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Pets Large & Small

Camping With Horses

Dr. Kim Brokaw DVM
Walkersville Veterinary Clinic

(Aug, 2011) I am fond of camping with horses even if it does take a fair amount of effort. A day trip for a trail ride is comparably easy. For that I just hook up the trailer and put the tack and the horse in and drive somewhere to ride. Camping requires more planning. I have learned that if I skip any step of the planning, the natural consequences of my laziness will come back and bite me.

My first step is that I have to find someone to house sit and take care of the pets who do not come along. I am extremely picky about the care my pets receive and leave a two-page instruction sheet detailing how to care for a couple horses, a dog, and 20 poultry. Usually I make a family member take care of my pets. My dad offered to take care of them this past weekend, while mentioning having all his buddies up to "the lake house" (i.e. my house with farm pond) for a weekend of fishing. I envisioned the stereotypical party teenage kids have when their parents go out of town. So while I knew my pets would get adequate care, I was expecting to return home to a yard full of empty beer bottles and a filthy house. I warned my father that he needed to behave himself and take good care of my house, as well as my pets.

Now that the care of the remaining pets had been arranged, it was time to pack. Whenever I travel with horses I like to remember rule number one, which is to make sure that I have everything I might need for the horses. While practicality limits me from bringing the entire contents of my work truck, I do bring a rather large collection of supplies. I want to have everything I need to nail a shoe back on (including extra shoes), as well as materials to treat a minor colic, laceration, eye injury, anaphylactic reaction, etc. As you can imagine that leads to a rather large box of items that hopefully wonít even be needed. I have an equally large box of things that I will need such as tack, horse food, and clothes.

My usual co-camper aka "Trip Leader" brings his horse whose soundness is questionable so I put supplies for treating lameness in the box of things that will be needed. So basically I do not travel lightly when going horse camping. At the same time that I was filling the trailer with lots of "probably/ hopefully wonít be needed yet in my mind essential" supplies, Trip Leader asked about bringing along a generator and air compressor. Thinking about how full the truck and trailer would be with just my boxes, my immediate and poorly thought out response was "donít bother. Extra tools will just take up space and we wonít need them." Given who this response was coming from, the person who packs boxes of unneeded supplies, it was a very hypocritical statement. I figured you could always go to a gas station and get air but you canít purchase Banamine from anywhere but a vet clinic.

Trip Leader has a big, roomy trailer. It is well constructed, and everything on it works well. It never occurred to me that the trailer could give us any problem. On my little two horse trailer, I carry a portable horse trailer tire jack, extra water, and a few supplies that are helpful in case of minor breakdowns. Having lived in Virginia where annual trailer inspections are required by the state, I am used to taking my trailer to a trailer place every year for routine maintenance. The bearings are checked and repacked, as worn bearings can cause trailer fires. The tires are replaced every 5 years because dry rot can cause unexpected flat tires. Trailer floors are checked because a horse can fall through an old trailer floor. I donít even think about the routine trailer maintenance. Every year, a reminder card comes in the mail from my trailer place. I drop off the trailer, it is serviced and I donít think about it until the card comes the next year. I forget that many Maryland trailer owners donít do this routine maintenance because they arenít required to have the annual inspection. Unfortunately on this trip, omitting that annual trailer inspection got us into some minor trouble. Rule number two is always do routine annual maintenance on your horse trailer.

On the way down to West Virginia, we stopped at a small general store. When leaving the store Trip Leader noticed that two of the trailer tires were flat. Luckily one of the locals let us use his air compressor to fill up the tires so we could make it to the campsite. The crisis was temporarily averted. While we were at the general store, we consulted with each other about what food we had brought. There had been minimal communication about human food and who was bringing what. During the drive down we realized that we had each brought eggs, bacon, and breakfast supplies but had forgotten dinner. We picked up chicken to go with some squash that a client had given me as well as maple syrup for the pancakes. Yes, camping rule number three is make a list of the groceries you need so you donít end up eating eggs and bacon for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

After we got to the campsite, we had to figure out what to do about the tires. Now this goes back to rule number two when camping with horses. Part of routine maintenance for a trailer is to check your tires for dry rot. As it turned out the valves around the tires had dry rotted and were leaking air. When we got to camp, Trip Leader jacked up the trailer using rocks. This reminded me of why they make trailer jacks that you just drive up onto so you can change a trailer tire easily. I even own one but didnít think to take it out of my trailer and put it into his.

Anyway we were fortunate enough to have met several people at the camp site who told us where to go to get the tires fixed. They also told us stories of the various deaths and injuries that had occurred on those trails over the past few years. In fact a hiker had been missing for over a month at the time we were down there. As it was all this talk scared Trip Leaderís friend aka "The Navigator", hence named as he brought a GPS to track how many miles we rode (as well as find our way back to camp). Anyway the Navigator is a new rider and thought that perhaps he would not try his luck on those particular trails. He instead volunteered to take the tires in to the nearest town and get them fixed while Trip Leader and I went riding. I think he was still shook up from the previous dayís ride when his horse tried to roll in a mud puddle with him. The horse went down in the puddle and left the Navigator uninjured but with a wet and muddy boot and leg. Navigator had no desire to spend any more time down in a mud puddle.

