Colic watch – how to help your horse and help yourself!


  • It’s always stressful being on colic watch with a horse. There’s the initial shock, and then there’s lots of monitoring involved. Depending on what type of colic is going on, your horse may need an adjusted diet for several days, meds, careful hand walking, vital sign checkups, and more.


  • I’m also going to assume that you have already talked to your vet and you have a set of instructions and guidelines from your vet. No Dr. Internet here, please.


  • This often involves long hours at the barn, and sometimes even overnight at the barn. Here are some tools to have on hand to make things safe for your horse, and some tips for YOU to get through this comfortably and hopefully without becoming angry.



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What you need to take care of your horse during colic watch:


Tools to check vital signs:


  • I will always suggest that you have a thermometer and stethoscope to check your horse’s vital signs and gut sounds anyway. But in a time of colic, being able to regularly check your horse’s pulse and gut sounds is critical.


stethoscope for pulse and gut sounds

Handy. For so many reasons!


  • You should know what your horse’s resting pulse is. For most horses, 24 to 40 beats per minute is the norm, although most horses are between 32 and 36. An increase in resting pulse rate means that your horse has just seen a ghost or he’s in pain. This can help your vet determine the best meds, dosages, and timing possible.


  • Also knowing how to check your horse’s gut sounds is key. You don’t need to know how to interpret them. You just need to be able to compare to his healthy, normal self so you can tell your vet what’s up over time. For example, if you normally hear rock and roll in the upper left quadrant and now hear classical or nothing at all, that’s info to update your vet with.


  • A stethoscope is the only safe way to do this. A horse that is belly kicking often brings his hind hoof up to the girth area. The stifle often swings out a bit to make this happen. The leg often drops quickly into place. Pressing your ear to your horse’s side is ridiculously dangerous. Use a stethoscope!



A way to log everything.


  • I prefer pen and paper. I have a spiral notebook at the barn with lots of working pens around that I can see and likely dozens more that I cant’. This normally lets me jot down notes to myself and the barn manager, etc.


  • For a colic watch, I have two columns on a sheet of paper. The left-hand column is the day’s schedule, from feeding times and amounts, when to check vitals again, when hand walks can be done, etc. The right-hand column is for when things happened and your horse’s reactions. When he poops, how much water he drinks, his attitude, etc.



small dry fecal balls on a manure fork

This pile of manure came from a horse with a suspected impaction. The rake gives scale to the smaller and dried-out fecal balls.


  • I typically have a separate poop log – because I need to record more information. Time, volume compared to normal, how wet, is there any mucus (which is usually brown, not clear), how much straining your horse did, size of fecal balls, are they more marbles or more termite mound? Lots to record. You can also snap photos, just be sure to have something there for scale. Muck rakes make an excellent scale for poop portraiture.


  • Trust me on this one – being organized and logging information will only help your vet and your horse. After a few hours on colic watch, the stress can get really high and you need to be able to remember critical information and have reminders of when to do things. Your vet will also need to know your horse’s inputs and outputs – water, food, poop, urine, and a handy log saves your brain.


The best way to contact your vet during office hours and after office hours.


  • Some vets will give you a direct line. Some have you call the office. Some have you call an answering service to be paged. This is a good protocol to know anyway!


A way to get to a hospital.


  • If you have your own rig, is it ready to go? Gas in the truck, tire pressure on the trailer good, no wasp nests inside, clean, safe, inspected, emergency brake working, etc?


  • What about a friend with a truck and trailer? Your horse may decide to need a ride while your buddy is at work – do you have a backup plan?


  • If you don’t have your own rig, do you have an ambulance service you can call? Find out lead times, and how to contact them around the clock.


  • Some colics may benefit from a trailer ride around the block. NOTE – this should only be done under the advice of a vet – there are too many types of colics, and some don’t benefit from a trailer ride at all.


measurement marks inside a muck tub

BOY I love muck tubs. You can see the faint marks to indicate volume. Quarts, gallons, and liters.


