So you're not the rugged, survivalist type. You're not alone. It's a fact of 21st century life that fewer and fewer people are experienced in surviving in the great outdoors. Moseying on horseback through the local park on a sunny Saturday may be the closest some of us ever get to a wilderness adventure.
Yet even on a familiar trail a mishap can occur that could ruin your fun or, worse, get someone hurt. Serious accidents on trail rides are rare, but venturing from the security of home on horseback always poses a certain amount of risk. Changing weather, wildlife, the limitations of your own sense of direction—many potential hazards can sour what should be a pleasurable ride. Even on a short jaunt, an injury to yourself or your horse can isolate you, forcing you to rely on your own resources—reason enough to plan ahead and prepare for the unexpected.
That said, you don't need to be an Eagle Scout turned Forest Ranger to be ready for the challenges of the average trail ride. A few simple tools, and the skills to use what you've packed, can help you handle small emergencies on your own or summon and await help safely if necessary. The odds are that you'll never need most of the items in your survival kit, but you can never be too prepared.
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You need not be an endurance rider or a backcountry explorer to benefit from a trail survival kit. And it doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive—in fact, you probably already have many of the necessary items and materials on hand. Nor does your survival pack have to be unwieldy—you can fit most key items into a medium-size fanny pack.
A well-stocked kit will reflect the type of riding you do. To help you decide what to pack, we've asked the experts for their suggestions, then sorted the items based on how challenging your riding excursion is likely to be. Start with the "routine" kit, then add items from the "exploratory" and "adventurous" lists, depending on where you plan to ride as well as your personal needs or preferences.
Once you've collected the items you need, find a way to carry your kit yourself, in a fanny pack, backpack or another conveyance. Don't attach the kit to your saddle: If you fall and get separated from your horse, the items in your saddlebag will do you no good. Finally, once you've got your kit stocked, resist the temptation to raid it for regular riding needs. The hoof pick you remove and forget to replace today may be the one that could salvage a trail ride tomorrow.
The Routine Ride
If you're sticking close to home, riding for only a few hours in an area you know well, a few basic tools are probably all you'll need:
Cellular phone. An inexpensive phone with a basic calling plan is a small investment for the security of being able to call for help immediately from nearly anywhere. (If you're heading into more remote areas, you might want to check with your service provider so you'll know if you'll be out of range of the transmission towers. Deep canyons and high ridges may interfere with your cellular signal.)
Swiss army knife or Leatherman tool. The more features the better on this essential item. Look for a model that has wire cutters, which can be lifesavers if your horse gets tangled in old fence lines.
Whistle. A loud, shrill whistle will get the attention of passersby and potential rescuers in an emergency. Carry this even if you have a cell phone; a whistle never has dead batteries.
Hoof pick. A small, folding hoof pick takes up little room in a kit and can save a ride that a stone lodged in a hoof would otherwise end.
Synthetic shoelace or plastic baling twine. With your knife and a little ingenuity, a shoelace or twine can repair bridles, stirrup leathers--and even saddles--long enough to make the ride home. (Cotton or other natural ties will do in a pinch, but generally, synthetic materials are stronger.)
The Exploratory Ride
If you're venturing farther afield, taking a long ride in terrain that's unfamiliar but still well-traveled by others and easily accessible by potential rescuers, a few more items may become helpful:
First-aid items. A small first-aid kit of antiseptic, a small bottle of saline, no-stick wound pads, gauze roll and self-adhesive wrap can help you treat minor equine and human injuries on the trail.
Desitin ointment. Even if your tack fits perfectly, long hours on the trail can rub painful sores onto your horse, especially under the girth. This thick, greasy ointment (available in a small tube) will sooth and protect girth galls, saddle sores and chafed areas until you get home and can tend to them. Desitin can treat minor rubs on riders, too.
Plastic bag. A large plastic garbage bag provides warmth and protection from sudden showers. But it's a good idea to desensitize your horse to the noise of rustling plastic beforehand.
Bug spray. Even the best fly repellents don't seem to last more than a few hours, and painful bites can drive a horse to the brink of being unridable. Pack a small spray bottle with fly spray so you can replenish his defenses mid-ride. For your own comfort, you may want to carry along a repellent for people, too.
Water. In any weather, debilitating dehydration can set in quickly. Carry as much water as is comfortable, based on how much you think you'll need for a day and a night. You won't be able to carry enough water for your horse in an emergency, so choose your trails wisely and don't venture into an arid area without experience.
Easyboot. If your horse loses a shoe, this "spare tire" can enable you to continue your ride or head home without risking stone bruises or other damage to an exposed hoof. Make sure the boot fits snugly on a shoeless hoof beforehand, and practice putting it on securely.
Sunscreen. Not only is sunburn painful and bad for your skin, but sun-poisoning can also make you very ill. Pack a small tube of sunscreen in case you get stuck outside on a sunny day. (The Desitin you've also packed can protect your nose and lips from sun.)
The Adventurous Ride
If you're trekking into rugged territory far from civilization, you'll want to take along some more advanced gear:
Waterproof map. Contrary to folklore, you can't rely on your horse to always find his way home. Having a map (and knowing how to read it) is essential in unknown territory. Park services or local county offices can give you a map of public lands. If you have permission to ride on private land, ask the owner for a map of the area. If you can't get one that is already laminated or printed on water-resistant material, pack your map in a plastic bag.
Compass. A map is useless if you don't know which way is north. Invest in, and learn how to read, a rugged and reliable compass.
Survey tape. You can use this colorful tape, which is also used to mark electric fence, to mark your trail as you go so you can find your way home. Just make sure you remember to collect it on your way back out. (Of course, if you're taking a circular trail and won't be retracing your steps, the survey tape will do you no good.)
Flashlight. It's always a good idea to carry a flashlight, especially if there is any chance you could get caught outside after dark. Take along a small but powerful flashlight or fluorescent camplight with an extra set of fresh batteries. You'll use it to light your own way through pitch dark or uncertain terrain, of course, but it will also serve as a beacon if someone is looking for you when visibility is low.
Waterproof matches. If you have to spend the night outdoors, hypothermia is one of your biggest risks. Even in the middle of summer, night-time temperatures can drop precipitously, enough to make you uncomfortable, and possibly enough to endanger your life. Pack matches, but heed fire safety rules. Build your fire in a small area you have stripped of sod. When you're ready to move on, extinguish the fire, wet down and disperse the ashes and replace the sod.
Thermal "space" blanket. A small reflective blanket will provide surprising warmth and will help you conserve critical body heat while riding or waiting in intense cold.
Food. If you're stranded for hours, your horse can graze until help arrives. You, however, will need a bit more sustenance. For lightweight energy, try granola bars, chocolate, snack mixes or the traditional staple on the trail, good old raisins and peanuts.
Nice weather, good friends, a willing horse and an open trail are the recipe for a perfect afternoon. Coping with accidents may not always be on your mind when you're saddling up, but developing one habit--buckling on your fanny pack of basic survival tools before you head off--could someday ensure that an incident doesn't turn into an emergency, and an emergency doesn't become a disaster.
This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of EQUUS magazine. Read "Take the Trail Rider's Pledge" in the May 2007 issue of EQUUS for commonsense rules to increase your safety and enjoyment on the trail.