Desert Horseback Riding

Survival Tips for Horse And Rider

Pre-Trip Conditioning & Planning

Desert riding requires both a fit horse and a fit rider. Make sure your horse is properly conditioned for the type of riding you plan to do in the desert. Many of the trails have inclines, deep sand and rocky terrain. Use common sense, don't trot or canter your horse in deep sand. You also need to be prepared for rocky terrain which can loosen a horse's shoes. Some riders carry an EZ-boot with them in case their horse loses a shoe on the trail.

Consult with a professional trainer or a licensed veterinarian to assist you with a training program to condition yourself and your horse for riding in the desert. An unconditioned horse can develop heat exhaustion, become dehydrated, or colic when ridden in hot weather and in conditions they are not accustomed to. Don't overdo it your first time out. Take some of the easier trails to acclimate yourself and your horse to the various environmental conditions of the desert regions.

The extreme weather and environmental conditions of the deserts can cause problems for your horse. It is important to be aware of your horses behavior, overall attitude, and movement when riding in the desert. Know your horses normal temperature, pulse and respiration so you can monitor his progress when on the trail. Dehydration, tying up, heat exhaustion, and colic are a few of health problems that you should watch out for.


Proper planning, conditioning and common sense will help reduce the potential for problems on the trail. Make sure you and your horse has plenty of clean fresh water when traveling to and riding in the desert, pack plenty of water. Humans require a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day. Horses require a minimum of 10 gallons of water per horse per day, in the desert they will need more than their normal consumption of water. This minimum requirement will vary depending on the weather and the type of activities you are participating in. You also want to make sure your horse has electrolytes in their system. You may want to give your horse electrolytes three to four days prior to your ride. You will also want to take electrolytes with you on your trip.

If you are relying on natural or man-made water source on the trail, always call or check with a park ranger or local authority, in advance, to verify that the water source is available and usable during the days that you plan to ride. Too often riders expect a water source to be available only to discover the water source has dried up or is unusable. Lack of planning can cause serious problems in the desert. Don't assume that water is available, always check water source availability prior to starting your ride.

Some parks require that you water your horses at least 100 feet away from a natural water source. Take a collapsible bucket or light weight container to water your horse.

The Desert Environment

There are some specific hazards you need to be aware of when riding on desert trails. Cactus can be a problem if you ride off of the designated trail or are riding through an area with many cactus. The last thing you want is to have your horse run into some cactus and get injured. If your horse gets scared you may get bucked of or fall off into a cactus and get seriously injured.

Cactus needles can be difficult as well as painful to remove. A friend of mine was traveling in the desert alone, and accidentally backed into a Cholla cactus. She was unable to pull the needles out of her leg and had to flag down some campers passing by who helped her remove the needles with a pliers. Most experienced desert travelers recommend carrying a fine tooth plastic comb which can be used to pull out most of the cactus needles. Some of the larger cactus needles may require a pliers or similar tool for removal.

Another hazard to watch out for in the desert are venomous creatures such as rattlesnakes, bees, wasps, and stinging insects. Most trail riders are aware of rattlesnakes and other stinging insects, so use common sense. If your horse gets bitten by a rattlesnake don't panic, keep your horse quiet and calm and lead your horse back to your vehicle or camp area and contact a veterinarian as soon as possible. Most bites occur during the spring and summer when the weather is warm and the rattlesnakes are most active. Bell boots and splint boots can help protect your horse from snake bites and cactus needles.

Bites most often occur on the legs and face area of the horse. Bites on the head can cause considerable swelling. In some cases the nostrils may swell shut and cause breathing difficulty. Contact a licensed veterinarian, prior to your trip, for tips on what to do it your horse gets bitten by a rattlesnake and what to pack in your first aid kit.

You should also find out the emergency numbers for hospitals, police, rangers, and veterinarians in the area where you will be trail riding. In the event of an emergency knowing who to call can save time and lives.

What to Wear

  • Layer your clothing
  • Wear light colored loose fitting clothing
  • Comfortable boots
  • Hat with a wide brim and with chin or neck tie
  • Sunglasses
  • Long pants or leggings to protect your legs from the brush
  • Sunscreen

What to Pack

  • Maps
  • Jacket and rain gear
  • Knife
  • First Aid Kit (for you and your horse)
  • Waterproof Matches
  • Flares
  • Trash bags
  • Canteen and water bottles
  • Food and healthy snacks
  • Chap stick


Equine First Aid Kit

  • Vetwrap
  • Sterile Gauze Pads
  • Alcohol Prep Pads
  • Cold Compresses
  • Latex Gloves
  • Towels
  • Saline Solution
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Sponge
  • Scissors
  • Peroxide
  • Alcohol
  • Thermometer
  • Electrolytes
  • Irrigating Syringe
  • Fine Tooth Comb (to remove cactus needles)
  • Antibiotic Ointment
  • Stethoscope
  • Leg Pads
  • Leg Wraps
  • Bandaging Tape

Related Books & Gifts - Trading Post
Desert Safety Tips

Desert Survival Primer
Desert Survival: The Solar Still




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