The Dreaded Colic Post

crankyephiny_bvcRight. So. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while. It’s one of the hardest things for a horse person to face, because we’ve all been there with our horses, and we could be there again at any time, horses being the weirdly fragile constructs that they are.

I hasten to add that the horse who is illustrating this post was not colicking at the time, has not (knock silicon) colicked since, and was in excellent health when I gave her her midday hay-and-hug an hour ago. She’s just cranky about something minor, but a colicky horse may wear a similar expression. Also, that’s how I feel about having to write about this. But if I’m going to cover all the bases of Horses for Writers, I have to do this one, too.

Colic is the number-one killer of horses even in this day and age, with our relatively advanced veterinary science. It can happen at any time, for any number of reasons, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. You can leave your horse at dinnertime and he hasn’t a care in the world. Two hours later you get a call from the barn management: he’s down and rolling, and all is not well with his world. By midnight, he’s dead.

That bad. That fast. That real: it happened to someone I know two weeks ago. It’s therefore of real use to the writer who needs a crisis for her plot, and her world happens to have horses or animals like horses.

First of all, go forth and read this article: It’s brief, comprehensive, and written in standard English. It tells you all about what colic is, what causes it, and how it’s treated, as well as how to prevent it.

The bottom line is that just about anything that can upset a creature’s stomach will cause a horse to colic. The problem for a horse is that unlike many other animals (including dogs, oh god cats, and humans), he can’t throw up. Whatever goes into his stomach has to come out the other end. There’s no backflow mechanism. If something gets in there that doesn’t agree with him, it will sit there and go bad (causing toxemia that among other things may founder him), or else block the system farther down, in the literally hundreds of feet of digestive system. If that problem is not resolved in some way that moves it on out, the horse is in serious trouble.

Mild colic is treatable. Simply walking him or taking him for a bumpy trailer ride might get him over it. You can give him an antacid or an analgesic, or even a probiotic to soothe his stomach. If the problem persists, the vet can come and tube mineral oil down his throat, give him a shot to relieve the pain, and get things going that way. Then you sit and wait, and watch, and pray: “Please deity of whatever persusasion send some poop!”

More severe colic is tougher. Surgery can help. (And wow, if you’ve seen it or seen photos or video–it is amazing how much intestine a horse has all coiled up in there.)  But sometimes it doesn’t, and for some colics, the surgical option just isn’t there. If the blockage has caused part of the intestine to go septic and die, the horse may be too compromised to survive. Worse yet, and worst of all, is a torsion: twisted intestine, the old horsemen call it. It can just happen. It can happen because the horse colicked and is in pain, and rolled so hard he caused a twist–making the pain so much worse that he goes into shock. At that point, that’s pretty much it, barring a miracle.

How does this apply to your novel or story?

You know the adage, “An army runs on its stomach”? Think about a preindustrial army in a cavalry culture. It runs on the stomachs of its horses. If the horses all fall ill from poisoned feed or water, or are all so stressed that they colic en masse, many of them will die, especially since they’re unlikely to have access to modern veterinary surgery.

Same applies to your hero who has one horse to get him across the Frabjous Desert. The horse gets an impaction from lack of water, goes septic and dies. Or the problem can creep up: the horse is ingesting sand because, through lack of knowledge or choice, you fed him on the ground, and he ate sand with his grain or forage; the sand filled his gut (possibly causing it to bulge) until it finally blocked the system altogether. This can take a few days if the horse scarfs it down, or weeks or months if he’s picking it up as part of his daily grazing.

It’s fast when it hits. Chronic low-grade colic from illness or poor-quality feed can go on for days or weeks, but an impaction will finish the horse off in a matter of hours.  A torsion (which he may get when he rolls in pain from the impaction), even faster.

So what does it look like? There’s some variety in the manifestations, but if your horse is low, not up to his usual energy levels, and seems dull or uninterested in food, he’s definitely sick and may be colicking. If he starts to look or kick or nip at his flanks, and they are tight and tucked up, that’s a fairly clear indication. (Note: This is also a sign of labor in a mare. If she is in foal, she may be getting down to business. Colic is abdominal pain, labor is abdominal pain: similar symptoms, similar responses.) He may pace, he may pick at hay if you feed it to him, but not be interested in eating it. If he hasn’t pooped in at least three or four hours, and has these symptoms, it’s a good idea to call the vet (or the stableman or the local horse healer). This is urgent if he goes down and starts rolling frantically. Lying down and refusing to get up is not good. Some rolling to indicate pain is common, but you shouldn’t let him get frantic. Serious rolling is very bad. He has a twist or is on his way to giving himself one. Usually horsemen will walk the colicky horse to try to relieve the problem and get things moving properly. Walking him to exhaustion is bad, but if the choice is between making him walk till the vet gets there and having him roll himself into a torsion, walk the horse.

