One of the many pleasures of trail riding and camping with our ponies is that we get to escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy well-earned quiet time. Getting away from suburbia also means you’re farther from emergency responders in the case of an accident or illness. For decades I’ve argued that every horse owner should possess basic first aid skills. I still believe those skills are essential. I want to add that every trail rider and horse camper should have the ability to render medical aid in remote settings.
Before you say, “I only ride at the local park, not in capital W wilderness,” here’s a significant bit to consider. In an emergency medicine context, “wilderness” is an area where equipment and expertise are limited. As trail riders, we could be in that type of environment well before our horse breaks a sweat.
Most of the incidents we run into while on the trail are minor and easily treatable. Most of the time, our goal is to keep a condition from worsening so you can continue with your ride. That being said, it’s essential to be prepared for unexpected situations, especially those where you may have to wait for professional help. Treatment skills are crucial, but educating ourselves to recognize injuries and illnesses early is just as vital. The skills learned in a wilderness-oriented first aid course can save lives.
Wilderness First Aid Vs. Urban First Aid
Wilderness first aid may be different from what you’re used to if you’ve already had some general first-aid training. The main differences lie in these four issues:
- Time: The local urgent care facility is a long drive away, and search and rescue personnel cannot respond as quickly as when we dial 911 from home. It could take hours or days until professional care arrives. We must be ready to render emergency aid and to care for our loved ones and friends until the experts appear.
- Environment: You may face inclement weather and physical hazards that you wouldn’t encounter in a more civilized environment.
- Resources: When you’re administering aid in the backcountry, you’re limited to what’s in your saddlebags and what you can improvise from the surrounding environment.
- Communications: Cellphones often fail when we need them most. Your ability to call for help is limited in many areas. Your care might be the patient’s only option.
I recently completed an intensive Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). It was a game-changer for my trail riding and horse camping ventures. After decades of First Aid courses in professional and military settings, I thought that I had a good handle on the basics if a horse ride became eventful. My 2021 whitewater mule rafting adventure proved that premise wrong. When the opportunity to take advantage of this NOLS course popped up, I was game. I wanted to learn more and know what to do in an emergency if my riding partner became ill or injured while on a trip.
What to Expect
Wilderness First Aid (WFA) skills aren’t just for backcountry adventures. These skills are equally relevant during hurricanes, tornados, floods, or fires strain emergency services. WFA knowledge can be lifesaving.
A WFA training course will help you provide assessment and treatment when miles away from advanced care. Treatment skills are important, but so is recognizing the signs and symptoms of illnesses early.
Visiting my happy places generally includes being days and many miles from the nearest asphalt. The 10-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course from NOLS teaches more advanced skills for these areas where communications are unreliable, and access to medical care is delayed. WFR training was a big confidence builder for my wife and me.
While initially, I thought the class would be a primer on how to make splints from sticks. I was wrong, very wrong. The NOLS WFR curriculum is a modified EMT-level training that stresses gathering and assessing patient data to provide appropriate emergency care in wilderness settings.
While having vet wrap and a bottle of Tylenol is helpful, being adequately trained in wilderness medicine is even better. Earning my WFR has helped me in becoming a better trail and horse camp partner.
For more information on the National Outdoor Leadership School, visit nols.edu.
For more musings on trail riding, as well as the world’s largest guide to horse trails and camps, visit www.TrailMeister.com. Get your copy of Amazon’s best-selling book “The ABCs of Trail Riding and Horse Camping” by visiting my book page on Amazon – https://amzn.to/3CuErid. This feature-packed book contains essential knowledge to help guide your equine journeys.
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