You come home from work and head to the barn to check on your horse. You notice the feeder is full of food, the water buckets are still full, and the stall is clean but the bedding looks a bit stirred up. Your horse looks sweaty and is standing in a corner of the stall with his head hanging down and bedding in his mane and tail. Either it’s your lucky day and someone surprised you by cleaning your stall and feeding/watering/exercising your horse – or these are signs of a serious problem.
If you are familiar with your equine’s everyday behavior, then you would likely recognize that the horse in this scenario is showing multiple signs of colic – he has stopped eating, drinking, and passing manure, is acting depressed and lethargic, and shows evidence of rolling. These and other signs and symptoms are all things you will be able to spot earlier and more easily if you learn to look for them on a regular basis.
Five basic things to watch
1. Fecal output
Horses normally pass eight to 12 well formed piles of manure per day. Frequent mucking of your stall/turnout (twice a day or more) makes it easier to count manure piles and notice any subtle changes. It also leads to a clean stable environment and saves you time in the long run. If your stall/turnout can only be mucked once a day and the manure piles are all mixed up, then you can keep track of fecal output by paying attention to how full the wheelbarrow usually is each day. This is not as exact as counting piles, but may be more practical.
Any abnormality may be significant, so don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian. Here are some examples of what you should know and contact your vet about:
• Fecal output often decreases with colic (decreased GI motility) or if your horse is not eating his/her normal amount (usually because of illness, pain, or dental disease).
• Diarrhea can be a serious sign of parasites, infection, cancer or other illness, or may just be due to excitement.
• Abnormally dry fecal balls or those that are smaller than normal or covered in mucus can be a sign of colic, dehydration and/or slowed GI motility.
• Visible adult parasites/worms in your horse’s feces suggest you need to discuss your de-worming program with your veterinarian to prevent parasite-related complications.
• Long stem fibers or large grain particles may indicate dental disease and an increased risk of impaction colic.
• Foreign material such as sand or gravel can lead to serious colic problems.
With colic, and most other problems for that matter, the earlier you notice there’s a problem and call your veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment, the better the prognosis and outcome. So keep an eye on that manure!
2. Water intake
On average, horses drink 0.3 to 0.8 gallons of water per 100 pounds per day, so a 1,000-pound horse would drink three to eight gallons each day. This is a wide range of normal and can increase significantly based on temperature, activity/work load, etc. Get to know how much water your horse usually goes through in a day and what normally causes that to fluctuate.
Drinking excessive water may be a sign of kidney disease or Cushing’s. More commonly, when a horse does not drink enough water, dehydration and colic can follow. Automatic waterers make it difficult to monitor how much your horse is drinking (unless water flow is metered). When in doubt, switch to buckets and turn off the automatic waterer so you can keep track. If you catch the problem early enough, soaking your horse’s hay and pelleted feeds can help increase water intake while administering electrolytes can help increase thirst. However, if your horse is not drinking his usual amount and is showing other behavioral abnormalities, it’s time to call your veterinarian.
Normal horses love to eat. Loss of appetite likely indicates a serious problem. Horses that bolt their feed then stop eating or grind their teeth a few mouthfuls later may have ulcers. Those that act as if they are hungry but don’t seem to get much down and leave quids (rolled-up balls of partially chewed hay) around the stall may have dental disease. Horses that have simply lost their appetite may be in pain from colic or lameness, have an infection or other serious internal illness. When in doubt, call the vet out.
It is very important to spend time watching your horse’s normal behavior and attitude. Horses normally sleep intermittently throughout the day, but if your horse is lethargic, there may be something more serious going on. Restlessness can also be a sign of a problem, as painful conditions such as colic may cause your horse to paw, circle, roll and look at his sides. Any signs of abdominal pain or colic should be acted on quickly. Keep your horse up and walking if possible (your safety comes first) and call your veterinarian immediately.