A way to track how much water your horse drinks.


  • At some point long before you are on colic watch, you have determined what buckets your horse will drink from.


  • If you use automatic waterers and they don’t have a measuring device attached or built-in, you probably want to use buckets so you can measure how much your horse drinks. For really accurate measuring of water consumption, you can restrict the automatic waterer and only use buckets.


  • Some horses like big buckets, like muck tub buckets. These big boys hold 16 gallons and most include measuring marks on the inside of the bucket. Other horses like the five-gallon varieties. And be mindful of the color – I’ve had a few folks tell me that their horse won’t drink out of certain colors. Just one more reason to know your horse before anything goes sideways. And, horses are weird.


  • If you are using water additives to entice your horse to drink, that’s great. Some ideas for tempting your horse to drink include water tinted with apple juice, a handful of grain, and electrolytes. Again, an experiment to be run before a colic! I would also suggest having a measurable source of water without additives just in case your horse decides he doesn’t like your recipe.



bay horse rolling in field



A way to feed your horse with extra water.


  • Some colic cases and post colic cases do well with soaked meals – if your vet suggests this. This is a nice way to get some extra water into your horse, and hopefully, help him feel full if he’s only getting limited amounts of food for a while.


  • I also like muck tubs for feeding a soaked meal. They keep your horse’s face cleaner than a five-gallon bucket, it’s easier for your horse to eat out of, and the larger tubs hold more water! Ideal for soaked hay. Soaked hay should be drained and rinsed before you feed it. A muck tub keeps wet hay bits from getting into your horse’s bedding and creating quite a stink later.


  • For pelleted meals, muck tubs are nice for the same reason. You can even create a really mushy soup for your horse to slurp down.


  • One more note – some horses on a reduced volume diet will start to eat the barn and their bedding. This isn’t helpful on a good day, much less on a day your horse is recovering from colic. Have a plan for this!


How to take care of yourself while on a colic watch

  • For the love of all things horsey, please put down the Dr. Internet on your phone. If you love your phone, how about downloading a podcast about playful kittens or breathing techniques or anything that is the exact opposite of horses? Or a mindless game? Or a movie?


  • I’ve been known to have my computer with me most of the time, so I can catch up on some of the more mundane and distracting aspects of my job while on colic watch. It makes me feel more productive, and it takes my mind off things.


  • I also have layers of clothes. As always, there’s a change of clothes in the trunk, but in fast-changing weather I’ll have yoga pants that I can layer (YEAH STRETCHY FABRIC), extra socks, a rain slicker, and a different pair of shoes in case I’m slogging through mud and I need to leave the farm for snacks or something.



yoga mat rolled up next to a portable heater

Yoga mats and heaters can make a nice nook for a nap during colic watch.


  • Having plenty of fresh water for you is always a good idea. Dehydration leads to crankiness and headaches and you certainly can’t give your horse the best care if you are cranky.


  • Snacks. Lots of snacks. For long colic watches, allow yourself to leave to get food and take a time out. Some grocery stores have hot bars and salad bars that are faster and more economical than a restaurant.


  • Scout out the closest library if you don’t have reading material with you. Sure, the internet is full of things to read. I just think most of the time they can scare/anger/annoy you when you are stressed. Libraries are chock full of whatever “take me away” book you like to read. Some libraries have awesome programs that you can treat yourself to if you can get away from the barn. I stumbled onto a “read to shelter dogs” afternoon on my last trip to a library!


  • Plan a way to take a nap. All of your extra clothes can be used as a pillow to snooze in your car. Yoga mats and lounge chairs are great for stashing yourself away in a tack room. Stack up some horse blankets and settle down. Space heaters are also great for cold weather, just be sure to turn them off if you leave the room.


  • Say YES when your barn friends offer to help. This can give you a break to come back fresh for your horse. It’s a team effort to have horses, don’t go it alone!


Hopefully, your next colic watch is short and uneventful!


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