Leaving Navigator and his horse at the campsite created a problem in that we would be leaving one horse behind while the other two went out for a ride. Horses are herd animals who do not like to be left behind. We decided not to worry about that until the next day and instead enjoyed a delightful dinner of chicken with sautťed squash, white wine, and chocolate chip cookies. I love baking so had made three dozen cookies for the trip (chocolate mocha toffee as breakfast cookies, and chocolate chip for dinner).

After a good nightís sleep, we were ready for a nice long ride. Rule number fourÖ tie/ duct tape phone numbers and other identifying information to the horsesí halters. Okay so from that rule one might think that we came back to camp after our ride and found that the left behind horse had panicked and run off into the woods never to be found again. No that was not the case as finally, some of our preparations were helpful. My box of "supplies that hopefully wonít be needed but are in my mind essential" was opened and I injected the horse with some light sedation so that he would be able to stand in his hot wire corral while we were gone and eat hay and not notice our absence. The drugs worked beautifully but we were happy that the phone numbers were attached to the horsesí halters, so if he got loose he could be returned to his owner.

Our trail ride went beautifully. The trails and scenery were lovely. The horses were sound and happy and at the end of the 6 hour ride we came back and found that the Navigator had successfully gotten tires. The tires were replaced and it was time to contemplate dinner. I had cooked dinner the night before with the more traditional dinner items. Tonightís dinner, which was surprisingly good was the creation of Trip Leader. It consisted of potatoes, pancake batter, eggs, bacon, and other random items thrown together into a camperís casserole served with a side salad (thank you again to clients for cucumber and other vegetables). While we brought cheese, we forgot to use it in any of the meals. The "camperís casserole" did taste good but I still support the creation of rule number three on meal planning.

With newly fixed tires on the trailer we packed up and headed out to our next riding destination. This place was supposed to be a less treacherous ride than the previous location. We arrived at the site and took the horses off the trailers taking note of the warning signs about the bombs from World War 2 that may still be located in the park. There were instructions to not touch the bomb but call the authorities if one is found. We all jokingly questioned if they offered a reward for finding a landmine as we tied the horses to trees.

Rule number fourÖwhen tying horses there are multiple correct ways to do it. Picket lines are good, as are simple quick release knots to trees, the trailer, etc. The important thing is to make sure that you can untie your horse quickly if need be. He should not be able to get tangled in the rope or other near by items, and you should have a break away halter should things go badly. While Bart wears a leather halter (breakable) and was tied in a manner that couldnít get his legs tangled in the rope, and tied with a quick release knot, the Navigatorís horse was not. He got his back leg caught in the rope, then proceeded to panic, making the situation worse. Trip Leader was able to safely extricate the horse. Other than a little rope burn and a few minor injuries the horse was fine. He was very lucky as horses can break their neck, and legs from getting caught in rope. I was not going to be looking forward to having to open up the box of "hopefully not needed supplies" for euthanasia solution (yes I travel with that too).

As the Navigatorís horseís injuries were so minor, we were able to go on the ride. This trail was nice and straight forward. It was easy to follow and while it was rocky in places, there were no cliffs to fall off of. There was one particularly steep hill/ cliff that I took Bart over to get a drink in the creek below. Rule number five is to make sure the horse drinks plenty of water either from creeks or from buckets. We brought water but Bart prefers "not bucket" water. In fact disgusting looking puddles seem more appealing to Bart than the nice clear water I brought him from home. Trip Leader came down into the creek with me while the Navigator stayed topside until we came back. Iím not sure whether it was the family of half dressed bathing locals in the creek or the steepness of the grade that intimidated him.

Once back on the trail we started completing the loop back to the trailer. As we were walking back there were sections of the land that looked swampy. I steered Bart around most of them. Unfortunately peat bogs are hard to recognize. They can even have grassy looking weeds growing on top of them. Poor Bart got steered right into the center of a peat bog and promptly sank up to his belly in disgusting ooze. Before I could even contemplate the situation he had jumped out, sending mud and ooze flying, but landing on solid ground. While safely on the other side of the bog I announced there would be no turning back now. We were committed to making the trail loop, as I contemplated the wooly mammoths and other creatures killed in such bogs. So I guess that makes for rule number sixÖ know your terrain and make sure you are not about to ride off a cliff, into quick sand, or a bog. Alternatively have a super amazing and lucky horse like Bart who can get you out of trouble time and time again.

The rest of the ride was pleasant and uneventful. The horses and riders made it safely back to the trailer, were washed off, and then taken home. Bart did not seem phased, or even tired from his camping expedition. In fact when turned out with his herd mates, he promptly started running and playing with them. As for all the other pets, my dad did a good job taking care of them and didnít even trash my house. As I am sitting here writing this article, contemplations for the next camping trip are running through my head. Anyone want to join me on the adventure?

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw