In recent years, I have heard a lot of bad advice about how to handle a colic, and I haven’t heard it from 14 year olds in horse groups on Facebook, I’ve heard it from vets. (Not my vets – they are awesome!) Some of this bad advice includes:
›You don’t need to walk them. It’s okay to let them stand.
›It’s okay if they lie down as long as they aren’t rolling.
›You can feed them a mash after a colic.
And, okay, this one did come from some genius on a horse forum:
›A horse can die of exhaustion if you keep hand walking them.
That sound you hear is my head banging against the desk. Now, I know the first question is, what gives you the right to contradict a vet? Are you a vet? My answer: No, I am not, but I have never lost a colic. In 30 years as a horse owner, I have never lost a single one, nor needed to do a surgery. So if you are willing to consider that the best advice might be the advice that works, I am happy to tell you how to avoid colic the vast majority of the time, or resolve it without losing a horse when it does happen. Clearly, if your horse has twisted a gut, this will not work. However, you probably won’t ever see a twisted gut on one of your horses (I haven’t) if you follow the advice detailed here to the letter.
Focus on prevention and you will rarely need a cure
Colic prevention is made up of very simple, common sense things, that unfortunately simply do not happen in a LOT of barns – even high level, very expensive barns.
1. Clean, fresh water should be in front of the horse all the time. By “clean,” I mean that you dump it at least every other day and refill with fresh. Daily if your horse is an alfalfa-soup-maker. This includes the tubs in the turnout. I know of high priced barns that don’t have water in the turnouts — this is dangerous. Lug a bucket around and put water anywhere that you turn your horse out. At events like polo games or horse shows, offer water frequently. When hauling, stop every few hours and offer water. It is so easy and prevents so many problems. Every gulp of water lessens your chance of an impaction. If you ever find a dry bucket or a bucket with an inch or two left, the barn is not watering often enough. And don’t even get me started about automatic waterers.
This kind of waterer is not your friend. Some horses won’t use them at all, and others simply don’t drink enough from them. Float waterers are better but may not refill fast enough. Bottom line – buckets, reliably filled, are your best bet.
2. Movement reduces the risk of colic. A horse is biologically designed to graze, which involves eating while moving. Your horse is not doing that when he’s eating in his stall; therefore, he is at a higher risk of an impaction. So, one of the easiest things you can do to prevent colic is get the horse out of that stall and moving around after meals. It’s true that you shouldn’t work a horse right after he eats grain, but hay doesn’t matter – he can leave his hay to go for a ride with no ill effects. The incidence of colic is exponentially higher in stall kept than in pasture kept horses, so if pasture keeping is an option, choose it! If it isn’t, make sure that exercise is a part of every day. If the horses are getting a day off of work, they should at the very least be turned out on that day. Don’t board at places where you’re not allowed to come out and get your horse out one day of the week. It’s just not worth the risk.
3. Live in a sandy climate? Psyllium is a must. Even with mats, feeders and all kinds of devices to prevent it, horses will lip food off the floor. It’s just what horses to. You can get two jugs of psyllium at Costco for $19. Feed a quarter cup in your horse’s food, well soaked, once a day for one week out of each month to help keep him sand free. Sand in the intestinal tract causes impaction colic. Here’s an article that explains how to test your horses for sand.
4. Horses have to be slowly introduced to grass pasture if they’ve been stall kept. Don’t turn your horses out at a facility that throws them right out there or you’re likely to have a colic sooner or later (or laminitis which is arguably even worse, as it frequently causes permanent damage). A pasture boarding facility should have some dirt pens where the horses can be kept and let out for short periods to graze to gradually accustom themselves to the grass.
5. Worms can cause colic. Right now there is plenty of debate over whether traditional rotational deworming should be replaced with fecal testing. You can choose whichever method you prefer, but whatever you do, it needs to be something you do reliably and keep records of. For some reason, in polo, I hear an awful lot of “um, I think so-and-so wormed her last July” when it’s February. That’s not sufficient. By the same token, if you suspect a horse hasn’t been dewormed for a long while, start small, with only a 500 pound dose of the dewormer and more to follow in two weeks. Avoid heavy duty dewormers like Quest until the horse has first had something milder. If you think it’s been years since the horse has been dewormed, feed-through dewormer like Strongid C may be the safest choice for the first month. Dead worms can themselves create an impaction, whereas live worms can damage the horse’s intestinal tract and internal organs. So you want to kill them, but not all at once.
6. Diet changes can cause colic. If you’ve been at a barn that’s feeding alfalfa, don’t move your horse to a different barn that’s feeding timothy and switch him over instantly. Bring some of his old hay and mix the two together, slowly increasing the amount of the new hay to effect a gradual change. The same goes for grain. Don’t just throw a whole scoop of grain at a horse who hasn’t been getting any. Start small, with no more than a quart once per day, and move up, but remember that the vast majority of any horse’s diet should be either grass, hay or hay pellets, not grain. And no horse needs more than 2-3 treats a day. I’ve seen people buy those 25 lb. bags of juice carrots and throw the whole thing out to a single horse or two. Shooting is quicker, if you are really trying to kill your horse.
When it does happen, catch it quick!
Horses are great about letting you know they are not feeling well if you are paying attention. Some signs that a colic may be brewing include:
Lying down at odd times – i.e. you’re walking around feeding and the horse hasn’t gotten up
Not finishing meals or eating in a lackluster fashion when they usually dive right in
Decreased water consumption
Curling the lip upwards repeatedly
Looking around at the stomach
Kicking at flies – except, it’s December and there are no flies
Kicking at his belly, head hanging low, miserable appearance – this horse is sending out the message loud and clear that he is colicking. Image from zamzows.com.
