to be absorbed to full effect under normal circumstances, so Banamine is unlikely to help with your horse’s immediate pain.

• Banamine may mask symptoms of a deeper problem; this is significant if you’re within a couple hours of veterinary treatment.

• Banamine can create kidney-function problems in a dehydrated horse.

In a pinch: If you have nothing on hand, steadily proceed to your trailer as quickly as you can. Most colic cases that start abruptly aren’t yet so bad that the horse is throwing himself on the ground and refusing to move. Talk calmly to your horse, stay calm yourself, and determinedly make your way toward help. When you get to a thermometer and stethoscope, take your horse’s vital signs (as described earlier), and report the results to the responding vet.


The condition: A choking horse presents an emergency that arises while your horse is eating. You’ll usually see green frothy material exiting his nose, as food material and mucus back up behind an obstruction in his esophagus. A choked horse gags and coughs repeatedly in an effort to relieve the blockage. He may act colicky or distressed. Your horse can suffer a choke as the result of eating pellets, horse cookies, or similar dry, coarse material in the trailer on the way to the trailhead. If you’re camping in the wilderness, he can suffer a choke by eating the required certified weed-free hay or certified pelleted feed to which he may be unaccustomed. The risk of a choke is especially increased if he’s slightly dehydrated and not producing sufficient saliva, and/or if he bolts this new and interesting feed without properly chewing it before swallowing.

What you should do: If your horse suffers a choke in the trailer, immediately make your way to the closest veterinary clinic. If you’re on the trail, place him on an incline with his head pointed downward. One of the dangers of choke is aspiration pneumonia (which results from inhaling food material into the lungs) as he coughs and gags in attempts to relieve the obstruction in his esophagus. This head-down position somewhat minimizes the risk of inhaling food, saliva, and mucus. If you have it on hand, give your horse a short-acting intramuscular sedative to relieve the spasms associated with the obstruction. The sedative also forces his head and neck into a downward and extended position. Ideally, a choke might relieve itself if your horse relaxes. Withhold food and water until you’re sure a choke is entirely resolved.

In a pinch: Prevention is the best cure. Either refrain from using pelleted feed, or make the pellets into a gruel or mash by pre-soaking them in water before feeding.

Pulled Tendon or Sprain

The injury: On occasion, a horse will jam his leg into an abnormal position while still moving forward, resulting in an acutely pulled tendon or joint sprain.

What you should do: The most effective emergency treatment is to stand your horse in a cold, running creek for 30 minutes or so to minimize the inflammation. If you happen to have a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) on hand, such as phenylbutazone (“bute”) paste, administer a couple of grams to help arrest the inflammation until you can get your horse to help.

In a pinch: Whether or not you’re able to give your horse bute, cool the affected leg in streams as you slowly make your way off the trail to help reduce inflammation.

Muscle Cramps

The condition: On a trail ride, your horse may develop muscle cramps (myositis) – particularly of the large muscles in his haunches or thighs – and refuse to move. At first, you may feel him move with an uneven or shortened stride; or, you may note a more obvious hitching lameness. He may even refuse to move forward, willing only to pivot around his hindquarters. If the pain from knotted muscles is intense, he may sweat and/or throw himself on the ground, mimicking colic.

Muscle cramps usually develop after a horse has become dehydrated and overheated, and/or has lost an abundance of electrolytes (body salts) due to protracted sweating. Other horses cramp up at the beginning of a ride due to an abundance of grain fed during a period of limited activity, because of cool or wet weather that chills the muscles, or for no apparent reason at all. Still others are afflicted with equine polysaccharide storage myopathy, which is often manageable by changing the diet to eliminate grains and by adding fat.

What you should do: In most cases, you’ll be able to lead your cramping horse very slowly to your trailer. You might first consider sitting quietly by the side of the trail to let him graze and drink for a bit. Many horses “warm” out of a mild cramp if you allow them time to restore blood flow to fatigued or overheated muscles. Encourage your horse to drink water. If you have electrolytes with you, administer a two-ounce dose, especially once he’s drinking. If his muscles aren’t in tight knots, occasionally stop and gently massage his hindquarters, kneading about once per second. Massage improves circulation and loosens spasms. If your horse refuses to move, massage his muscles while he rests. Try to move him again in 10 to 15 minutes.

In a pinch: If your horse won’t move at all and the weather is chilly or wet, or if the wind is blowing, cover his haunches with a rump rug, the saddle blanket, or your warm jacket to minimize chilling. Cold contributes to hindquarter-muscle cramping. If you’re near your trailer and have a sleeping bag on hand, lay it over his back and rump until he’s recovered sufficiently to trailer him to veterinary help.

Note: Muscle cramps can be life-threatening. Muscle damage releases proteins (called myoglobin) from the muscle tissue. These large molecules don’t easily filter through your horse’s kidneys. If they collect in the kidney tubules, they can initiate a cascade leading to kidney failure. If your horse passes dark urine that’s either brown or wine-colored, myoglobin is being delivered to the kidneys; he needs intravenous fluids administered by a vet. Long-distance transport in these cases isn’t in the best interest of your horse, since he’ll have to work his muscles during the trailer ride, which can lead to further damage; if possible, seek out a local veterinary clinic or hospital. Provide him with ample drinking water while waiting to haul him to help.

Rattlesnake Bite

The injury: Rattlesnakes are a concern whether you’re riding in the desert country or the prairies of the West, or in the woods of the East. Most rattlers are timid and retiring, and pounding hooves will vibrate the ground sufficiently to send a snake on its way; unless, of course, your horse steps on it. Or, your horse might inadvertently stick his nose on a sleeping snake while browsing in grasses.

Unlike dogs or people, horses don’t succumb rapidly to the effects of rattlesnake venom. In fact, the majority of snakebites are “dry,” meaning that no venom is injected. However, the snake will likely inject bacteria into the bite wounds, which can lead to an infection. Another concern is the rapid swelling that accompanies the bites. Facial swelling can obscure airways and make breathing difficult.

What you should do: Generally, you’ll have plenty of time to get your horse to veterinary help. If the wound is on his muzzle, it’s helpful to slash open the puncture holes with a pocketknife to make them bleed. The first slash attempt usually goes fairly well, but your horse will be ready for you on the second, and unfortunately, there will most likely be two fang marks. Try the best you can, but don’t risk getting struck by your angry horse. Just make your way to the trailer, and home. If you have antibiotics with you in your first-aid kit, start your horse on a dose recommended by your vet to forestall infection. A dose of an NSAID, such as bute or Banamine, will help control inflammation, pain, and swelling to some degree.

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