When your horse expert gets there, she will check for signs of clamminess especially on the neck or between the hindlegs, and will look for sweat on the neck and flanks at temperatures that don’t contribute to sweating. If that option is available, she’ll take the horse’s temperature–either a high or a very low reading can be indicative. So can a rapid pulse, hyperventlating, and most important (and doable at any cultural level), listening to the gut sounds.

An ear pressed to the flank will do. A normal, healthy gut sounds like a boiler room–rumbling and bubbling away. If the sounds are excessively fizzy, that indicates gas colic (and a particular mode of treatment involving gas reduction). If the sounds are absent, that’s worse. That’s an impaction. Often there may be reduced sounds farther up the system from the blockage; the expert may be able to hear them with ear or stethoscope and determine where the blockage is. On occasion, it takes a specialized stethoscope, like ones you can find at – as the horses’ bodies are thicker and a regular stethoscope sometimes doesn’t detect all the murmurs and sounds. If it’s ‘way down, she might be able to get in and actually dig it out–yes, that means what you think it means. But it has to be almost to the end of the digestive tract, within arm’s length of the anus. Anything farther up will need extra help to let go.

Tubing in oil can help, as I said earlier. Your horse healer may have a potion she uses to help relieve pain and relax the tension in the gut that causes it. If it works, you celebrate–and feed the horse a little hay, then gradually more over the course of a day or three, only slowly adding grain and richer feeds. Sometimes it helps to feed a horse grass, but not too much: just graze him for a few minutes at a time. Otherwise keep him in a stall and watch him. Look for return of energy and appetite, and the big four, known as EDPP: Eat, Drink, Poop, Pee.

Always make sure he has plenty of water. If he had an impaction that cleared with oil and/or medication, it’s a very good idea to make sure the conditions that caused it don’t recur. That means feeding him hay or grain soaked in water, and if he had a sand impaction, feeding him off the sand (in a large container or on a tarp, blanket, cloak, etc.), and if you have access to it, feeding him something glutinous that will help move the sand out as it comes in. Psyllium (i.e. Metamucil) is the drug of choice these days. A lot of grassy hay supposedly works, too. The usual preventive measure is a week of psyllium per month, fed by the cupful once or twice daily.We usually wet it and mix with the grain, and the horse slurps it up.

The comments, I’m sure, will have plenty to add on this subject. Every horse owner has a collection of colic stories, some more harrowing than others. The threat of colic is always with us; much of what we do in caring for our horses is aimed at preventing it. The equine digestive system is really its weakest point, even more so than its feet; any horse person, if given the chance to redesign the animal, would almost certainly begin there.




The Dreaded Colic Post — 12 Comments

  1. Just a quick hit before I’m off to work–

    There are some folks who attribute chronic colic in some horses to barometric pressure changes. As far as I know it’s not proven, but then again, some horses have cranky guts (not mine, so far, knock on wood). An affecting factor could be the degree to which weather changes affect the horse’s consumption of water.

    Horses and rabbits share the same issues with regard to digestion and vomiting, only rabbits are also prone to hairballs from self-grooming. Both are hindgut fermenters and that’s part of the reason for the feet of intestines. Rabbits also produce cecal feces that they ingest to redigest what they eat.

    My one colic experience was horrific, as my first pony had a blockage which went into torsion which went septic (or so I was told, he was asymptomatic until the very end) about a week after he began treatment for grass founder. It happens fast and it’s scary. Twelve hours from first symptoms to death. Another factor to keep in mind for writers is that colic can follow upon another illness–founder your horse, colic may follow. Or if the horse gorges itself on rich feed, it may both colic and founder.

    Even with modern veterinary surgery, a horse can die–I have a friend who lost a very talented filly on the operating table.

  2. Another note, there are horses that will show signs of colic until such a point that is is nigh untreatable. Friesians are a great example of this, they start by just being a little depressed, and by the time they stop eating and show colic signs they’re generally in major trouble.

    So some types of horse may not show typical signs of pain until they’re down.

