Colic: Become a Rapid Responder
TThe word “colic” strikes fear in every horse owner’s heart. While we’ve come a long way in understanding, treating, and reducing the risk of colic, it’s still something that can take your horse’s life. Colic is abdominal pain that can have many causes. The vast majority of colics are caused by problems in the intestinal tract, but because the symptoms are largely nonspecific, only a veterinary exam can tell you what’s causing the problem.
Here, I’ll first tell you how you can reduce your horse’s colic risk. Then I’ll give you a rundown of colic symptoms and lifesaving action steps to take if you suspect your horse is colicking. Finally, I’ll explain what to expect when your veterinarian arrives.
Reduce Colic Risk
Here are six ways you can reduce your horse’s colic risk. • Provide plenty of water. Your horse’s natural diet, grass, is at least 80 percent water. When he eats grains or hays that are less than 10 percent water, he has to make up the difference by drinking. A horse on a “dry” diet needs to take in at least eight gallons of water per day. In summer heat and when exercising, his needs are considerably higher. • Provide salt. Insufficient salt is a common reason why horses don’t drink enough water. Make sure your horse has access to salt and that he’s actually taking it in. He needs at least one ounce of salt per day in winter; two to four ounces per day in hot weather. • Avoid sudden feed changes. Hays can and do vary tremendously in the levels of sugar, starch, protein, and fiber types they contain. All these different nutrients are fermented by different types of organisms in the horse’s intestines. When you make a sudden change, they may not be able to adapt. Even if you always feed the same type of hay, there can be sizeable differences between cuttings and hays grown in different locations. Make changes gradually, over about a week’s time. • Avoid too much grain. Grains are lowfiber, high-starch feeds. Your horse has a limited ability to digest starch, due to a relatively short small intestine where that digestion occurs. Sugars and starches that don’t get digested end up in the large bowel and can cause serious problems. Only feed grain if your horse can’t hold a normal weight on hay alone. Limit grain feedings to three to five pounds, at the very most, per feeding. • Deworm regularly. Parasites can cause colic, especially roundworms in foals and tapeworms or small strongyles in adults. To help counteract resistance to rotational dewormers, talk to your veterinarian about periodically performing fecal egg counts. • Provide adequate exercise. Exercise encourages good intestinal motility. A horse confined to a stall is a colic waiting to happen.
If your horse colics, your fast and appropriate actions at home and on the road could save his life. Here’s what to do.
Your horse will “tell” you his belly is hurting in a variety of ways. Here’s a rundown. • Kicking at his belly. Unless your horse is being bothered by flies, this is a fairly specific symptom. • Turning to look at and/or biting at
his belly or flank. • Lying down. Your horse may rest quietly, or may alternate between lying flat and lying on his sternum. • Restlessness. Your horse may lie down
and get up repeatedly, or pace. • Refusing to drink. Your horse may nose
at the water, but not drink. • Grunting or groaning. Horses are usually more likely to do this when they’re down. This symptom may also be present with chest pain. Some horses may lift their lips or grind their teeth.
Resting is normal, but if you see your horse repeatedly lie down and get up, or if he’s assumed an odd position, he may be colicking.