Colic is a scary situation. But there are ways to prevent it, and things you can do for your horse to make him comfortable while the situation is resolved.
Colic is, to say the least, a scary situation – and possibly a horseperson’s worst nightmare! Time is always limited for getting a handle on the problem before it’s critical and life-threatening. There are many causes of colic. But there are also ways you can potentially avoid it, and things you can do for your horse to give him more comfort while the situation is hopefully resolved.
Symptoms of colic
The clinical signs of colic can differ depending on what is causing the pain. They can vary from “he just doesn’t look right” and a sort of glassy stare, to lying down and rolling from one side to the other, rolling over and over, getting up, lying down and rolling again. This can leading to a twisting of the gut (see sidebar on page xx). Biting and/or kicking at the belly are also common. Fortunately, it is generally obvious that the horse is hurting, so action can be taken. Bottom line – a horse with colic just can’t get comfortable – no matter what!
What can cause colic?
Too much feed at one time, whether hay or grain, can cause either gas or impaction. Changing quickly from one type of grain or hay to another can also lead to colic. Having too little water available is another culprit. Another common but often-overlooked cause is allowing a horse that is hot from exertion to drink too much water, or to feed him too soon. Horses should always be cooled after riding or any other manner of work, before they’re watered or fed.
Finally, parasites, especially round worms (ascarids) in young horses, can cause impaction by physically blocking the gut, not to mention all the other damage they can do as they migrate through various parts of the body. Fecal exams should be performed on a regular basis and deworming done based on results, not just a calendar rotation. (Editor’s note: Dr. Moore was ahead of the curve when he wrote about deworming from fecal exam results for Equine Wellness way back in March/April 2009, well before it became the commonly advocated practice it is today. Read about it here: equinewellnessmagazine.com/fecal-tests.)
Again, any change in the gut can cause colic! Most reasons so far mentioned are recognized and prevented by seasoned horse people. However, there is one cause for colic that has taken me years to figure out – fertilizer overload.
Yes, too much fertilizer applied over too short a period! Thus far, I don’t know of any other professional who has even considered this, much less spoken about it. I have been shouting it from rooftops for nearly two decades, yet it is still overlooked. I am certain it is a major cause of colic, if not the most likely cause. Abortion in mares, laminitis, even ulcers can also result from fertilizer overload. For lack of better terminology, the weakest link in any horse is where a problem occurs. In other words, a horse with already weak or bad feet who is exposed to a rapid change in the gut may develop laminitis – it’s sort of an endo-toxic effect. A pregnant mare exposed to a sudden change in the gut may abort due to a sudden bacterial change in the blood – a septicemia-type effect. An already-stressed horse exposed to a sudden change in the gut may develop ulcers. Potentially there are other possibilities, more than can be mentioned here.
So how in the world does a horse get too much fertilizer? How about from hay or grass? Hay is heavily fertilized, right? And fertilizer is what makes hay grow. The hay may be full of water drawn by the fertilizer into the grass before it is cut, which by weight puts money in the grower’s pocket. Fertilizer is used by almost every producer. It is made up of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Common ratios of these minerals are 10.10.10. Unfortunately, rather than using a more natural type of fertilizer, like manure, most people just spread the store-bought versions. Nitrogen and potassium are the most deadly of the three minerals because excess amounts, not neutralized, change the gut pH by making it more acidic. Nitrogen and potassium are actually neutralized by firstly, salt; secondly, calcium; and thirdly, magnesium.
Horses cannot neutralize nitrogen or potassium overload fast enough by licking or chewing on a salt block, or a rock of any kind. Rocks and blocks for horses should never be used, in my opinion. Free-choice, always-available loose salt and minerals will prevent more issues than anything I know. We have proved it for nearly two decades, not only with our own 50-plus horses, but with tens of thousands of clients’ horses. Free-choice loose salt and minerals are critical to gut health, preventing colic and more. Keeping a little in a feed bucket and hanging the bucket on a fence post can prevent most major issues in horses. Even rain doesn’t negatively affect it.
Free-choice loose salt and minerals are critical to gut health, preventing colic and more.
Twisting of the gut – a serious complication
Rolling back and forth is bad because it may result in a twisting of the gut. A twist often causes the blood supply to be cut off, causing that section of the gut to die. Surgery is inevitable in these cases, and even then it’s still a potential live-or-die situation. Surgically removing a dead section of gut is like cutting out a piece of garden hose, sewing it back together end to end and hoping it doesn’t leak. Additionally, surgery is super expensive (but extremely inexpensive compared to a comparable human surgery, and way more difficult)!
Simply put, colic means a painful gut. Gas in the gut can cause pain. Or an actual “stopped up” impaction of the gut can cause colic pain as gas, fluid and fecal material build and back up. All colics are terrible, but generally a gas colic is easier to treat unless it causes a twisting gut. The more gas and fluid, the more likely the gut is to twist. Gas in the gut is like air in a balloon – it rises and possibly wraps around another section of gut with gas or fluid, thus the twisting. In older or very overweight horses, fat deposits can even wrap around the intestine, causing strangulation from twisting.
Homeopathic remedies for colic
It’s difficult for me to discuss any health issue without a mention of a few homeopathic remedies, and colic is no exception. An overload or excess of anything can often be helped with a remedy called Nux vomica. It is my first-response favorite remedy for anything gut-related, and is great at what I call “energetically detoxing” as well as for other health situations, such as post-anesthesia. (It’s also especially good for people who have eaten or drunk too much!)
Most homeopathic remedies are available as liquids, but I prefer the little BB-sized pellets packaged in lipstick-sized tubes. Most health food stores and some big grocery chains carry them. Potencies of 30c or 30x are generally used by most people, unless they are trained otherwise. I am totally convinced that homeopathic remedies can never hurt and only help, in any case. We never leave home without our remedy box and there is always one at the barn.
Another remedy to consider is Colocynthis, should the Nux not give comfort. It is especially helpful for cramps that could be characterized by kicking, rolling and looking or biting at the belly. Another is Colchicum, especially if neither of the previous remedies help. I usually give Nux a few times every ten minutes or so. I follow with Colocynthis and Colchicum, rotating each at ten-minute intervals. I also try to prevent rolling by walking the horse. This process often helps take his mind off the pain and gets the gut moving.
Allow me to stress, however, that your local veterinarian should be called immediately when colic is suspected. You never know, at the onset, how severe the colic might be. I have never seen any of the above remedies interfere with the horse’s treatments – but as much as it bothers me, most veterinarians still think we are crazy using them. If your horse is better before the vet gets there though, you shouldn’t be surprised!
While colic is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition, empowering yourself with knowledge about what to look for and what to do can give you more peace of mind.