Learn to recognize, treat, and prevent colic in your horse before it’s too late
In a lifetime of riding, and a little over a year of horse-owning, I finally had to deal with my first bout of colic. Fortunately Ace just had a very minor case of gas colic from which he recovered in a just a couple hours. It’s not always that simple, though. And no matter your experience, it’s always always scary.
It’s absolutely imperative that you learn to recognize the symptoms of possible stomach issues; left alone they could be a death sentence for your horse.
But lest we get too serious, watch this video before you read on. It will lighten the mood, make you laugh a bit, but also impress on you the seriousness of a colic episode:
What’s the Big Deal About Colic?
Colic is a generic term that refers to any kind of abdominal pain in horses. Horses have a very complex and sensitive digestive system; it can be easy to disrupt and difficult to fix. Anything from a little bit of gas to an impaction (aka blockage) or torsion (twist) falls under the category of colic.
Colic currently stands as the leading cause of death in horses. Still, many cases are mild and are resolved in a short period of time without medical intervention.
The horse’s digestive system
From stem to stern, the digestive system is essentially a muscular tube that propels food in the oral to anal direction, breaking down food particles and absorbing nutrients along the way. Horses are grazing animals and hindgut fermenters. As a result, the stomach is small and the large intestines are large.
Digestion begins in the oral cavity when the food is masticated (chewed) and mixed with enzyme-containing saliva. Once swallowed, the food is further, albeit briefly, broken down in the stomach by the action of stomach acid before being propelled into the small intestines. In the small intestine, the liver and pancreas secrete bile and digestive enzymes to further break down the food particles into their basic components: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These compounds are absorbed from the small intestines along with vitamins and minerals.
The remaining ingesta—the fibrous or starchy components of forage—are passed into the large colon, where they are broken down by microbes (bacteria and protozoa). The resultant breakdown products (volatile fatty acids and lactic acid) are used by the horse, as well as nutrients such as B vitamins produced by the resident microbes.
It’s a sensitive system, and it sure doesn’t take much to disrupt it.
Symptoms Of Colic
As long as you know what behaviors signify a colic episode, a call to your vet will handle the rest. The best thing you can do for your horse is pay attention. Know what his normal behaviors and personality traits are. If you know your horse well, you may sense his discomfort from the look on his face – rather than waiting for signs of even more serious discomfort.
Here are some common symptoms that your horse is experiencing mild abdominal pain:
- biting at his sides
- laying down for longer than normal
- continual shifting of weight on the hind limbs
- decreased appetite or not eating at all
Signs of moderate pain are:
- persistent movement (even in the stall)
- frequently pawing at the ground with a forelimb
- repetitively lying down and then getting back up
- rolling after lying down
- kicking at the belly
- frequently turning the head to the flank
Clinical manifestations of severe abdominal pain may include the following signs or behaviors:
- profuse sweating
- continuous rolling
- persistent movement
- getting up and down violently
It’s also important to know if he’s pooped since his symptoms began. Poop is one of the best indicators of a gut that’s functioning!
Stick your ear on his barrel regularly and get to use what his normal stomach gurgles sound like (horse’s stomachs always make noise when they’re healthy). That way, you know if his stomach sounds are increased or decreased when you think he’s in pain.
Here’s a great checklist for colic symptoms from Equisearch that you can download and hang in your barn.
What To Do If Your Horse Shows Signs of Colic
If you have the slightest concern that your horse may have stomach pain, call the vet! He or she will ask what signs your horse is showing, and will help you determine the best course of action.
If your horse is lying down and/or rolling, it’s absolutely imperative that you get him to his feet before you do anything else. Violent rolling in a colic episode can causes often-fatal twists in the gut. Even if it’s a mild or moderate pain, it’s a good idea to get him to an arena or walkway where you can keep him moving. Any further treatment will come at the recommendation of your vet. Remove any untouched feed from his stall; if he would have a blockage additional food will only make it worse.
And remember, wanting to eat, drink, and poop are the best signs that he is recovering.
There are a few simple rules to follow to help prevent your horse from colicking.
- feed only good quality grains and hay that are meant for horses
- make any changes in feed gradually over 7-10 days
- make sure he has plenty of water and is drinking enough – particularly important in winter when hay intake increases and water freezes (heated water buckets and heaters for your tanks are your friends!)
- feed mostly grass and hay; don’t overdo it on the grain
- feed in multiple small meals spaced throughout the day
- set a feeding routine and stick to it
- keep him moving! regular turnout and exercise are essential to gut health as well as overall condition
- don’t feed in sandy areas, and keep feed off the ground when possible
This really just skims the surface of good information available on the horse’s digestive system and colic. My two favorite trusted resources are Equisearch and TheHorse.com. Here are a few of their articles that will give you more details: