The dreaded colic can strike at any time. Colic is the general term for “belly pain” and not an actual diagnosis. Episodes of colic can range from mild to life-threatening, and all cases should involve your veterinarian’s help. Here are some things you can do for colic prevention:
Rolling horses roll for many reasons – they do love the dirt!
Know your horse’s normal vital signs
- Knowing your horse’s “normals” will help you spot something off. Go beyond basic vital signs of temperature, pulse, and respiratory rates – memorize your horse’s body and habits, too!
- Your horse’s vital signs give you insight into how they feel long before they show you. A horse’s pulse and respiratory rates will increase during stress and pain. Sometimes, a horse’s body temperature will increase as well.
- At rest, your horse’s body temp should be between 99º F and 101.5º F.
- A horse’s pulse, at rest, should be between 28 and 44 beats per minute.
- Respiratory rates are usually 10 to 24 in-and-out breaths per minute.
- The gums should be pink and slippery.
- Digital pulses in the legs should be imperceptible or faint.
- For more about vital signs, read this.
To learn about taking basic vital signs, read this.
For more about digital pulses, this gem has you covered.
Every horse lover should own a stethoscope – for gut sounds and heart rate.
More normals to know
- Start to learn your horse’s other normals – their inputs and outputs. How much does your horse eat daily, and at what times? What are their drinking habits? For outputs, what is a typical pile of manure? How often do they pass manure and urinate? Where are their favorite spots?
- Changes in manure or eating habits indicate intestinal distress and may result in colic. Keep your eyes peeled!
- Collect more information before jumping to conclusions if you notice something different about your horse’s vital signs or typical behaviors.
- A higher-than-normal pulse rate might mean your horse just jumped around a bit, and a change in manure habits might tell you they ate a little earlier than usual. Pair what you see with how they act, and go from there. Your vet is also a phone call away to double-check any concerns and guide you to keep monitoring your horse.
Slow feeders for forage area great idea
Make changes slowly for all types of food
- Horses do best when they are allowed two weeks to adjust to a new diet. Over those days, incrementally decrease the previous food as you increase the new food. A slow transition applies to all foods – forage, bagged feeds, grains, fortified feeds, and even supplements.
- Deliveries of hay may vary in cut, quality, weed content, and even origin. Save enough bales of hay when the new batch is delivered to ease the transition. This goes double for switching types of hay!
- The same practice holds for pasture. Spring pastures can bloom in a week! Horses need longer to adjust from the sparse and paltry winter grass to the new lush grass. Grazing muzzles and limited turnout times allow your horse to acclimate to pastures safely. This may also apply when switching paddocks around the farm if the grasses vary.
How your horse eats impacts gut health and colic risk.
- Grazing animals benefit from lots of chewing throughout the day. Mimic that natural behavior with hay nets and slow feeders. Feeding forage from a slow feeder also reduces the likelihood of sand ingestion, which can create colic.
- Use grazing muzzles to slow down the grass intake in the pasture, as well as the volume of grass and sugars that your horse eats. The bonus of using a grazing muzzle is that horses can stay out, moving around, for much longer.
- Break up your horse’s concentrated feeds, grains, or fortified feeds and supplements throughout the day. The more small meals you can feed, the better! There are slow feeders for pelleted and fortified meals, too.
- It’s also advantageous to give your horse any concentrated meals after they’ve eaten hay for an hour or so. The forage will physically slow down those concentrated meals!
Ulcergard® for ulcer prevention
Supplements may support your horse’s digestive health.
- Prebiotics and probiotics support the microbes in your horse’s gut that aid digestion. Probiotics are live organisms, and prebiotics are “food” for your horse’s microbe population. Keeping those microbes happy will undoubtedly keep your horse’s digestive tract happy!
- Hindgut buffers inhibit drastic changes to your horse’s hindgut pH when those microbes are fermenting your horse’s hay. That radical change in pH can lead to excessive gas, and even colic and laminitis.
- Ulcer prevention supplements help prevent stomach acids from creating sores in the stomach, esophagus, and small intestine. Some ulcer prevention supplements create a buffer in the stomach, neutralizing acid’s burning effects.
- Remember that supplements are not regulated or guaranteed.
