Mule Riders donít like to admit it, but trail riding can be a
dangerous sport. Opportunities to get thrown, hurt or separated from
your mule can happen with the simple rustle of a branch. Using good
judgment when you explore new trails helps prevent minor incidents
from escalating into a crisis. Proper planning, preparation, and the
practice of using good judgment may keep you in the saddle and out
of the emergency room. Outdoor emergencies occur when they are least
expected. Safety and survival experts have a rule of thumb that
states, ďRemoteness equals riskĒ. Mule riders can get to remote
areas in a hurry. The farther you are from help when an accident
happens, the more critical even slight injuries or mishaps become.
The following are some issue to consider before you leave for the
Equipment Function and Failure
Photo by Betty Robinson
The first commandment for a trail rider should be, never ride alone.
But, we all do at one time or another. When the need to ride an
enticing trail overcomes your good sense, at least take some
precautions before you leave the trailer. Make sure someone knows
which trail you plan to ride, which direction you are going and how
long you intend to be gone. However, do not leave this information
on your truck windshield at the trailhead. Although this may seems
like a good way to let someone know where you are, the practice also
telegraphs to trailhead thieves how long you plan to be gone. This
might make your truck and trailer easy pickings.
Of course, before you make that first hoof print on a trail, be sure
you are prepared with proper equipment. A riderís first line of
defense against injury is using safe equipment properly. A good
helmet can be one of the most important pieces of personal safety
equipment a trail rider chooses. Although the decision to wear a
helmet when trail riding is an individual one, it is a choice that
should be made with careful consideration. Even the most gentle,
bombproof animal may buck when surprised by a swarm of ground bees
or the buzz of an unseen rattler. Because of their life-saving
history, helmets are manufactured by dozens of companies in all
sizes, shapes and colors. Helmets can be found at most riderís
Another essential piece of equipment often over-looked by riders is
a good crupper. A crupper has one major function, to hold the saddle
in place as the animal goes down a hill. While a crupper or britchen
is not essential for all mules on a daily basis, they can be
extremely beneficial for trail mules in hilly or mountainous
terrain. Unless you ride only in flat lands, the time will come when
a crupper can prevent your saddle from moving forward on your muleís
withers on a downhill trail. Although saddles slide back, less
frequently than they slide forward, the teamwork of a good breast
collar and crupper properly adjusted at the trailer can help prevent
those aggravating stops on the side of the mountain to put your
saddle back in place. Many serious accidents occur when a saddle
slips too far forward. A mule will often buck when all his gear,
including the rider, slides towards his ears.
Of course, having the proper equipment isnít complete insurance
against accidents. Equipment failure is a major cause of injuries
among trail riders. When the bridle breaks, the mule runs away. When
the latigo or stirrup leather breaks, the failure may result in the
rider unceremoniously being dumped on the ground. One trail rider
was thrown from his mule and knocked unconscious when his crupper
broke. The ultimate result was a brain concussion, a broken
collarbone, and two cracked ribs. This accident occurred miles back
in a national forest. Had he been riding alone the situation could
have been critical. As it was a friend went for help and got the
rider to the hospital. However, the mule spent the night running
loose in the forest with a saddle on. Take a few minutes to inspect
critical points of stress on equipment that is used consistently.
Worrisome stress points can generally be found where leather rubs or
wears against metal such as reins and bridle parts that attach to
the bit, stirrup leather near the buckles, and where the latigos or
off-straps cross the D-rings. Attention to detail can mean the
difference between trail riding again tomorrow or seeing how well
your insurance pays off.
Bees, Bugs, and Bites
Photo by Pat Gordon
Equipment failure or lack of proper equipment is not the only
element that can cause your easy going four-footed companion to go
ballistic. Being stung by a bee, wasp or yellow jacket is probably
even more common than the statistics indicate. Bees account for more
deaths in the United States than all other venomous creatures
combined. Deaths caused by bees may amount to as many as 50 a year.
One western state documented 11 fatalities in one year. The problem
caused by bees, wasps or hornet stings is that such bites can lead
to rapid death. The only way to save a life in these cases is with
an immediate injection of epinephrine which is the generic name for
the drug adrenaline.
If you are seriously allergic to bee stings, talk with your doctor
and then put a self-medication kit in your trailer and your
saddlebags. Anaphylaxis can be reversed with a shot of epinephrine.
Center Laboratories is one company that has a kit, EpiPen, which
gives you the option to automatically inject the drug after a sting,
if you are properly prepared. No one plans to get stung and 99 times
out of 100 you wonít, but that one sting can turn into a crisis if
you are 15 miles from the trailer and another 25 miles from medical
help when the sting happens.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis usually begin with flushing and swelling of
the lips, throat, tongue, hands and feet. Then, wheezing, shortness
of breath, coughing and hoarseness will follow. Headache, nausea,
vomiting, cramps and the sense of losing consciousness can make it
difficult for you to ride back to your trailer. At the very first
signs of distress, a person should be rushed to the nearest medical
For trail riders, the sting is only one of the immediate problems.
Being bucked off becomes another grim reality. Almost all trail
riders have a bee sting story. One that comes to my mind most
quickly happened near my home. It all began with a simple detour
around a fallen tree. As the second and third mule came through the
untrampled area near the tree trunk, bees swarmed out, flying in
attack mode. A mule with a dog-gentle reputation took three stings
and tripped a switch. In two bone-jarring jumps the rider was on the
ground. The fall and bounce didnít cause much damage, but during the
ensuing scramble the muleís hoof slid down the fallen riderís
forearm breaking bone and literally skinning the arm from the elbow
to the wrist. It took stretcher-bearers an hour to carry the rider a
half-mile before help could reach them by four-wheel drive. Eight
days in an Arkansas hospital was followed by more hospitals and skin
grafting when the rider returned to her home.
The victim commented later, ďWhen I first looked at my arm, it
seemed like all my skin was wadded down around my wrist like a dirty
sock. My arm was bad and I knew it, but the fact is, without my
helmet and the help of some good people, I wouldnít be here to talk
Wasps, yellow jackets and hornets are far more dangerous for most
riders than any snakes. These insects have the ability to sting
repeatedly. When you encounter such marauders on the trail, if your
mule doesnít start to buck right away, ride as far way from the nest
as possible before dismounting. If your options are limited to get
off or get thrown, dismount quickly and lead your mount, at a trot
if possible, away from the area. Even angry wasps usually will not
follow further than 200 yards. Once clear of the danger zone, you
may have to take a hat or jacket to knock the insects off your mule.
These tenacious insects tend to hang on with a vengeance.
In contrast to the wasp, a honeybee can sting only once, however its
stinger remains in the skin. This stinger, which is attached to a
venom sack, continues to pump poison into the system. Remove the
stinger as soon as possible by scraping it away with a fingernail or
credit card. Once it is gone, take necessary steps to relieve the
Some other insects are hard to tolerate, even though their bite is
not life threatening. In southern states or in very warm climates,
spray or wipe your mule with insect repellent before leaving the
trailer. This helps limit the annoyance of a wide variety of flying
pests. Spraying your own boots and pants legs will help avoid ticks
and chiggers. In case you have never met a chigger, let it be known,
these are mean, tiny red ďnastiesĒ, not as big as a pin head, but
they burrow under your skin and create an itch you will scratch for
weeks. The bites itch worse than twenty mosquito bites and last five
times as long. These little pests thrive in the lush green, uncut
grass your mule loves to nibble. Keeping chiggers off is the best
plan. Some type of Deet insect repellant is your best bet. The old
home remedy of taking one B-1 tablet before going out helps for some
people. The B-1 changes the subtle fragrance of the human skin
providing an odorant chiggers tend to avoid. However, once those
little buggers have dug in, there isnít much to do but scratch.
With ticks itís a different matter. Ticks can easily be seen. If you
are lucky you will find them on your clothes and pick them off
before they reach those critical places and bury their heads in your
skin. Ticks spread Lyme disease, which is caused by a spirochete
bacterium injected from the tickís mouth into your blood stream.
Always check for ticks after a ride in the southern woods. If you
can pick them off in the first 24 hours you probably wonít have to
worry about Lyme disease. It is those ticks that stay imbedded for
24 hours or more that cause the trouble. The first indication of a
problem after such a tick bite is red rash. The rash often forms a
bullís-eye type circle. Flu like symptoms and fatigue generally
follow. If you have been bitten by a tick and develop such a rash,
it is time to seek medical advice.
Another very adaptable stinger your might encounter is the scorpion.
These hostile little creatures are primitive, segmented and look
something like small, dry land crawdads. The little pests are
survivors against all odds. They have been known to go without water
for three months and without food for up to a year. The scorpion
loves heat and can survive being frozen. Twenty-five of the species
carry toddy that is potentially lethal to the human. Several species
inhabit west Texas and New Mexico. One, which grows up to six inches
long is the menacing-looking, hairy, desert scorpion. Their favorite
place to hide is in your boot or sleeping bag. If you sleep outside
in a tent with no floor always check your boots before pulling them
on. Save yourself a painful surprise.
Poison plants, like ivy, oak, and sumac are a trail riderís legacy.
Learn what the leaves look like and take precautions to avoid them.
If you canít avoid them entirely, bathe within 12 hours of contact
with the plant. This will help eliminate or minimize the outbreak.
Urushiol, which is what causes the itch and rash from this weedy
trio, retains its allergen status for up to two months. Meaning, it
can sit on your boots, cling to your lead rope, or hang on to your
water bottle just waiting to infect you again the next time you
touch them. If your mule happens to touch the one of three while
snatching a bite of grass, your can be exposed when you rub his
muzzle. Or, if your mule walks through a heavy patch of the plants,
you can be exposed by touching his legs when you clean his feet back
at the trailer.
If you are sure you have been exposed, wash your skin extensively.
As long as the sap is removed, you canít infect others. Cleaning
your skin as soon as possible after you are contaminated can limit
the reaction. Although some vaccinations are available, cortisone
creams, cold compresses and time are about all you can do once the
rash is active.
