The lure of the Southwestern desert is irresistible, especially in the spring, when you can enjoy spectacular blue skies, wildflowers, and panoramic vistas on endless trails.
But behind this riding paradise lurk hidden dangers. To help keep your horse healthy and sound, know what to look for, and be prepared.
Here, we’ll tell you how to recognize and avoid seven desert dangers: (1) trailering challenges; (2) overheating/dehydration; (3) cactus/poisonous plants; (4) venomous pests; (5) rattlesnakes; (6) infectious diseases/parasites; and (7) thunderstorms/flash flooding. Plus, we’ll help you assemble a desert-survival kit.
Our desert-danger expert is Charles M.(Chuck) Hoover, DVM, of Wellhorse, LLC, in Tucson, Arizona (www.wellhorse.org). We also asked his clients at Pusch Ridge Stables (www.puschridgestables.com) for their tips.
Hauling your horse in the desert Southwest can be challenging due to the vast, hot, dry, windy terrain. Here are eight ways to help keep your traveling horse comfortable in this environment.
• Map your trip. Such states as California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are vast. Know in advance how far you’ll need to drive each day to reach your destination. If you’ll be on the road more than six hours per day, plan overnight stops. If it’s especially hot, plan to drive in the cool morning and evening hours, and layover during the heat of the day.
• See your vet. Dehydration and stress that can result from long trailer trips through a dry climate can lead to colic, the leading cause of death in horses. Before your trip, consult your veterinarian about ways you can reduce your traveling horse’s digestive upset.
• Consider electrolytes. On hot days and on long trips, consider giving your horse electrolytes (salts and minerals) to replace the salt lost in sweat before you leave. At the same time, give him plenty of fresh, electrolyte-free water. Electrolytes can cause dehydration if your horse doesn’t consume enough fluids.
• Ventilate your trailer. Due to the heat and long travel time, it’s paramount to open your windows and vents to ventilate your trailer, says Dr. Hoover. Ventilation helps ward off respiratory problems in your horse, which can quickly lead to a fatal case of pneumonia. Invest in window screens, and apply a fly mask to protect your horse’s eyes from road debris and flying pests when traveling.
• Tie your horse right. Tie your horse in the trailer so he has room enough to lower his head and clear out his sinuses, but make sure he can’t catch a hoof in the lead rope.
• Slow down. In windy conditions, slow down to stay in control.
• Take breaks. When trailering a long distance, take a rest stop every three to four hours. Unload your horse during breaks if it’s safe, and he’s trailer trained.
• Offer water. During breaks, offer your horse water to help keep him hydrated.
In the desert’s hot, dry conditions, it’s vital that you keep your horse cool and hydrated. Overheating can lead to heat stroke; dehydration can lead to colic. Both conditions can lead to death. Here are four ways to keep your horse healthy.
• Offer plenty of water. Allow your horse to drink his fill of water prior to starting and ending the ride. Do this for every ride, but especially during warm weather, long rides, elevation gains on the trail, or when you’ve just pulled into the trailhead.
• Consider electrolytes. If you’ll be riding your horse fast, long, on hills, and/or during hot weather, consider giving your horse electrolytes, following the guidelines listed above.
• Ride when it’s cool. Ride in the cool of early morning or very late in the afternoon, and let your horse take it easy during the heat of the day.
• Hose him down. If your horse has worked up a sweat on your ride on a hot or warm day, rinse him off afterward with a hose or sponge and water.
3. Cactus/Poisonous Plants
Desert visitors have the most trepidation about rattlesnakes, but the trail riders who board at Pusch Ridge Stables say it’s more common to run into mild or serious problems as the result of a mishap with cholla cactus.
Cholla cactus segments are easily brushed off onto your horse or you. Your horse can easily flick up a segment from the ground to his leg or belly. In fact, cholla cactus is nicknamed “jumping cactus,” as it appears to jump onto a by-passer.
