Keith Hunt - Wrangling on the Range - Page One-hundred-fortythree   Restitution of All Things

  Home Previous Page Next Page

Wrangling on the Range #143

Trail Riding Safely



FROM "THE TRAIL RIDER" - May/June 2005


by Heather Smith Thomas

Our family has been ranching in the mountains near Salmon, Idaho,
since 1955. We've put lots of miles on lots of horses over the
years, riding range all summer and moving cattle in rough
country. During the 1970s and 1980s, we did some competitive
distance riding.

Riding on the range and on the trail taught us a great deal about
keeping horses sound under all kinds of conditions. Trail horses
occasionally suffer foot and leg injuries, directly or indirectly
related to poor footing. You can head off some problems by being
prepared. Know what kind of footing you'll be dealing with, know
your horse, condition him for the various situations you might
encounter, and be cautious in tricky terrain. Slow down, and
don't take chances.

Here, I'll discuss five different types of footing: Hard ground,
rough terrain, sand, mud, and snow/ice. I'll tell you the
potential problems each type of footing can create, how such
problems can happen, and what you can do to head off an injury.


Potential problem: Concussion to bones and joints.

Now it can happen: Concussion on hard ground can take a toll on
joints, but most often the concussion problems are in the feet.
Young horses are particularly susceptible to jarring and hard
pounding, because their joints and bones haven't yet matured.
Your mature horse might suffer sore joints the day after
traveling over hard ground, but generally it's only temporary
However, as your horse ages and his joints stiffen, hard ground
might make him continually sore, especially if he has a
degenerative joint or bone condition, such as arthritis.

Potential problems: 

Heel soreness; sole bruises; road founder.

How they can happen: 

If your horse is at all sore in the heels (which many horses are,
due to the way they're built or the way they're shod), you'll see
heel soreness first after traveling on hard ground. The foot
naturally lands heel first. The heel area, with its extra
cushioning, is better designed to absorb concussion than the toe
area. However, your horse's heels will become sore first if you
travel through rocks and hard ground all day. Pounding and ground
can also lead to bruising on the soles of your horse's feet and
road founder (inflammation of the laminae - the sensitive
membrane layers in the hoof).

What you can do:

* Find softer ground. If you can pick your trail, find softer
footing, such as the road shoulder instead of the pavement or
hardpacked dirt track. Good earth footing is best, with enough
"give" so the foot or shoe can sink in a little.

* Wait until your horse matures. Avoid riding your trail horse on
hard ground until he's at least 4 years old. When he's 2 or 3
years old, he'll be more prone to stressrelated problems, because
his bones and joints aren't completely mature, thus vulnerable to
injury. Even walking and trotting on the trail can lead to
injury; avoid trail riding him until he's at least 4 years old.

* Consider special shoeing. Your farrier can shoe your horse with
pads, which can help minimize concussive pressures that might
aggravate arthritic and bony problems. Pads can also help with
sole bruising. Some riders use plastic shoes to minimize
concussion, but these don't work for all horses. Work with your
farrier to find a pad or shoe that works best for your horse.

* Consider a joint supplement. Talk to your veterinarian about
supplementing your horse's diet with glucosamine and chondroitin
sulfate. Such products seem to help relieve some joint problems.


Potential problems: Pulled muscles; muscle cramps; strained
joints; fatigue.

How they can happen: 

Your horse carries about 60 percent of his weight on his front
legs. This weight load changes when you ride him up and down
hills; his front feet will take more weight than his rear feet,
especially going downhill. When going uphill, your horse's
hindquarters work harder than usual as he pushes himself upward.
When the footing is less than ideal, such added stress can cause
pulled muscles, muscle cramps, strained joints, and fatigue.

Potential problems: 

Sprains; heel bruising; stone bruise.

How they can happen: 

A trail with ruts, rocks, or uneven surface due to erosion can
make a foot land at odd angles, which can lead to a sprain. Such
terrain can also increase risk of heel-bulb injury and bruising.
And, if hard matter lodges between the frog and hoof wall, it can
create a painful stone bruise.

What you can do:    

* Condition your horse. The best way to prevent an injury in
rough, hilly terrain is to have a fit horse. If you live in flat
country and need to prepare for a mountainous ride, find a way to
simulate hills such as going up and down a highway overpass.

* Go slow. Slow down when traveling through rocky, hilly terrain.
Walk rath than trot, and don't push your horse to his fastest
walk or traveling gait.

* Dismount. In especially rough, hilly terrain, take a tip from
endurance riders. Get off your horse, and run alongside him to
help minimize muscle stress and fatigue.

* Check for rocks. Carry a hoof pick, and periodically check your
horse's hooves rocks, stones, and other trail debris.