  3. To corroborate joycemocha – I used to know a mare that would colic with cold snaps over the summer unless she was blanketed that night. I knew another mare who had been bred years ago and an unspecified “something” had gone wrong; she was never able to eat dry food again and would colic if her daily bran mash wasn’t soupy and full of mineral oil. Miserable existence for the poor girl.

    I would also add that the better you know a particular horse, the faster you can pick up on it. I almost missed a colic because the mare was only lying down quietly – my horse will lie in his stall and nap for abnormally long times, even in a busy barn, but he’s totally fine, so nothing set off alarm bells in my brain about this mare napping. When my horse colicked (a bad impaction), no one else noticed for 12+ hours, and I knew within ten seconds of seeing him. (That barn was also criminally negligent.) But as with any illness, the better you know a horse’s personality, habits, and appearance, the faster you will notice that something is very wrong.

  4. These comments are fantastic. Thank you!

    It’s crucial to observe your horse every time you’re around him, and get to know all his little quirks and habits. Then you can spot small variations that might indicate a larger problem.

    I sold a mare once who ended up needing colic surgery. I had told the buyer she liked to make soup with her hay–dunk it all in her water barrel and let it steep until it was green, then eat/drink the results. This was messy and icky and the boarding barn didn’t like it. They had automatic waterers to make it easier for the staff. Well, automatic waterers have one teeeeeeny problem. You can’t tell how much the horse is drinking. (Automatic waterers: Colic machines. I won’t have them here. Hate them. Hate. Hate.)

    Yep. Major impaction. She survived the surgery, recovered and went on to a long and still extant career, has even done some eventing. But they learned the hard way to put a big barrel in her stall, let her make her soup, and deal with the mess and the cleanup. Because, you know what? Hay soup is excellent. It keeps the horse hydrated, keeps her gut moving, and prevents colic. Just make sure you clean out the soup barrel before it ferments (which in warm weather can happen within a couple of hours), because that leads to colic in the other direction: major gas colic. Fermented things and horses do not mix.

  5. I have just been rereading some of the James Heriot books — in one of them (I think it’s It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, but I’m not sure) his very first case as a practicing vet is a horse with torsion. The description is absolutely horrifying. (He had to put the horse down. For extra fun, the person in charge was a nasty barn manager and the owner of the horse was away.)

  6. I can’t imagine having to go through something as horrific as this. From a writer’s perspective, though, it does present interesting possibilities.

  7. Colic. ZOMG. I’ve dealt with colic before but the bout Fionna had two winters ago was the first time it had ever happened to a horse I owned. The BO called us at 8pm and we literally broke every road law in the book getting to the barn as fast as we could. The vet had already been and he had tubed her. She tried to kill him in the process 🙂 The BO, BM and my husband and I took turns walking her until 3am. At one point she kept trying to go down so badly that we had the trailer pulled out ready to take her in. I was in tears. Then around 4am she farted — LOUD. And again. Then she pooped a bit. Hubby put two chairs and two bales of hay in front of her stall and we spent the night sleeping there. Door open so I could watch her every move. Each time I opened my eyes to check, she was looking at me. She finally laid down around 5am and slept peacefully. She didn’t even move when I went in and laid down beside her for a while. She just sighed.

  8. Little more — we suspected the colic had to do with her not drinking enough water. I make her treats myself and I started putting “large” quantities of salt in them. Somehow we got into a routine that every time I gave her a treat, she would drink some water to wash it down. This makes me happy.

    Nowadays I’m responsible for keeping an eye on a barn of 33+ horses. I check them every night for signs of colic. Some are more prone than others and I watch them carefully. One of them used to be a very nervous horse and would colic mildly almost once a week. After the last BM left and a new girl starting riding him, he calmed down and rarely, if ever, colics. The strange thing about him, though, is that he drinks a LOT of water. We’re always re-filling his bucket at night. Odd.

  9. Judy’s gonna get sick of my comments 🙂

    A severe bout with colic could also be a writer’s way of forging a “bond” with the character and the horse. As I noted, Fionna knew I was watching over her and the fact that she “let” me lie down with her in her stall took our relationship to new heights. We had a stronger bond after this happened and the bond just keeps getting stronger and stronger. She’s a strange mare and has a personality much like my own.

  10. A note, tangential to colic —

    it is true horses cannot vomit. However, a horse suffering from “choke” (blockage of feed in the esophagus in the neck, which causes saliva to accumulate and eventually run out the nostrils, green with whatever feed is blocking the way) will attempt to retch, which is the most heartbreaking thing to watch.