Colic in horses is a reality that countless horse owners face every year. For how strong horses are, they possess an acute vulnerability in their digestive system. While colic has a high recovery rate, every horse owner should be aware of the risks and warning signs in order to catch it in the early stages, as well as set up a preventative care and feeding routine.
What You'll Learn Today
Warning Signs Of Colic
One of the first ways to notice colic in your horse is when you see a change in eating habits. If your horse is not eating, eating less, or picking around his food, he may be experiencing some form of colic.
You may also notice other symptoms, like sweating, increased heart rate, or bloodshot eyes. As with any ailment, a horse who is colicking may display atypical behavior, whether highly irritable or extremely subdued.
When your horse colics, he may also direct you exactly to where his pain is originating. Sometimes horses will look back at their flank, and even try to bite or kick at it.
In an attempt to alleviate the discomfort in their gut, horses may also try to roll or lie on their backs, doing this repeatedly and sometimes violently.
Colicing horses may also paw at the ground out of frustration, or stand at a stretched stance to help make their discomfort more bearable.
Types Of Horse Colic
While all colic surely has a root cause, the majority (up to 80%) of colics are termed “ideopathic colic”, because no one can identify the cause.
Most of these resolve on their own when walked and given mild pain medication. Still, mild colics should be monitored closely, as they could lead to a more serious colic.
In addition to idiopathic colic, there are several identifiable forms of colic in horses:
Gas Colic & Spasmodic Colic
These two colics are similar, and sometimes interchangeable. Gas colic is a buildup of gas and sometimes fluid in the horse’s intestines, whereas spasmodic colic is the cramping or spasming of the intestine.
These forms of colic are often caused by over-fermentation of food in the large intestine or inflammation in the digestive tract. However, they can also be caused by parasites, ulcers, or stress (e.g. separation anxiety).
Impaction colic is simply a blockage in the horse’s intestines from what he has been eating.
Impaction colic can result from slow build-up of indigestible materials (see Sand Colic & Enteroliths below), but is most commonly caused by low-quality roughage like hay and chaff.
The undigested feed stops moving through the horse’s bowels, causing a painful blockage.
Sand colic is a form of impaction colic that occurs over time from the horse ingesting sand, gravel, and dirt with their food.
This can happen gradually if they can easily pull up dirt clumps with their grass, or if they are fed in an enclosure with gravel or sand.
Sand colic does not occur until 30-80 pounds of dirt and sand has built up in the horse’s system.
When a horse eats something he cannot digest, that object will sit in his large intestine and sometimes collect mineral deposits that occur during normal digestion.
As the object builds over time, this can migrate to smaller portions of the intestine and cause colic.
Displacement colic is when a portion of the bowel goes out of place, and entrapment colic is when it cannot go back to its original position.
This can limit the blood supply to the area and essentially squish portions of the intestine. This is a very serious type of colic that often leads to surgery.
Twisted Gut/Strangulation Colic
Twisted gut refers to a twist in the gastrointestinal system. Sometimes, in the case of intussusception, the intestine will fold back into itself.
Both can cause the blood flow (strangulation colic) to the intestines to be cut off, which can be lethal.
Researchers have found that horses with hindgut acidosis (the overproduction of lactic acid) are more prone to twisted guts. Intussusception, on the other hand, is most often caused by the presence of parasites.
Preventing & Treating Colic
A horse’s digestive system is built for grazing slowly, all day long. Some experts think that some forms of colic may be a result of feeding practices in stable-boarded horses.
Consuming two large daily meals of hay and processed grain could cause a hindgut imbalance in sensitive horses, which can lead to colic.
While colic cannot fully be prevented, there are a few things you can do to help your horse maintain good digestive health.
The first and most important thing is to maintain your horse’s feeding routine, and always allow enough access to water.
Changes in routines, like moving, shows, or a new feeding plan can cause internal disruption. The more gradual the transition is, the better.
There are also beneficial care routines that you can add to help prevent colic. Horses with well-maintained teeth will chew their food better, which decreases their risk for impaction colic.
A solid worming routine is also really important, as parasites in the digestive tract can cause colic-inducing inflammation or intussusception.
If you board your horse in sandy regions or a gravel run, you can supplement periodically with a psyllium-husk feed like Sand Clear to lift the sand out of your horse’s gut before it builds up into a blockage.
If your horse is showing any signs of colic, be on the alert for any other signs that they may exhibit.
If their symptoms are mild, the colic could resolve on its own after hand-walking and administering a dose of pain medication (recommended for experienced horse owners only).
However, if this doesn’t alleviate their symptoms, it is always best to contact your vet right away. Many forms of colic can be medically treated in its early stages.
Depending on the severity of the colic, your vet may administer pain medication and antispasmodics (calms intestinal spasms). They might also administer fluids to rehydrate your horse, or laxatives to clear up the digestive tract.
In the cases where your horse’s intestine is out of place or twisted, your vet may recommend surgery as a last resort, as these forms of colic can cut off blood flow to the intestine and become lethal.
Even though colic is common in horses, the good news is that they are mostly not fatal. Furthermore, by giving proper attention to your horse’s feeding and care routine, your horse has a great chance to live colic-free.
Questions To Ask Yourself Before Your Horse Colics
Time is of the essence when dealing with a horse with colic. It is very wise to have a plan in place long before you ever need one. To create a solid colic preparedness plan, review these questions and answer them for yourself.
Have the name, address and phone number of your veterinary facility written up clearly on a sign board, prominently displayed in your tack room or barn. You don’t want to have to hunt for it (or worse yet look for a new vet altogether) when your horse is in crisis.
If you have your own horse trailer, be sure to keep it in roadworthy condition at all times in case you need to get your horse to a vet in an emergency. If you don’t have your own horse trailer, identify friends and/or professional transport services to call. Post contact information along with your emergency veterinary information.
It’s a good idea to have a designated savings account for emergency horse expenses. Other options might be a dedicated line of credit and/or an equine insurance policy. Be sure to have your emergency financing in place and ready to go. Keep your insurance policy safely stored where you will be able to find it.
Depending upon the severity of your horse’s illness, you may need to make some difficult treatment and even end-of-life decisions. It’s best to go into this situation clear eyed in terms of hard facts about your horse. Factors you may need to consider when making important and costly decisions include: Your horse’s age; Your current use of the horse; Your future plans with the horse; The monetary value of the horse; and The degree of recovery you can expect from the treatment(s) offered. It’s best to think about these things in advance of a severe colic episode (or other illness or injury). It is much easier to make a wise plan when you are not overcome with emotion in the midst of an emergency. It is also worth noting that it is easier to make this kind of decision when you have a long-standing, well-working relationship with your veterinarian.
As with all other aspects of horse care, it’s best to be prepared. Even if your horse usually lives on pasture, he may need a secure, clean stall and a bit of isolation for recovery. Set up possibilities for separating your horse and keeping him quiet long before illness and recovery make it necessary.