5. Visual appearance
Your horse should be visually inspected at least twice a day. Check to see that both eyes are fully open, and check for swelling and ocular discharge. Nasal discharge may be a sign of a contagious infection, in which case your horse needs to be immediately quarantined from all other horses at the barn. You’ll also need to wash up to prevent spreading it. Check for signs of rolling (most normal horses will roll periodically, so it’s important to know what’s normal for yours), sweating or abdominal distention/enlargement – all these may be signs of a colic emergency. Look for wounds or swelling, especially on all four lower legs. Check for lameness, shifting weight and/ or pointing a toe. Look at your horse’s surroundings and make sure there are no broken fences or other signs of a problem. If it’s dark out, use a head lamp or bring your horse into the barn where there is plenty of light so nothing is missed. Puncture wounds, wounds requiring stitches, non-weight bearing lameness and eye injuries are all conditions requiring prompt treatment by your veterinarian.
Check his parameters
The more information you have about the situation the better, especially when you need to call your veterinarian. Giving this information to the vet over the phone makes it easier for him to assess the situation and make a plan. This is where a first aid kit comes in handy because you’ll need a stethoscope, thermometer and a list of normal horse parameters such as temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate (TPR) and capillary refill time (CRT).
Start by taking your horse’s temperature (be careful and stand outside the kick zone), preferably with a 15-second (or less) digital thermometer. A horse’s normal temperature ranges from 98°F to 101ºF. The high end of normal is common only after strenuous workouts or on hot days, while the low end of normal is common in the relaxed/ sedentary horse. Temperatures above 101ºF indicate infection and a call to your veterinarian, while temperatures over 102ºF often indicate an emergency visit. An abnormally low temperature may indicate a serious problem such as colic, shock or advanced disease and also indicates an emergency vet visit.
In the case of a colic emergency, it is very helpful to have a baseline pulse rate before giving Banamine. This is especially important if your veterinarian can’t get there immediately and advises you to administer Banamine paste in the meantime. Pulse rate is a good indicator of pain level (other than in the excited/ nervous horse) and the severity of the problem. There are various pulse-taking methods for horses, so ask your veterinarian to show you how to do them so you can find one that works for you. Keep in practice so that when the time comes, you’re ready.
Often, the easiest way to take a pulse is by using a stethoscope. Place the stethoscope (or the palm of your hand) on your horse’s left chest wall just in front of the girth area, behind the elbow. A normal pulse is slow (36 to 44 beats per minute) so be patient when you’re waiting to hear/feel it. Have someone time you for 15 seconds, count how many beats you hear in that time period, and multiply by four for beats per minute.
For better or for worse, an elevated pulse rate is often easier to hear/feel. So, if you’re having trouble when practicing, it will likely become easier if the horse really is having a problem such as colic, a painful injury or laminitis. In general, a pulse over 48 for more than half an hour warrants a call to your veterinarian. If the pulse is greater than 56 and your horse is showing other abnormal signs, call the vet immediately.
Your horse’s breathing should not be loud or labored. The respiratory rate should be between eight and 12 breaths per minute. Respiratory rate normally increases with exercise and excitement, but also with serious illness such as pneumonia, heart disease, shock, colic pain or allergic reaction. These are all conditions requiring prompt veterinary care.
To take your horse’s respiratory rate, place your hand in front of his muzzle so you can feel the air flow, or watch your horse’s flank region for expansion/contraction. Count breaths in a 15- second period and multiply by four for breaths per minute.
Push up your horse’s upper lip and take a look at his gum color. It should be pale pink and moist. Blanch the gums by pressing your finger there for a few seconds and then release and watch for the color to return. This is the capillary refill time, or CRT. A normal CRT should be less than two seconds. A CRT longer than that is a sign of serious systemic illness, shock or dehydration. Dark pink, blue or gray gum color can also indicate a serious problem, so be sure to alert your veterinarian if this is the case.
Knowing the basic signs and symptoms of an emergency situation, and when to call the vet, is essential to all your horse’s caretakers. Caretakers include you, the barn workers and/or the trainer, so make sure everyone involved in caring for your horse knows what to look for. The more experience you have, the earlier you may pick up on subtle changes in your horse’s health and behavior. Catching things early decreases the risk of complications and problems turning into serious illness, and may even save your horse’s life. Most importantly, when in doubt, call the vet!
Dr. Hannah Evergreen is a 2004 graduate from Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She has loved, cared for, ridden and trained horses for most of her life – horses are her passion. She started her own mobile veterinary practice in Monroe, Washington in December of 2004 and offers full service equine veterinary care including acupuncture, chiropractic, advanced dentistry, sports medicine/ lameness and more. Find out more about Dr. Hannah at www.evergreenholisticvet.com.