Colic: How To Identify, Treat And Prevent It
Worried your horse may be suffering from colic? Looking for the signs to confirm colic, and wondering what to do next? Colic is a common ailment in horses, and it can be mild through to severe, even life-threatening. So it’s important to know how to identify the condition, and what to do if your horse has colic.
What is colic?
Colic is an all-encompassing term for gastrointestinal pain in horses. This can be caused by excessive gas, obstruction, inflammation or ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract.
If identified and treated early, the recovery stats for horses are excellent, but if left untreated it can be a major issue.
Why does it occur?
Our domesticated horses live a life of routine and habit, and changes to this routine can lead to stress.
When a horse is so dependent and rigid in its routine that even small changes will stress them, it can lead to colic. But whether in small settings, large agistments, training and competition environments, it can be impossible to maintain a routine, and this can be a trigger for colic.
A horse’s diet and the pasture it feeds on - especially pastures where they’re consuming sand or dirt - can also lead to colic. If you need to change your horse’s diet or feed, introduce new things slowly, so that their system has time to adjust.
Know your horse’s vitals.
The first step is to check your horse’s vitals. Even if they aren’t displaying any signs of external distress, if you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour, or a change in their manure, or if it seems they’re unwell, being able to check their vitals is an essential starting point.
Normal vital signs in a horse:
- Heart rate: 38 - 44 beats per minute.
- Respiration rate: 12 - 20 breaths per minute.
- Temperature: 37 - 38.5 degrees celsius.
- Capillary refill time: 1 - 2 seconds, gums light pink and moist.
- Borborygmi (gut sounds, rumbling or gurgling) should be heard in all four quadrants (left upper, left lower, right upper, right lower).
Not sure how to check your horse’s vitals? Your vet will be more than happy to show you how to perform a basic physical exam, and advise you on the essential first aid kit you’ll need: a quality stethoscope, penlight and thermometer. It’s also worth learning how to administer an intravenous injection correctly if instructed by your vet. These skills can save critical time if your horse becomes unwell with colic.
Make note of their manure.
Noticing changes in manure output is one of the earliest signs of gastrointestinal disruption or stress in a horse - generally, you should expect one pile of manure every 4-6 hours in a healthy horse. Also pay attention to the consistency, colour and distribution of manure. Changes in water intake and urine output can also be early indicators of gastrointestinal disruption and dehydration.
Knowing what is normal for your horse will help you spot when something changes, and if you notice changes then call your vet immediately for advice.
What to do if you think your horse has colic.
If you’ve noticed a change in your horse’s manure, or they seem to be in pain, distress or acting differently from normal, then the first thing is to check your horse’s vital signs. Pay particular attention to profuse sweating, high heart rate (above 50 beats per minute), lack of borborygmi, high temperature (above 38.5 degrees celsius) or diarrhea.
In the early stages of colic, encourage your horse to drink, or eat a small meal of slushy material, such as a soupy bran mash, or a slurry of well-soaked speedi-beet or chaff. Your horse’s gastrointestinal tract is most vulnerable when the horse enters ileus (lack of movement in the gastrointestinal tract), so eating a small moist meal can often gt things moving again and prevent the condition from progressing.
Continuously walking a colicky horse is a bit of an old-wives tale, this can actually lead to exhaustion and dehydration and make things worse. However, a small amount of movement such as a short walk can help get the gastrointestinal tract going, and can prevent horses from trying to roll.
Waiting for the vet.
While waiting for the vet, continue to monitor and record your horse’s vital signs every 15 - 30 minutes, as changes can happen quite rapidly. Your vet may advise you to apply a basic anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as Phenylbutazone or Flunixin Meglumine, or a mild sedative such as acepromazine or xylazine, so it’s worth having these to hand. Your vet may also advise you to exercise the horse, or try to keep them still and confined until they arrive.
It’s also important to have your horse’s vaccination and deworming history available, as your vet may need this information to make an accurate diagnosis.
Prevention is better than cure.
As with most things, prevention of colic is better than cure. To try and avoid colic, we recommend:
- Maintaining a consistent feeding regime and introducing any changes gradually.
- Feed small meals regularly, as larger meals are harder to digest.
- Give your horse access to plenty of fresh, clean water.
- Avoid feeding grain and ensure your horse has plenty of fibre and forage.
- Provide consistent exercise.
- Avoid putting feed on sand, and reduce the likelihood of your horse eating sand.
As we say, true health begins in the gut, so try to take a proactive approach to good gut health for your horse, and say goodbye to your concerns about colic.
"In my experience as an Equine Veterinarian we most often see colic episodes in association with periods where the horse encounters a change of routine or stress. Often this change in routine leads to inappetence and dehydration which very quickly become a full blown colic episode.
We have been very fortunate over the past few years to be able to use Poseidon Animal Health Products such as Digestive EQ and Stress Paste to help mitigate these common colic factors. Digestive EQ does an unparalleled job of assisting in the maintenance of a healthy GI Tract which is much more resilient to Dietary changes and unexpected stresses which may occur.
In periods of expected or acute stress, we have found Stress Paste to be extremely effective at maintaining hydration and appetite in horses. In particular while used in travelling, competition, extreme heat, and in acute inappetant/colicky horses we have seen incredible results using Stress Paste often avoiding the need for expensive and invasive further medical intervention."