Horse Owners Must Treat Colic Quickly


One evening a few weeks back, I heard my dogs barking. I looked out — people walking past, someone riding by. Ten minutes later, they were still barking. I went out to investigate and found every horse owner’s worst nightmare: One of my horses was cast up against the pasture fence. He’d gotten down and rolled, and ended up wedged against the fence, on his back, all four legs up in the air, stuck.

I pulled him over, away from the fence, and repositioned his hooves; still, it was some time before he was able to stand. Then it got worse. He took two steps, went down again, and started rolling. We were in big trouble. The horse was collicking.

“Colic’s a very generic term for abdominal distress,” said Dr. Scott Swerdlin of Palm Beach Equine in Wellington. “It’s not a specific diagnosis. Typically, three areas can be affected: the stomach, the fore gut including the small intestine, and the hind gut including the colon, cecum and rectum. A vet can diagnose the area, the problem, and initiate aggressive, appropriate treatment.”

Colic can be caused by too much feed, spoiled feed, eating too soon after hard work, stress and parasites. My horse hadn’t been stressed. He didn’t have parasites. As far as I knew, he hadn’t eaten anything weird. The other horses were all fine. Of course, it could be sand colic, common to South Florida. Horses graze and pick up clumps of grass that may also contain clumps of sand, which can collect in the gut and form an impaction.

“A vet listens for gut sounds in all four quadrants of the abdomen,” Swerdlin explained. “Then we pass a nasal-gastric tube through his nose into the stomach to check if the stomach is filled with fluid, which we can remove, and deliver fluids and electrolytes.”

My regular vet examined my horse but couldn’t tell if his intestines had twisted — something much more serious than colic. A horse’s gut can twist if he rolls enough during colic. If it twists 180 degrees, it’s possible to empty the colon and it’ll usually fall back into place. If it twists 360, surgery’s required.

My horse had rolled a lot. The vet suggested that I bring him to Palm Beach Equine, and so we trailered over. They did an ultrasound and quickly determined there was no twist — good news. They did a rectal exam but couldn’t feel the blockage. Then they ran the nasal-gastric tube through his nose and pumped in bright orange Gatorade, pulling the tube partially out and therefore emptying his stomach over and over. A lot more came out than went in. His gut sounds were good, but he had no appetite and couldn’t poop. There was an impaction.

Some colics go beyond blockages or twists. Sometimes a piece of foreign material, like a small piece of plastic or a bit of baling twine, lodges in the gut, and a hard callus forms around it, sort of like a pearl growing in an oyster. But these are a lot bigger and rougher than any pearl. They’re called enteroliths, look and feel like heavy stones, and have to be surgically removed.

I had given my horse Banamine paste to help ease the symptoms. “It’s a big mistake to give more than one small dose of Banamine,” Swerdlin said. “If the horse isn’t better after 30 minutes, don’t give any more and call your vet. Keep the horse up and walking. The longer you wait, the worse it can get.”

They started my horse on IV fluids to rehydrate him, increase blood flow to the intestines and start ridding the body of the toxic byproducts of the colic. Horses have approximately 120 feet of intestines, and they can’t vomit. Whatever goes in has to come out the other end.

“He’s not allowed to eat until he poops,” the vet techs told me. “Nothing goes in until something comes out.”

“Horse owners need to be prepared for emergencies like this,” Swerdlin advised. “They should save and have a rainy day fund. They can also look into insuring their horse. I’m a big proponent of preventing colic by using mangers, to keep hay up off the ground. You can also use a psylium product regularly or feed a warm bran mash once a week, and keep them on a parasite-control program. Round bales aren’t a good choice; they get wet and moldy. The best solution is keeping quality hay in front of your horses as much as possible. Horses are meant to graze continually. Grain is more of a dessert. Hay’s the most important component.”

He also suggested monitoring the horse’s water intake. “If he’s suddenly drinking less, that could mean there’s a problem. Also, check the manure consistency. If it’s hard or dry, that’s another warning signal. I also don’t like to see the old hay and manure spread out over pastures. It tends to increase flies and parasites,” Swerdlin added.

I had a great solution to that problem. My neighbor is into organic gardening. She stops by with a wheelbarrow a few times each week and collects all my manure. She has a healthy garden, I have clean stalls and pastures, and the horses get to eat the carrots she grows. A perfect cycle.

So my horse spent the day at the vet’s. Happily, everything worked out fine and he came home the next day without any lingering ill effects.

“We see more colics in May and June,” Swerdlin said. “We have some cool days, some hot days, and the horses aren’t acclimated to the temperature changes. Also, the rain makes the sands looser, more likely to cling to grass. Bad thunderstorms can stress them into a colic.”

Basically, any horse can colic from almost anything at any time. That’s just how horses are. Owners should always be aware of the first signs of colic — a look of discomfort, pawing, pacing, sweating, constant rolling — and be ready to call the vet quickly.

“Anyone’s welcome to call anytime with questions,” Swerdlin said. “We’re here to help horses and their owners.”

For more information, call Palm Beach Equine at (561) 793-1599 or visit