Right. 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: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/html/ec/ec1474/ 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 https://beststethoscopeguide.com/ – 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.