Colic is a serious condition in horses.
It can become fatal if let unattended. Would you know if your horse was colicing? What would you do? What should you do? And maybe most importantly, how do I prevent this from happening in the first place?
How can you tell if your horse is suffering from colic?
He will seem uneasy, uncomfortable and stressed.
Depending on the type of colic, severity of the attack and individual horse the symptoms will vary. In mild or early stages of colic, you will often see the horse stop eating, looking at their stomach, biting at their stomach, or stretching out as if they need to pee.
They might lie down and then get up again, demonstrating their discomfort. Taking your horse’s pulse will likely show a slight elevation from normal. This is a great reason you should know your horse’s normal, which typically falls between 36-42 beats per minute for a mature, healthy horse.
As the colic progresses and becomes more severe, the horse’s behaviour will become more anxious and erratic.
They will quite likely lie down and get up more frequently, possibly rolling while they are down. They might kick or bite at their belly and their respiration will become laboured and heavy.
The horse often breaks out into a sweat and their pulse become more elevated in response to the pain.
So, you look out into your field and you notice that your horse is demonstrating some of these symptoms- what should you do?
You’ll want to get out to your horse immediately, bring your cell phone (with your veterinarian’s phone number programmed into it) and anyone who is with you that might be able to assist you.
Colicing horse’s behaviour can be quite unpredictable so young children need to be kept out of harm’s way, a safe distance from the horse.
Quickly catch your horse. If he is trying to roll then you need to keep him walking.
An extra body can be very helpful when a colicy horse is insisting to lie down and roll.
It is critical to stop the horse from rolling to prevent him from giving himself a twisted gut.
This isn’t the only cause but certainly one of the main contributory factors to a twisted gut. If the horse isn’t trying to roll then standing quietly is fine.
At this point you should call your veterinarian.
Many people think they can handle nursing a horse through a mild colic on their own, and they might be right but things can go from calm to frantic in a matter of minutes and then there is little time to plan.
Calling your veterinarian will initiate a dialogue and help you be prepared. Your veterinarian or their animal health technologist (AHT) will ask you questions regarding the horse’s behaviour to establish that the horse is indeed colicing.
It’s important to know at this stage whether your veterinarian is available (they might already be out on an emergency or arm deep in a lengthy surgery). If your regular veterinarian is not available you need to find one who is.
Most veterinarians will want to the horse brought into their clinic to be monitored.
This is a good idea for several reasons. Even a mild colic has an important cause that needs to be addressed and that may require some diagnostic work to figure out.
Preventing a mild colic from becoming worse can mean the difference between life and death. Trailering a horse in a severe colic is a nightmare, dangerous for the horse and its handlers.
Veterinary clinics are set up to deal with these emergency situations and once there you have many more options to deal with this life threatening ailment.
Treatments usually include drugs to make the horse more comfortable, possibly hooking the horse up to intravenous fluids (to maintain or re-establish hydration) or even surgery.
Your veterinarian will explore the causes and type of colic your horse is experiencing and do his/her best to help them recover with the least invasive treatments possible.
How can we prevent colic? Good management practises are the best prevention. Keep feed areas secure and inaccessible to your horse to prevent overeating of grain or getting into things they shouldn’t eat (pet food, garbage).
Don’t make any sudden changes in the horse’s diet. Don’t feed on sandy surfaces.
Maintain a regular deworming program; your veterinarian can advise you on what’s best for your horse. Be sure to provide an ample supply of fresh, clean water for your horse at all times.
Do not feed spoiled feeds to your horse, especially grass clippings from the lawn mower or frozen grass.
Being prepared for the inevitable is always important when it comes to horses.
If you do not have a horse trailer you should make arrangements to be able to get your horse where he needs to go in case of an emergency.
Shelly Graham is a local rider, trainer, horse breeder and Equine Canada certified coach.