Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
Most horse owners at one time or another have experienced that dreaded sight of finding their horse rolling or kicking at their belly in their pasture or stall. After all, almost 1 million horses colic in the United States each year, or about 11 in every 100 horses. It really is not a matter of if, but when a horse in your care will colic. But now is not the time to panic, but to act logically and calmly. The keys? Be prepared, and have a plan. This month we will discuss what symptoms you may see, what to do, and how to create a firm plan of action. Next month we will discuss several important strategies you may implement to decrease the likelihood of your ever needing this plan.
First of all, horses can colic for a variety of reasons. As colic just means a generic abdominal pain, any discomfort in the organs associated with the gastrointestinal tract can be described as colic. Even other organs, such as the ovaries or uterus in mares, can causepain and thus may show symptoms of colic. So what may lead you to suspect your horse may be colicking?
My first and strongest recommendation is to know your horse. Every horse has individual quirks of behavior, appearance etc. The key to successful outcomes in colic, or in many cases of disease or injury, is catching a change quickly. Any change in a horse’s normal behavior or appearance should immediately trigger a thorough investigation of the horse by the owner or manager. So what might the horse be doing differently? Colic symptoms can range from the subtle to the severe and downright alarming. Typically the severity of the colic will mirror the severity of the symptoms, but that is not always true. Individual horses have a greater or lesser degree of pain tolerance. It is important to know if your horse is the stoic individual that works through an injury, or the type that becomes hysterical if they stubbed their hoof on a ground pole! Subtle signs include horses which are off feed or water, but may not yet be completely refusing to eat or drink. A change in behavior, being more depressed, less active or having a duller appearance may be signs of colic. Horses which are restless, or perhaps laying down more than normal, or laying in an unusual position may be colicking. Pay close attention to foals, as foals can quickly develop abdominal discomfort related to disease, diarrhea ulcers etc. A foal lying on its back is certain to be experiencing some sort of abdominal pain. As pain becomes more severe horses may continually look at their belly or flank, kick at their abdomen, repeatedly get up or lay down. They may begin to roll or thrash violently and can even injure themselves. In severe pain, horses may break out into a sweat or grind their teeth together.
Depending on the severity of the colic, your next step is to step in and gather some information. Obviously, if your horse is in uncontrollable pain, call the veterinarian immediately. Otherwise, if you can safely evaluate your horse, perform a physical exam on your horse. That will help your veterinarian know how soon they may need to arrive. Record your horse’s heart rate, respiration rate and temperature. It is important that you practice these techniques before you need them! A horse’s heart rate can be detected in a number of locations, near their eye, under their jaw, on their pastern etc. Make sure that you have a working thermometer. Now is not the time to discover a dead battery in your thermometer. Listen to your horse’s abdomen to hear if there is the normal gurgle of healthy gut movement. An absence of sound indicated gut motility may have ceased. If you horse is stalled, check his manure. Is there as much as there should be? What consistency is it? Is it drier or harder than it should be? How much feed has the horse eaten since his last feeding? Is his water consumption normal? Finally, check your horse’s gum color and capillary refill time. Pale white or blueish gums may mean the horse is severely dehydrated, or may be going into shock. This information may be critical in making decisions that may save your horse’s life.
Now that you have some basic information, call your veterinarian. It is important to have the veterinarian’s phone number readily available. Think about all cases of emergencies. What if your cell phone has no reception or has a dead battery? Does your veterinarian make emergency farm calls? Will they be able to get here quickly enough to help you? Discuss these issues with your veterinarian before colic strikes. They may offer some helpful advice on other colleagues they may trust when they may not be able to make the call. Therefore you may want to post several numbers of veterinarians near your horse.
You also need to do some hard thinking about the financial reality of colic cases. Some colics can only be resolved surgically. Are you prepared for this? Can you financially afford colic surgery? Realize that is possible for colic surgeries to cost nearly $10,000. Looking into an insurance plan for your horse can help cover major medical costs. Do your research and see which plan may be best for you and your horses. You may also need to at least consider that the outcome of surgery may not be positive. Discussing these scenarios with family and your veterinarian before your horseever colics is critical. It will make this emergency scenario much easier on you and allow you to make decisions more quickly.
If you have made the decision that surgery is a viable option for you, add more details to your plan. Do you have ready access to a truck and trailer? If you do not own your own, you need to have numbers of individuals absolutely willing to help, and located nearby, close at hand. The last thing you want at this point in time, is knowing your horse needs to get to a clinic, but you can’t find transportation. Finally, know where the nearest veterinary hospital with surgical capabilities is located. How long will it take to get the horse there? This may affect your decision on when to load your horse on the trailer. Should you wait for your veterinarian to arrive at the farm, or should the horse immediately go to the clinic. Know where the clinic is located. Now is not the time to be looking for directions or get lost in the middle of the night. Practice! The more that you have mentally and physically prepared yourself for these emergencies, the better the outcome for both you and your horse!