Clean water is best!
Water and your horse’s hydration
- Your horse’s hydration and water intake are also markers of gut health and colic risk.
- You can easily track intake using buckets or tubs to provide water. Even automatic waterers have accessories available to measure consumption via a meter. It’s trickier in herd situations, though, with many horses sharing the same water sources.
- To test your horse for healthy hydration, feel the gums above the upper teeth, under the top lip. They should be slippery! Gums that are sticky or dry indicate your horse needs more water.
- The skin tent test is quite easy to check hydration. Just pinch and pull a little bit of your horse’s neck skin, and see how quickly it snaps back. Dehydrated horses will take longer to snap back. This hydration test is not as accurate, as a horse’s skin loses elasticity over time.
- The judicious use of electrolytes before exercise in hot weather will help your horse’s desire to drink. You can also encourage your horse to drink by flavoring their water with a small splash of apple juice or a teaspoon of his feed. Offer this alongside unflavored water to find the most tempting flavors.
- Soaking your horse’s hay and feeds with water also helps hydrate your horse. Make quick work of this chore by dropping a filled hay net into a muck tub and fill with water. Lift the hay net after a few minutes, and you are good to go.
You can do a fecal egg count by mail!
Keep tabs on your horse’s internal parasites
- Your horse’s parasite load is also a colic risk factor. It was once standard to rotate dewormer brands, but best practices now include a fecal egg count test twice a year, in the spring and fall. This tells you roughly how many ascarids your horse is carrying around. Many horses don’t need dewormers!
- For other internal parasites, your vet can help you map out a plan for your horse. Freezing weather often plays a role in the timing of deworming practices, too.
- Movement is the final key to a healthy gut and a lowered colic risk. This includes freedom to graze and play with friends, roll around in the dirt, and go for rides with you. Motion is lotion for joints, the brain, and the digestive tract.
- Make any change to your horse’s lifestyle slowly when it comes to changing schedules and routines. This includes ramping up your horse’s fitness levels and slowing things down a bit.
Herd life is the best life
Take care when your horse is stressed
- If your horse stresses in certain situations, like horse shows, stall rest, new barns, and intense training, they need some support.
- Keep your horse’s schedule and feeding patterns as regular as possible. Bring your hay from home at shows and clinics instead of having the showground provide it. If you cannot give your horse his typical turnout, replace that with hand walks and hand grazing.
- You may want to talk to your vet about ulcer prevention, like Ulcergard®, especially for longer trips and longer shows.
- Keep your focus on your horse’s normal behaviors, feeding him slowly and more naturally, and keeping up with hydration and movement.
Know the signs of colic in horses
- It’s not always frantic rolling that alerts you to colic. Some signs of colic can be deceptively subtle. Take note if you see any of these:
- Unusual pawing
- Abnormal circling, as if looking for a spot to roll
- Rolling that’s not a “happy, let’s get dirty roll”
- Looking back at the flank
- Belly kicking
- Laying down, getting up behavior that’s not normal
- Not eating
- Not drinking
- Manure changes – too dry, too wet, fecal balls and output too much or too little
- Changes in urination – pain can lead to frequent urination in small amounts
- Flehmen response
- Strange gut sounds
- Higher pulse rate, sometimes a higher respiratory rate
- If you suspect colic, call the vet before you administer any medications. Depending on the situation, your vet may need to examine your horse without medications to avoid them from interfering with a diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Your horse may not benefit from walking. Sometimes, walking a sick horse depletes the energy they need to feel better. Your vet can offer guidance on walking, too.
This video shows you how the digital artery “works” to check your horse’s hoof health. Inflammation in the hoof has nowhere to go – it’s trapped by a hard shell.
This video shows you how to measure the digital pulse. As a general rule of thumb, no news is good news. If there’s no pulse, everything should be normal. There’s always the exception, though.
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ADC Veterinary Thermometer, Dual Scale, Adtemp 422 – For easy temperature taking
3M Littmann Classic III Monitoring Stethoscope, Black Edition Chestpiece, Black Tube, 27 inch, 5803 – For finding heart rate and gut sounds
The best muzzle in the land. Also in raspberry, blueberry, and black colors.