Cholla cactus’ numerous barbed spines immediately cause pain, and they’re difficult and even more painful to remove, due to their barbed ends.
Some horses are merely aggravated when they come in contact with cholla. The danger is when a “touchy,” reactive horse encounters a piece of cholla. In seconds, the horse can panic — racing away, bucking, or spinning in a blind rage up against more cacti, unseating even an experienced rider.
Consider yourself lucky if all you have to do is pick out a few spines. A veterinarian may have to remove the spines from your horse after administering a sedative; you may need to go to urgent care.
To avoid such a painful encounter, know what cholla cactus looks like, and give it a wide berth. Keep a sharp eye out for cacti pieces along the trail. You can consider applying leg boots to your horse for protection, but keep in mind that boots retain and concentrate heat, causing discomfort on warm and hot days.
Don’t let your horse eat poisonous desert plants. Dr. Hoover particularly warns against letting your horse eat oleander (a common landscaping bush) or datura (a summer native plant). Both are poisonous.
During breaks along the trail, you can let your horse munch on such common native trees as acacia, mesquite, and palo verde.
4 Venomous Pests
In the desert’s warm climate, you may likely keep your horse outside in an open corral, rather than in a stall, where he’s at risk for getting stung or bitten by red ants, spiders, and scorpions.
You can safely kill red ant nests without using insecticide by poisoning them with a mixture of sugar (to lure them), water, and boric acid. (You can find specific recipes online.)
Most spiders won’t cause your horse too much trouble. However, brown recluse and black widow spider bites can be dangerous.
If you suspect a bite, call a veterinarian immediately. (For more information, go to www.equisearch.com/article/eqbite47.)
Scorpions probably pose more of a threat to you than to your horse. Shake out boots, horse blankets, tarps, etc., before handling them. Wear gloves to avoid an unexpected scorpion sting.
Desert visitors tend to know little about rattlesnakes and have an overwhelming fear of encountering one. A rattlesnake bite can be dangerous, but snakes usually just want to avoid horses.
In all their years of running Pusch Ridge Stables with numerous horses, owners Frank and Vickie Pitts have never had a rattlesnake bite one of their horses in the corrals and pens.
Occasionally, a horse under saddle on the trail has been bitten on the leg by a rattlesnake. These bites occurred when the rider wasn’t watching the trail ahead.
If your horse is bitten by a rattlesnake, call your veterinarian immediately. If you’re on a trail ride, walk your horse home or to the trailer.
Dr. Hoover will meet a client en route from the trailhead to his facility to begin snakebite treatment as soon as possible.
Your horse will, at the very least, need antibiotics, due to the puncture wound. Depending on the amount of venom and how it affects your horse, the vet may need to provide short-term treatment or intensive care for an extended period of time.
6 Infectious Diseases/Parasites
In the desert Southwest, your horse is at risk for infectious diseases and parasites, including pigeon fever, strangles, West Nile Virus, rabies, and botflies. Here’s a rundown.
• Pigeon fever. Pigeon fever is a bacterial disease that causes a large abscess to form over weeks (often in the horse’s chest or abdomen) and results in a mild to moderate fever. The abscess’ initial swelling may look like the result of a kick from another horse. Pigeon fever is spread by fly bites, in the air, and via cuts and open abrasions. Any time your horse appears lethargic and ill, take his temperature to help the vet diagnose your horse’s disorder.
During Dr. Hoover’s first 12 years in practice in Tucson, he seldom came across an incidence of pigeon fever. But as temperatures increased and winters remained mild, the number of horses contracting the disease has steadily increased.
• Strangles. Strangles is a debilitating, contagious respiratory disease. It can cause abscesses similar to pigeon fever, usually in the throatlatch area. A horse with strangles often has a severe, thick, yellow nasal discharge and runs a high fever. Your horse can catch strangles when you expose him to other horses’ water buckets and feed containers. To help prevent strangles, see your veterinarian about vaccinations, and use your own feed and water receptacles.
