Colic. It’s a word that strikes fear into serious horsemen. While some can be saved with surgery many die with the best of care. Grade III winning Thoroughbred Omi, Canadian Horse of the Year Quiet Resolve, Canadian Queen’s Plate winner Archers Bay, Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, perpetual leading sire Mr. Prospector, Grade I winner Booklet, Belmont Stakes winner Little Current, Canadian champion Peteski and Slew the Coup are but a few top Thoroughbred horses lost to colic – horses with outstanding care. Appaloosa standout Apache was lost to colic as have been many others. Colic is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care if it’s a young show horse or an old champion. It can happen in good barns and those with poor management. It happens to stalled horses and those turned out.
Observation is key. KNOW your horse. KNOW when he’s not acting right and key in to watch him closer. Colic is the one thing I don’t mess with. I’m comfortable treating many things – azoturia, emergency injuries, etc. But your first action after identifying a case of colic is to get the vet on the way. Some time ago an older appaloosa gelding wasn’t acting right – he was laying by the shed in his paddock. I went in when he didn’t come up for feed and got him up. He stood up for a couple minutes, circled then laid down again. Closer observation of the dirt showed several places a horse had rolled recently. He was haltered, led to the barn and a vet called for. Then he started being hand walked, a boring but essential task. Sometimes walking will bring a horse out of a milder case. This gelding got worse. He began reaching around and biting his sides. He’d kick at his belly and began walking then stopping to lay down and try to roll. It became a battle to get him on his feet. On the advice of a vet a small dose of banamine was given to help ease the pain. When the vet finally arrived this was followed with a full dose of banamine and fluids. He began getting better about the time the vet got there but it’s important to realise it can just as easily go the other way.
The importance of knowing your horse’s normal behavior can’t be stressed enough. While some horses play in their water normally, some that don’t can play in the water in early stages of colic. A depressed carriage, not wanting to eat, pawing the ground, looking at their belly, laying down more than normal, curling the lip up, rolling, kicking at the belly, standing stretched out or sitting likea dog, groaning, restlessness, sweating and cold extremities are all signs of doom. If the belly is distended, minimal to no manure or diarrhea or in foals grinding teeth and salivating excessively are all signs that need a veterinarian on the way.
Colic can be caused by many things. Cold water when a horse is hot, improper feeding, parasites, bad feed, drugs, stress are just a few things that can contribute to a colic attack. Some horses switching feeds too quickly starts an attack. There are many home remedies but again – colic is serious stuff. Get a vet on the way! It might be gas colic but it might also be a twisted intestine, at which point surgery is needed immediately to save the horse’s life. An impaction can cause colic too which is serious and deadly. Once a horse passes manure it’s a reassuring sign impaction isn’t an issue. Sand colic, caused by a horse eating on the ground in sandy lots and ingesting enough sand to plug the digestive tract is another life threatening get-into-surgery-now situation.
As mentioned the first action should be get the vet on the way. If you have banamine ask the vet about administrating any – some vets if near by want to see the patient without painkillers. Follow your vet’s request on this issue. Your vet knows your horse far better than any online article or book author does! Keep the horse on his feet walking – slowly is fine but keep him up. The more he thrashes around the higher chance of injury to handlers and increased risk in a twist.
Prevention is absolutely better than trying to fix it. Prevent overgrazing of pastures and paddocks and provide plenty of clean water. Feed on a regular schedule and don’t feed moldy hay or spoiled grain. Provide enough roughage and maintain a good deworming program. These things go a long ways towards preventing colic but even with that sometimes it will hit. Prevent horses from bolting their food and cribbing – both bad habits tend to increase the odds towards colic.
While colic is serious there are other issues that can sometimes mimic colic – thus another importance of getting a veterinarian there as soon as possible. A uterine torsion following foaling can appear as colic as can bladder or kidney stones. Horses that are “tying up” will often stretch but there’s other characteristics for this malady – the horse will appear to drag a foot, and it’s normally after or during being worked – in the case of tying up DO NOT WALK THE HORSE! Each step makes it worse – think of a giant charlie horse, it’s painful all over. Horses with a colic history stand an increased chance of it happening again.
Colic is no longer a death sentence – but it can be if proper measures aren’t taken immediately. Do not ever rely on colic to go away on its own. Always have it checked out by a veterinarian – a horse that suddenly is better might be better and might appear better with death looming. Never assume – your horse’s life depends on it.