Travel Tip

(When you take your horse on a trail ride in an unfamiliar
region, expect variables in terrain and footing. Sand in southern
New Mexico might be an inch deep, whereas sand in South Carolina
might be 2 and 1/2 inches deep. This can make a big difference to
your horse. Ask riders in the area what the footing is like, so
you'll know what to expect. Then pay attention to the ride's
effects on your horse. If something doesn't seem right, turn
around, and head back home. If a problem persists, call your


Potential problem: Tendon/ligament injury. How it can happen:

Believe it or not, trail horses tend to suffer more leg injuries
from soft ground than hard ground. In sandy or boggy footing, the
extra stress put onto your horse's legs can result in superficial
flexor tendon and suspensory ligament injuries. Superficial
flexor tendons run down the back of the foreleg, between the knee
and foot. In the hind leg, they run between the hock and the
foot; they cause your horse's joints to flex when stimulated.
Suspensory ligaments run behind the cannon bone over the fetlock
joint to the pastern bones; they support the fetlock joint, which
is your horse's ankle.
The biggest culprit is fatigue. Soft footing can tire your horse
sooner than you're used to and to a much greater degree than you
might imagine, simply from the extra work he must expend to get
through it. His joints must flex more and his legs must move more
distance at every stride. More flexing means more pull on tendons
and ligaments, because the foot didn't stop soon enough; it keeps
slipping a little on every stride. This wasted motion with every
step leads to fatigue - and fatigue leads to tendon and ligament
injuries. Note that such injuries don't always occur near the end
of a long ride; your horse can go lame at any point if he's not
in condition.

Potential problem: 

Pulled/strained hindquarter muscles.

How it can happen: 

In soft footing, your horse can also suffer pulled or strained
hindquarter muscles, especially if you climb hills. When you ride
on hills in soft footing, his muscles have to work extra hard,
because he lacks traction. His foot will tend to slip at every
step, adding more work to a leg already under stress. Unless
you've conditioned your horse on hills, his muscles aren't in
shape to handle that kind of load.
Unfortunately, you might not notice such problems soon enough to
prevent them. You might remember later that your horse seemed to
be sweating more or working harder than usual, but you didn't
relate that to the strained muscles or hindleg weariness at the
end of your ride. What you can do:

* Condition your horse. The best way to prevent sand-related
injuries is to have a fit horse. Slowly accustom your horse to
soft footing by walking at first, and slowly working up to the
faster gaits.

* Watch your horse. See how he's handling trail conditions in
regard to his fitness level. If you notice that he seems to be 

(Water crossing can be unpredictable if there are sandy or boggy
areas. Believe it or not, trail horses tend to suffer more leg
injuries from soft ground than hard ground. Take it slow to help
avoid injury)  

working harder than you'd expect, it's probably because of the

* Watch other riders. If you've conditioned your horse on firm
footing, then go on rides in soft footing - such as in the desert
or on the beach - watch the other riders. If their horses seem to
be sinking deeper than normal, chances are, your horse is, too.

* Take it slow. It's the combination of speed and soft footing
that will tend to cause problems for your horse; you won't see as
many injuries when you take it slowly. Slow down so your horse
doesn't become overly fatigued.

* Take rest breaks. Frequent breaks will help your horse's
muscles accommodate the extra work load and will help battle
muscle fatigue.

* Shorten your ride. Your horse might not be ready for a long
ride on soft footing, even if you go slowly and take frequent
breaks. If your horse isn't conditioned on soft footing, plan
short rides.


Potential problems: Muscles sprains, strains, and soreness.

How they can happen:

Muddy conditions can create a lot of problems, especially since
you probably haven't conditioned your horse to this type of
footing. He's likely not used to making his way through mud. Even
if his corral or paddock is a muddy quagmire, he's not used to
the added stress of carrying a rider while slogging through deep
mud, and/or slipping and sliding in slick, wet footing. The
increased level of work and slipping can put your horse at risk
for mild sprains, strains, and soreness.
Mud also creates a vacuum effect. Your horse must expend extra
effort to pull his feet from the mud. To do so, he'll use
different muscles than usual or use the same muscles more
strongly. This exertion can also lead to sprains, strains, and
soreness. Potential problems: Twisted joint; ligament injury;
superficial flexor tendon injury.

How they can happen: 

Even if you've conditioned your horse to go forward for miles,
he's not conditioned for pulling his feet out of mud. It's hard
to imagine the extra effort required for all those steps in muddy
footing. And when your horse is tired, he's not as careful with
his feet, which can lead to injury. For instance, he might take a
bad step and twist a fetlock joint. Or he might step sideways on
his foot instead of landing squarely and injure a ligament. Less
often, he might injure a superficial flexor tendon. Also, the
extra effort your horse must expend to counteract mud's vacuum
effect can add to the pressure already being placed on his
tendons and ligaments.
Your horse probably won't be able to go as fast in mud as he'd
normally be traveling; therefore his tendons and ligaments likely
won't suffer as much in mud as they would in deep sand. However,
if you're riding at a brisk pace on dry footing that suddenly
turns to mud and his feet sink, a huge amount of pressure is
placed on his tendons and ligament, which can cause them to
overstretch, like a rubber band. This leads to injury. If you
don't pay close attention to the trail ahead, you might not slow
down in time to stop this from happening. 