• West Nile encephalitis. West Nile encephalitis is an inflammation of the central nervous system caused by West Nile Virus. Infection is spread from bird hosts through mosquitoes. The danger of mosquitoes transferring West Nile Virus to your horse occurs not only in the summer, but also in spring and fall. To help prevent infection, vaccinate your horse for West Nile Virus on a schedule recommended by your veterinarian.
• Rabies. Rabies is an acute infection of the nervous system caused by the rabies virus. It’s spread through the bite of rabid animals, such as skunks and bats. There’s no cure, and it can be fatal. To help prevent infection, vaccinate your horse for rabies on a schedule recommended by your veterinarian.
• Botflies. Botflies are equine parasites. In 2015, Dr. Hoover was surprised to discover botfly eggs on a horse that had never traveled away from Tucson, the first he’d come across — another sign that climate change is impacting the incidence of parasites and diseases in the desert.
Adult botflies lay eggs on a horse’s skin; the horse then licks or bites at the eggs, causing them to hatch. The larvae settle in the mouth for four weeks, then enter the digestive system, where they remain for 8 to 10 months, after which they’re passed in manure. Outside of the horse, botflies burrow into the ground to mature, and the cycle starts again.
To control botflies, deworm your horse regularly, and remove the eggs from his haircoat. Pull off the eggs using your fingers or a bot knife, or wash them off using a sponge and warm water.
7 Thunderstorms/Flash Flooding
Summer thunderstorm threats in the desert Southwest include lightning and hail. To avoid danger, watch weather forecasts and updates, plan to ride early in the morning when fewer storms occur, and head home as soon as skies begin to look threatening. Don’t take cover from rain under tall trees, which attract lightning strikes. An additional danger is flash flooding.
Ground in the Southwest doesn’t absorb rain; instead, water races downhill into normally dry washes. Since washes are often part of a riding trail, you may suddenly be overwhelmed by flooding from a rainstorm occurring miles away. If the weather is stormy nearby, don’t ride into a canyon with no escape route.
Jule Drown is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer, horse owner, and health-care manager.
Here are the survival items to have on hand when you trail ride in the desert. Keep the essentials with you on the trail, even if you intend to only be out a few minutes. Keep the other items handy at the trailhead or campsite, depending on how far you intend to ride and how long it would take you to reach a veterinarian. Consult your veterinarian regarding prescribed medications, and use them only according to his or her instructions.
■Insulated water bottles. Keep plenty of water with you to keep hydrated on the trail. Add ice if the day will be warm or hot.
■Large-toothed comb. Use a large toothed comb with handle to quickly flick cholla cactus segments off you or your horse. Tie the comb on saddle strings or tuck it into your saddle’s water-bottle holder. The quicker you can react to cactus getting onto you or your horse, the better.
■Spare hoof boot. Carry a spare hoof boot in case your shod horse throws a shoe, due to the region’s rocky, steep trails.
■Emergency identification. Attach a luggage tag to your saddle, and carry identification on your person, to indicate who should be contacted in an emergency. Add “in case of emergency” (ICE) contacts to your cell phone.
■Flunixin meglumine(brand name Banamine). Your veterinarian may prescribe this nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for your horse on your desert travels. Your vet may advise you to administer Banamine to your horse if he gets into cholla and has a strong reaction or if he experiences colic symptoms.
■Phenylbutazone(brand name Butazolidin). Your vet may also prescribe this NSAID (commonly called Bute) for your horse. Your vet may advise you to administer Bute if your horse is sore from a hard trail ride or suffering from a fever.
■Sulfa drug. Your vet may advise you to administer this prescription antibiotic if your horse falls ill when you’re camping or in a remote riding area.
■Wrap bandage. Use per your vet’s instructions for leg wounds.
■Short pieces of garden hose. Insert these into your horse’s nostrils to prevent them from swelling shut if a rattlesnake bites his muzzle or head.
■Leatherman multipurpose tool.