It's Spring - And Horse Colic Season


9 Years
Jul 26, 2010
Horse Colic means pain in the belly.

A horse has a long digestive system with many tight turns. If the food is too fine stemmed or too coarse, or too dry, or simply different, it may not continue normally through the digestive system. Feed can pack in, ferment or produce gas, even causing the guts to twist or fold.

Colic is common in the spring when routine, feed, pasture and weather changes. Colic is common during cold spells when horses move about and drink less water. Colic is common in summer when horses have feed changes, schedule changes, work changes, or drink/move about less. Vets call extreme heat, cold and stormy weather, 'colic days' when shift after shift is all colic cases.

--Horses don't 'just colic' for no reason.
--You can reduce or eliminate colic through good horse management.
--You can minimize your cost when colic occurs, by giving effective treatment yourself and calling the veterinarian before the colic worsens and requires expensive treatment or euthenasia.

Be prepared ahead of time -

--Learn how to manage horse exercise, feed and routine
--Learn to take pulse, heart rate, respiration(PHR)
--Know what your horse's normal pulse, heart rate and respiration are (knowing how much they normally vary due to exercise, heat, etc, helps)
--Know normal gum color (pale pink)
--Have a regular vet and know their on-call and emergency procedures
--Have several other vets you can call if your vet is out of town or sick or tied up on another emergency
--Post in the barn and add to your cell phone contacts, your regular vets number and the location and directions to the closes emergency veterinary clinics and their hours
--Try making a 'colic kit' - a stethoscope, a small notebook and pen to write down PHR, banamine, thermometer, 'cheat sheet' listing colic symptoms and what to do.

How do you know if a horse is colicking? These symptoms are possible:

--Dull, disinterested in surroundings or nervous, hyper-alert and watchful
--Pulse, respiration, heart rate are higher than normal
--Kicking, looking back at flanks, rolling, lying down and getting up
--Stretching repeatedly to urinate, but only a few drops are passed
--'Mist' or droplet sweating, especially on the face
--History - a recent change in feed, etc
--Manure may still seem normal in appearance and quantity

Possible signs of severe colic -

--Obvious sweating, patchy, cold sweating
--Extremely dull, unresponsive
--Discolored gums (normally a horse's gums are pale pink, not brick colored, reddish, bright pink, white or bluish).
--Rising PHR, labored breathing, distended nostrils
--Thrashing, struggling (bedding on the animal's sides, hocks and face, bruise, rub or skinning injuries on the hocks, hips and head can indicate violent rolling and thrashing)
--Periods of ease with returning pain
--Pain returns after banamine wears off
--Never assume a colic is not severe until a horse is symptom free and all signs are normal for at least 24 hrs. Severe colics can start by looking very mild.

What should you do?

--Call your veterinarian and discuss the symptoms - the call is free
--With your vet's approval, give banamine
--Take pulse, respiration, heart rate every hour - write down the time and PHR
--Walk the horse in hand for 1-2 hrs - afterward walk 15 minutes out of every hour
--Remove all feed - some cases benefit from picking at a little grass, but do not give horse its usual ration
--Most home remedies are harmful or of ineffective

What should you not do?

--Do not try to handle it yourself if PHR are rising and/or signs are increasing
--Do not assume all is well and leave the horse alone if symptoms go away
--Do not assume all is well because horse makes manure
--Do not give old fashioned remedies, no matter how strongly someone believes in them
- laxatives and other 'remedies' can and often have, ruptured the gut/killed horses
- a trailer ride(another common old remedy) may worsen the colic and delay more effective treatment
--Do not force an exhausted horse to keep walking for hours without a rest
--Do not whip or beat a horse in an effort to get it up when it wants to lie down quietly. Do not assume rolling or lying down will cause a twist or torsion. A horse that lies quietly can be allowed to lie down briefly and then resume walking.
--Do not guess. If you are uncertain as to what is happening have your vet come to your farm.

What if your horses colic frequently?

Even fairly mild repetitive colics are a danger signal and a warning. Look for management changes you can make - more gradual feed changes, more exercise and turnout time, a more consistent schedule, feed hay before turning out to graze, restricting access to spring 'flush' of growth, check hay and pasture quality etc. Discuss with your vet steps to take.

Preventing colic -

--Make feed changes slowly over 1-2 weeks
--Feed 1.5-2% body weight in hay every day, keep grain/concentrate rations small.
--Do not feed large quantities of grain at one meal - divide into smaller meals through the day - some veterinary bulletins specify no more than 5 lbs concentrates at a meal for a full sized horse - the limit is less for smaller horses and ponies, of course)
--Monitor your pastures for undesirable weeds, sandy bare areas, overgrazing, sudden flushes of growth
--Restrict spring grazing to 10-15 minutes a day when pasture grass starts to grow fast
--Keep your fences in good repair so you know where and what horses are grazing on
--Monitor feed intake so you know when horses are not eating normally
--Know how to take pulse, respiration and heart rate
--Know horse's normal pulse, respiration and heart rate
--Worm infestations (especially in young horses) can damage the blood flow to the gut and cause colics now or later in life - keep all horses on a solid, vet-approved, effective program that controls parasites
--Contagious diseases can cause severe colics - keep all horses on a solid, effective, vet approved vaccine program. If you give your own vaccines, have your vet show you how - injecting vaccines incorrectly/to the wrong depth/place on the body can make them ineffective.

Understanding Horse Digestion -

--Horse's whole digestive system has a capacity of up to 150 quarts and is up to 150 feet long
--It can take horse's system 5 days or more to completely digest a meal - at any given time there is usually food in all parts of the system, all in various stages of digestion.
--Unlike dogs and humans that are designed to eat big meals of very different foods and undergo long fasts, horses are designed to continuously eat small amounts of the same type of food.
--A horse is a 'hind gut fermenter' that uses microbes to do much of the work of digestion - gradual feed changes help keep those microbes healthy and doing their job.
--To digest, a horse must have roughage from fibrous foods like hay, but the fiber must be good quality - not too coarse or fine.
--Feed that would be fine for cattle can harm horses - extremely rich hay, silage, mold and coarse fiber that doesn't bother cattle, can make horses very sick.

(these notes are from the Merck Veterinary Manual)
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