Potential problem: 

Lost shoe

How it can happen: 

If mud is especially deep, it can even suck off a horseshoe. Or,
your horse might step on one foot with another while scrambling
through mud, pulling off a shoe.

Potential problems: 

Fatigue; interference. How they can happen: 

Mud also interferes with your horse's normal gaits. If ground is
wet and slippery, his gait is altered, and he'll spend extra
energy and effort trying to maintain a proper gait, leading to
fatigue. (Note that the faster and more complicated the gait, the
harder it'll be for your horse to handle a wet, slick surface).
He might also suffer an injury due to

(If mud is especially deep, it can even suck off a horseshoe. Or,
your horse might step on one foot with another while scrambling
through mud, pulling off a shoe).

interference (contact made when any foot hits the opposite leg)
or forging (contact made when a hind foot hits the sole of the
forefoot on the same side) as he struggles to maintain a normal

What you can do:

* Avoid muddy areas. Go around bogs rather than through them. If
the trail is particularly muddy, stay home and work your horse in
areas with good drainage.

* Slow to a walk. Pay attention to the trail ahead. When you spot
muddy conditions, slow to a walk.

* Monitor fatigue level. You might not realize how hard your
horse is working to negotiate muddy footing until after he's
suffered a problem. Keep a close watch on his fatigue level. If
he's tired, let him rest. If he doesn't recover quickly, slowly
head for home.

* Watch for lost shoes. As mentioned, mud can suck off a shoe in
a flash. After you hit a muddy patch, check to make sure all your
horse's shoes are still on. If a shoe is loose, pull it, and use
a temporary hoof boot until you get back home.

SNOW and/or ICE

Potential problems: Sprained fetlock joints; collateral ligament

How they can happen: 

Riding in snow can sometimes create balls of ice in your horse's
feet. If your horse is walking on four balls of ice, each foot
has only tiny points of contact with the ground. He'll then have
no sideways - and little forward-backward - control of his feet,
creating extra strain. This strain puts him at risk for sprained
fetlock joints and can cause injury to the collateral ligaments -
those that run along the inside and outside of the fetlock joint
to help support it. 

What you can do:

* Get off the main trail. Packed snow is more slippery than
undisturbed snow. Your horse will have better footing and
traction if you can get off the main trail and out in pristine

* Go slowly. If ground is frozen or covered with packed snow or
ice, it can be very slippery and treacherous. Go slowly under
those conditions.

* Go straight. When on a hill, go straight up or straight down,
never sideways. Your horse has better traction going straight;
even if he slips and slides he will be less likely to fall. If
you go sideways around a hill, he could fall flat and crush your
leg. But if you head him straight down a hill, he can slip and
slide all the way down and still keep his feet.

* Stay on top. It's usually safer to stay on your horse going
down a steep hill, if you keep him pointed straight down. He
usually has better traction with four feet than you do on two.
And if you lead him, he might slide right into you. Or, you might
slip and fall in front of him. If you must get off, stay to the
side and well out of his way. (The same rule of thumb applies to
any slippery downhill footing - such as going down a steep bank).

* Consider snow pads. If you ride in snow a great deal, talk to
your farrier about having your horse shod with snow pads to help
keep the snow and ice balls out of your horse's feet.


* Carry hoof boots. If you get caught in a surprise snowstorm,
nobody's horse is shod for those conditions. Temporary hoof boots
can minimize the problem, since snow generally won't stick to the
bottom of them.

* Apply ski wax. Ski wax will create a slippery surface on the
bottom of the hoof so snow and ice have a harder time getting a
grip. It doesn't last long, but is better than other waterproof
substances, such as grease or butter. Ski wax, at least, might
last long enough to help you travel safely through the snow until
you get down the mountain or out of a snowstorm.  

(I've rode mostly in snow without having shoes on my horse,
regular shoes will "ball up" with snow. I stay in the soft snow,
stay off the hard packed snow trails. If you keep shoes on your
horse and ride in the snow, then having snow pads also on is a
must - Keith Hunt)

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for more than
45 years, and has been writing about them nearly that long. She's
published 18 books, including "Care and Management of Horses,"
"The Horse Conformation Handbook," "A Horse in Your Life," and
"Horses: Their Breeding, Care and Training." She and her husband
raise cattle on their ranch in eastern Idaho.

  Home Previous Page Top of Page Next Page

Navigation List:

Word Search: