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Trail Riding Safety

January 10, 2006

Avoid Close Encounters of the Wrong Kind

By Betty Robinson


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 trail.

Equipment Function and Failure

Rest Stop by Betty Robinson
"Rest Stop"
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 supply stores.

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

"Trail Talk" Photo by Pat Gordon
"Trail Talk"
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 help.

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 about this.Ē

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 pain.

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

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.

Be observant

"Cool Drink" - Photo by Pat Gordon
"Cool Drink"
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 the culprit.

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 for water.

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:

  1. Get to a medical facility as soon as possible.
  2. Before you move have a plan. Then move slowly.
  3. Remain as calm as possible. Excitement increases the absorption of the venom.
  4. If you can not get medical help immediately use a Sawyer Kit. Do not make an incision.
  5. Do not use tourniquet, ice or a shocking device.
  6. 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 gained.

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 camp.


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