Let's Talk About Colic

If you've been following along recently, you know that Dino's BFF Toby had a potentially deadly bout of colic on Thursday. Through the efforts of his loving mama, Rachel, super vet Dr. Liz, and the dedicated barn girls, the Tobster made it through and is back to being annoying and acting like he's starving all the time.

If you've been following along recently and are not a horse person, or haven't been around horses very long, you may also be asking yourself this question:


You're in luck! I'm about to answer that very question!

COLIC is a term used to describe the abdominal pain caused by some sort of disturbance or malfunction of a horse's digestive system. Colic can be caused by a variety of different factors, and come in several different forms. Common causes include eating too much, eating a food the body isn't used to, dehydration, or stress from another illness, injury, or dramatic change in the weather. All of these factors can cause a horse to colic, which can involve an impaction, gas, intestinal displacement/twisting, cramping, distention, or like in Toby's case, a combination of several types.

An IMPACTION is one of the easiest types of colic to deal with. In this case, the horse is essentially constipated. Most impactions can be cleared by introducing ample quantities of mineral oil into the horse's stomach to move everything along, although some impactions are large enough to require surgery.

GAS is just what it sounds like. Excess gas builds up in the horse's intestinal tract and causes pain (think the aftermath of going overboard at Taco Bell). Muscle relaxers can be given to help the horse's body release the gas, as well as drugs that help "dissolve" the extra gas, reducing the painful pressure in the horse's gut.

Gas can sometimes cause INTESTINAL DISPLACEMENT OR TWISTING. In this instance, a section of the horse's intestine or colon is literally pushed out of place. In extreme cases, especially if the colicking horse is allowed to roll, a section of the gut can become twisted. This is a life-threatening condition, and requires immediate surgery. This is also why you should NEVER let a colicking horse lay down! They will roll violently back and forth to try and relieve their pain, but this is a great way for them to develop a twist.

CRAMPING is also just what it sounds like. The horse's digestive tract experiences periodic spasms, or cramps, which are ouchy and not fun. Thankfully, this usually passes fairly quickly.

If a horse gorges himself on a huge amount of food (i.e. gets into the grain bin and eats the entire thing), the food will cause a DISTENTION in his stomach. Since horses have small stomachs and cannot vomit like people can, their digestive systems are one-way-only, and too much food can't be evacuated quickly, causing the stomach to stretch painfully.

Now that I've freaked you out by describing the various and sundry types of colic, you may be wondering:


While some colics are very obvious and show multiple 'textbook' symptoms, some are more subtle, so it's extremely important to spend time with your horse and know him well! Any change from what's normal for your horse can be a sign of colic, illness, or injury. That said, common signs of colic are:

  • Excessive pawing at the ground
  • Looking at and/or biting the stomach
  • Excessive rolling
  • Kicking at the stomach
  • Decreased or no gut sounds
  • Excessive sweating and hard breathing

If you notice any of these signs in a horse, he is likely colicking. RESPOND IN THE FOLLWING MANNER:

  • CALL THE VET. They can give you detailed instructions on what to do while you wait for them to arrive depending on your individual circumstances. If you are not the owner of the horse, CALL THE OWNER to let them know their poor wittle baby has a tummy ache.
  • Keep the horse up. Please, please, please if you are ever faced with a colic, do not let the horse lay down and roll. As I mentioned above, this can cause a twisted intestine, which can kill the horse. If the horse will not stand quietly, keep them walking. Sometimes this can jiggle everything around just enough to pass whatever is causing the horse pain, which is always a great relief!
  • Remove all food. Do not let the horse eat. If you are dealing with an impaction or distention, eating will make it worse.
  • If the horse is experiencing stress because of extreme heat, cold hose and scrape their entire body to lower their body temperature.
  • Your vet may advise you to administer a tranquilizer or muscle relaxer if you have them on hand. (ACE is a common tranq and Banamine is routinely administered for colic) But please, don't be shooting your horse up with drugs unless your vet says it's OK! If you don't know how to give an IM or IV injection, get someone to teach you! Your vet will be happy to show you how to properly inject your horse, so you'll be able to do it yourself in case of emergency.
  • When the vet arrives, follow their instructions and be sure you are perfectly clear on how to care for your horse in the aftermath of a colic episode.
If you are not a horse person, I hope you just learned something interesting! If you are a horse person, I hope this was a good refresher or introduction to what colic is all about, and how to deal with it if you ever come across a horse that is colicking.


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