Pawing repeatedly for no apparent reason
Standing with legs stretched out, “parked out” like a Saddlebred, except they’re not one.
Tail raising repeatedly, horse looks like they are trying to pass gas but can’t
Normally willing or even hot horse acting lazy/stubborn under saddle or acting sore: wringing tail, pinning ears, angry about leg pressure. I had a horse who would not take one lead on Saturday evening, even though she was normally fine about leads and appeared totally sound. Sunday morning, she had an impaction on that side.
Sweating or increased respiration when the horse is at rest and there’s no reason for it
Rolling repeatedly – not just once to scratch the back, like any horse will do
And of course – Lack of poop! Less poop in the stall than you usually see in the morning. Or poop that is small, hard and dry as opposed to how it usually looks. Yes, you should know how your horse’s poop looks!
Especially where you see several of these symptoms at once, it’s almost certain a colic is coming your way. Now, there are two main types of colics: impaction and gas. A gas colic can often be resolved by giving the horse a bit of Banamine and some light exercise (i.e. longeing or ponying at a trot for 5 minutes). The horse passes gas as a result of the exercise and immediately becomes more comfortable. That said, any do-it-yourself colic treatment should be left to experienced horse people and should be done with the knowledge that the safest thing to do is always to call the vet as quickly as possible when the horse exhibits any signs that make you concerned.
With any colic, start handwalking immediately and get the vet on the phone. If you have the skills to take a respiration rate and heart rate, your vet will appreciate the information. Do not let the horse lie down. If the horse tries really hard to lie down and roll, you need to try just as hard to keep it on its feet. Believe me, a whack on the butt with a whip is preferable to death, and I had to go that far once to get a horse up that was determined to roll. She died – but not for eleven more years, at the age of 31.
When you think about it, keeping a colicking horse moving is just common sense. If you were trying to get a lump of mud out of the inside of a hose, would you stand there looking at it, or would you jiggle it and try to shake it loose? A moving horse is more likely to shake loose that clogged gut. Handwalking, even for hours, is only going to “exhaust” the human being involved, so feel free to jump on a pony horse and make the process easier on yourself.
Your vet will come out and most likely will give your horse Banamine if you haven’t already (some vets get very annoyed if you do it yourself, because they want to see how painful the horse was prior to it – that’s something you have to work out with your own vet) and tube him with mineral oil. The oil “greases up” the inside of the intestines and helps to clear the blockage. After the oiling, and after any tranquilizer given to effectuate the oiling wears off, you can go back to handwalking. Horses are good at showing us when they feel bad and equally quick to show us when they feel better. When you see all the symptoms go away and the horse gets perkier again – ears moving around, maybe whinnying at friends, not trying to roll or look at his side when you stop walking – that’s when it’s usually safe to return the horse to his stall, after removing all feed and making sure either you or someone else is going to continue to check on him.
Obviously, if you or someone else didn’t catch the colic right away and the colic progressed further, particularly if the horse was down in his stall or rolling for an extended period of time, it will be harder to resolve. Some vets will give IV fluids at your barn, which will help the horse to feel better, particularly if he is dehydrated. Some, at that point, will want you to haul the horse in to their clinic. This is when you have to seriously consider how far you will go with treatment. It is important to realize that there are no guarantees with colic surgery. Some vets will be fine with the alternative of giving IV fluids, pain meds and continuing to walk in the hopes that the horse will recover. I have done that several times with severe colics and it has worked. Some vets will make you feel like a bad owner if you don’t authorize surgery, but remember that surgery is no guarantee either of survival, but it is a guarantee of having a large credit card bill to pay off if you don’t have major medical insurance on your horse. I am talking about a regular impaction colic here, when I am talking about a colic that may clear without surgery. If your veterinarian has determined that your horse has a twisted gut or enteroliths, that is pretty much a choice between surgery or euthanasia, although occasionally a twisted gut will un-twist on its own. Bottom line, make the choice that works for you and your budget and make it fast enough that your horse does not suffer unnecessarily.
Nothing ever starved to death in 24 hours
My vet advocates that no food be given for 24 hours following a colic. She is correct. I know, I know, they are nickering and screaming and acting like they will die. They will not die. Really. The safest thing to do is let the entire system clear itself out after even a mild colic. That means no food. No hay, no mashes, no soaked food. Nothing. Just plenty of fresh, clean water. Then start back with small feedings, ideally of soaked food, just like you’d do with an emaciated rescue horse.
Heads up for weird weather!
Weather that changes dramatically can often spark a rash of colics in an area. Hot days, cold nights are a combination likely to affect equine digestive tracts. So when you have that kind of weather, please take special care to keep an eye on your horses! Bear in mind that many boarding barns have workers who know how to clean a stall but are otherwise not horse professionals. You may need to stop by yourself to check. Sure it’s a pain in the butt, but it beats the alternative!
The Internet cannot solve your horse’s colic
Nothing is more frustrating to experienced horse people than the person who posts on Facebook detailing a bunch of the symptoms I listed above and asking what she should do – often after the symptoms have been going on for a day or two! The answer is always the same: CALL THE VET! Articles like mine are written for informational purposes and to help you prevent a colic. When it has actually happened, there is no way to avoid incurring a vet bill. The longer you wait to call, the larger that bill will be – or you will proceed straight to having to call the rendering service. Don’t risk it. Make the call, keep the horse up and walking, and you’ll also be on your way to having a great record of success with colic!
P.S. By request of one of the wonderful vets that I use, I am adding the following advice: “For the love of all things holy do NOT rectal your own horse.” Because, again, common sense is not so common!