While horses get cancer, the truly frightening C word in the horse world is colic. If you own horses long enough, chances are you will experience a colicky horse at some point. Almost everything you do for your horse has some effect on the horse's potential for colic. Feeding schedule, feed storage, a change in feed, the feed itself, fresh water access, stress, hard riding, no exercise, trailering, medications, eating or drinking too soon after exercise, and overeating — you name it and colic can be the result! This is why careful, knowledgeable horse management and good feeding practices are so important.

What Is Colic?

Colic is not an actual disease; the term refers to general digestive upset in the horse. Put simply, it is a stomachache. Sometimes, it is a really bad, life-threatening stomachache. It can be many different kinds of stomachache — gassy, not gassy, causing diarrhea, or causing constipation. Colic is always cause for concern, as it can easily turn into a medical emergency.

One of the reasons for this is that horses cannot vomit and rid themselves of whatever is causing the upset stomach. If a horse consumes bad, moldy feed or some other toxic substance, the offensive material literally must go in one end and out the other. With an enormous intestinal tract to meander through, the material can cause a lot of damage along the way before it ever reaches the end.

Sometimes colic is a symptom of another problem. It may be an external factor such as overeating or moldy feed, or it may be caused by something internal, such as a strong heat cycle in a mare, an overload of parasites, or even a tumor. Sometimes the cause of a colic episode is obvious — for example, you found your horse in the grain room halfway finished with what was a full bag of grain. But if it is something less obvious, you may never know the real cause.

What Are the Signs of Colic?

Predators seek out the weak and the sick in a herd, so as animals of prey, horses are pretty good at hiding signs of illness until they become full-blown and serious. This is why it is important for you to come to know your horse's normal behavior. Being a picky eater can be a normal thing for one horse, but in another horse that usually gobbles down his food with gusto, picking at his meal or refusing to eat can be warning signs that something is wrong.

Other warning signs of colic to watch for include:

  • Not passing manure

  • Grabbing at the sides with the mouth

  • Kicking at the belly with the back legs

  • Unusual restlessness in the stall

  • Sweating excessively for no apparent reason

  • Lying down for a long period of time and not getting up when encouraged

  • Frequent rolling

  • What Do You Do for a Colicky Horse?

    The first thing to do is alert your veterinarian. If you just started to see signs of colic, you may not think it is necessary for him to pay a visit yet. However, your vet will want to get to you as soon as possible. Addressing colic immediately can mean the difference between a mild bellyache and a life-threatening situation.

    The outcome often depends on the type of colic you're dealing with. Spasmodic colic is the more common and generally the milder type. Impaction colic is the term for an obstructed bowel, and intussusception is the term for when a loop of intestine telescopes inside itself. While colic is never good, the latter two types may require surgery to save the horse's life.

    Not passing manure suggests an obstruction may be present, so don't hesitate to report this observation to your vet. In a mild colic episode, there are a few things you can do to try to encourage a bowel movement, such as getting the horse out and walking him around. This will also serve to keep the horse from lying down and rolling. If the horse's stomach is impacted with feed that won't pass through, rolling can cause a twist within the digestive tract, which you must try to avoid.

    Another strategy is to try loading the horse into a horse trailer if he is generally a good loader. This may be just the stimulation he needs, as most horses, even those who walk calmly into a trailer, are still a bit on edge when they do so and will almost immediately pass manure after they get in. If your horse does not load well, even simply showing him the back end of an open trailer may be enough. However, if your horse is really afraid of getting into a trailer, or is typically resistant and difficult to load, do not add this extra stress to the already existing stress of colic pain.

    Pain-relieving medications such as Banamine are often administered to relieve the pain of gas colic and can help relax the muscles enough to help the horse release gas and/or manure and relieve the colic episode. However, don't administer any medication without first discussing it with your veterinarian, and then only if you have lots of experience. If the drug masks your horse's symptoms, the veterinarian will not be able to make an accurate diagnosis or suggest the most appropriate treatment regimen.

    Prepare yourself for the fact that colic is sometimes fatal and can involve some difficult decisions. You may be faced with the option of expensive surgery and follow-up care that may or may not have a good outcome. Or you may have to put the horse down to spare him a painful death.

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