Photo by Pat Gordon
Try to develop the habit of being observant. Look ahead at what is
on the trail. Some terrain is more prone to harboring snakes or bees
than others. Being watchful can often help prevent a situation from
escalating into a crisis. Every year between 7000 and 8000
individuals suffer from venomous snake bites. Most bites are from
pit vipers Ė rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths, which can
easily be recognized by their spade-shaped heads. Because the color
of snakes can vary so much even with the same species, any snake
bite should be considered serious until you determine if the snake
is one of the poison varieties. Donít depend on color for
recognition. The shape of the head and body will usually identify
Just as a rattlesnake will make a buzzing noise in a warning
defense, a copperhead will lie perfectly still, hoping he wonít be
seen. This is why people so often get bit from stepping on them.
Folklore says copperheads smell like cucumbers. However, itís
probably best to overcome the urge to prove or disprove this myth.
The cottonmouth is a close relative of the copperhead, although,
heís bigger with a worse temper and much more venom. These snakes
often grow to five feet in length. As adults they appear dark brown,
dark green or black. A cottonmouth will eat anything from road kill
to chicken eggs. Not only is this snake greedy, he is gluttonous.
The cottonmouth, also known as water moccasin, has nothing to fear
but alligators and humans. For an aquatic animal, these snakes are
very tolerant of dry weather. Look for them on tree limbs near water
as quickly as you look for them on the ground. Most snakes need to
feel threatened before they strike, but not the cottonmouth. They
will attack out of pure cussedness. Probably as many mules are
bitten by the cottonmouth as rattlers because of the snakeís nasty
disposition and because he lies quietly around areas where mules go
One third of all bites happen because the snake is handled,
harassed, or otherwise irritated. The seriousness of a snakeís bite
depends on several factors. First, some venom is more toxic than
others. For example, coral snake venom is more toxic than that of
most pit vipers. Secondly, the size of the snake and the size of the
victim make a big difference. A large snake biting a small child is
much more serious than the reverse. This makes it seem as if a mule
wouldnít be in much danger considering the size of the mule and the
size of the snake, however mules are very susceptible to the poison
of a snakeís bite.
Often this susceptibility for either mule or human is determined by
the location of the puncture. The location of the bite and the
amount of venom injected is the third factor that increases the
crisis. In about 20 to 30 percent of all pit viper bites no venom is
injected. Small amounts may not cause serious poisoning, but a large
dose especially if injected into a vein can be life-threatening.
Most human fatalities occur 18 to 32 hours after the bite. The time
elapsed before medical treatment is a critical component in the
equation. Should you be bitten, take the following steps:
- Get to a medical facility as soon as possible.
- Before you move have a plan. Then move slowly.
- Remain as calm as possible. Excitement increases the absorption
of the venom.
- If you can not get medical help immediately use a Sawyer Kit. Do
not make an incision.
- Do not use tourniquet, ice or a shocking device.
- Do not drink alcohol.
If a snake bites your mule, limit activity as soon as possible. This
may mean dismounting and leading to the nearest area where the
animal can be reached by trailer. If you must walk the victim out of
a remote location, walk slowly and rest frequently. If the animal is
bitten on the leg, signs of lameness may appear quickly.
Get the mule to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Typical
treatment includes antibiotics, Banamine, tetanus booster, and care
of the wound area. The use of antivenin is possible but may be
cost-prohibitive. In some location the cost could run between $500
and $800 for a 1,000 pound mule. The antivenins may have positive
effects if administered within the first four to six hours. Yet, due
to the expense and the quantity necessary the benefits should be
weighed against the minor therapeutic advantages that would be
You can expect the bite site to swell. If the bite is on the head or
near the nostrils, suffocation is a threat until anti-inflammatory
medications can take effect. Emergency measures may be necessary in
such case, e.g., tracheotomy or insertion of a nasal tube; a
veterinarian should handle such measures. Bites on the legs do not
swell as much as those on the face because of the lack of soft
tissue in the area.
Once the wound site is determined, it should be treated aggressively
for infection. If the horse is bitten near the coronary band the
hoof may separate and slough off. Expect lameness in the leg, maybe
even some paralysis for a coupled of weeks. Often the area of the
bite will degenerate and slough off. Particular care should be paid
to combating infection and improving circulation and blood flow to
the area. Most mules respond quickly to anti-inflammatories and
antibiotics. Swelling and mental depression should improve
drastically within 36 to 48 hours.
The four Pís
A survival situation is any occurrence that places your life or your
muleís life in danger. It doesnít have to be as catastrophic as
being lost in a blizzard or wandering in the desert without water.
For a trail rider it can be as simple as a bee sting or the error of
human judgment. The list of simple situations that can turn into
life threatening experiences can go on and on.
However, Proper Preparation Prevents Problems. Choose a reliable
mule. Ride with a friend. If you must ride alone, leave a message
with a responsible adult about where you plan to go and carry a cell
phone with you. Then, stick to your plan. Check your equipment at
least monthly. Carry some simple first aid gear. Be Alert. Ride
smart, donít take unnecessary risks. May all your trail rides end at