Warning! Colic Ahead!

Know what to be on the alert for to catch colic in its earliest stages.
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Know what to be on the alert for to catch colic in its earliest stages.
Credit: Thinkstock  You need to know your horse's "normal" in order to catch colic at its earliest stage.

Credit: Thinkstock You need to know your horse's "normal" in order to catch colic at its earliest stage.

There are many things that can cause your horse abdominal pain, but the basic usage of the word "colic" for horses is a problem with the gastrointestinal tract. The most common types of colic are gas colic with pain and problems from distension of the bowel and stomach walls, obstructive colic (and this can include sand colic) with the passage of nutrients blocked, and colic with a twisted gut. All three types of colic can present with similar signs. What must be emphasized is if you suspect your horse has colic, you need to contact your veterinarian immediately, as it has a much better prognosis if caught early.

We cannot stress enough that you also need to know your horse's "normal." His behavior, attitude and habits are just as important as the numbers from his physiologic values. If you arrive at the barn to feed your horse in the morning and the horse who is normally fussing to get his breakfast is standing quietly, something is likely amiss. Take the time to observe and evaluate your horse. With experience, you can do that in mere seconds as it becomes second nature.

Vital signs

Often the first sign of colic is a horse who didn't clean up his feed or shows little interest in his feed. Horses are eating machines - designed to eat almost nonstop under natural conditions. Miniature horse fanciers feel this is by far and away the first sign of colic in their small equines.

Classically, horses with colic will roll, bite or kick at their abdomen and sweat. Some horses will resist walking, which used to be the cure-all for colic. Don't count on your horse presenting with classic signs. While some horses react to pain with fussiness, others become quiet and depressed.

Colic Red Flags

While you get a call in to your veterinarian, collect as much information as you can. If you can provide your veterinarian with your horse's vital signs, recent eating history and an accurate description of his behavior, your veterinarian can judge if this is an immediate emergency or if there are some things you can do for now to see if your horse responds in about an hour or if you need to load your horse in the trailer and head to a clinic ASAP.

While waiting for your veterinarian, you may walk your horse, though if he prefers to simply stand, let him. You do not want him rolling or thrashing, but he doesn't need to be exhausted either. Remove his food. Recheck the normals such as heart rate, respiratory rate and the capillary refill test (CRT) every 30 minutes or so to watch for trends.

Once your horse is in veterinary care, there are some immediate actions taken to make your horse more comfortable. Pain medications may be administered, but don't give these yourself unless directed to do so by your veterinarian as you could mask important signs.
Fluids may be needed to hydrate your horse. Generally a nasogastric tube will be passed to relieve any gas build up and reflux from the stomach. Your veterinarian will listen for gut sounds and do a rectal exam to feel for anything out of the norm inside. A sample of abdominal fluid may be collected to look for blood, protein and bacteria while a regular blood sample may also be drawn to look for underlying causes and to evaluate your horse's condition.

If you're lucky, no flashing warning signs will be found and the basic medical treatments will take care of the problem. Your horse will still need close observation for a couple of days, though, as fluids and medications can mask an underlying problem.

If your veterinarian gets a large amount of reflux (as in multiple gallons) when tubing your horse, can't detect any gut sounds after some treatment or feels something abnormal on the rectal exam, a referral to a facility with surgical capability may be recommended. A high pulse rate - say over 60 - with continued pain despite pain medications and a slow CRT or abnormal mucous membrane color are also considerations for referral.

Surgical treatment of colics has come a long way. Anesthetic protocols, fluid administration, pain medications and monitoring protocols have all contributed to making colic surgery much more successful than in years gone by. If your horse requires surgery expect a sizable bill, but you can usually look forward to resuming your normal activities together in two to three months.

Bottom Line

The most important thing you can do is make sure your horse-management practices are all geared toward preventing colic:

  • Make sure your horse receives plenty of roughage/forage in his diet. 
  • Horse gastrointestinal tracts were designed to handle this type of feed - not a high grain diet. 
  • If possible, feed your horse multiple times per day when he is not out on pasture. 
  • Try to establish and follow a routine for your horse - when he gets fed, how much, etc. Horses prefer a set routine. 
  • When you have to change feeds, try to do so gradually; mixing the old feed in with the new for a week or so if possible. 
  • Make sure your horse always has access to fresh, clean water. 
  • Establish an effective parasite control program using fecals as the basis for your medications. 
  • Have annual physicals and dentals done by your vet to stay on top of any problems your horse might be developing.
  • A horse who has had an episode of colic is prone to recurrent attacks, but careful management can help to prevent this problem from striking the horse again.