One of the scariest words a horse owner can hear is ‘colic’. Colic is the term for abdominal pain caused by some sort of obstruction in the intestines (gas, feces… maybe a twist in the guts). Since horses are unable to vomit, it is very important that their digestive system move freely in the one direction.
So what could cause a horse to colic? Be careful of drastic changes- whether it be a change in environment, routine or diet. Horses are meant to be moving, so sometimes horses kept in small confined areas might be prone to colicking. Horses are also meant to be grazing all the time, so feeding large amounts at fewer times could cause problems. Dehydrating conditions (for example, access to only freezing or dirty water, causing a horse to drink less) could contribute to colic in a horse. Parasites, weather changes and even sand can cause colic in horses.
Horses feeling pain from colic will show behaviors anywhere from looking at or kicking at their abdomen, to rolling and thrashing violently, with a tendency to roll onto their back to try to stretch out the pain. Sweating, pawing at the ground, biting or kicking at their flanks and disinterest in eating can all be signs of colic.
If symptoms are recognized early, you can walk your horse to try to get the guts to move things through. A more serious situation might call for a pain reliever/muscle relaxer i.e. a visit from your veterinarian. The most serious cases will require surgery, and some cases will be fatal.
When I was a Veterinary Technician II at the University of Georgia Large Animal Veterinary Teaching Hospital, part of my routine hourly examination of equine pre- and post-operative colic surgery patients was checking gut sounds. Rumbling and gurgling sounds are usually a good sign, and an absence of sounds could be concerning.
A horse’s gut sounds are divided into four quadrants- the right and left, upper and lower quadrants. Place a stethoscope next to/cranial to (toward the head of) the flank of your horse- toward the spine is the upper quadrant, and toward the belly is the lower quadrant.
Listen to as many horses as you can- learn what healthy horse guts sound like, and learn what doesn’t sound right… Do you hear an ‘ocean wave’ sound? Is this horse turned out on and/or eating on a sandy pasture?
Know your horse’s ‘normals’; if something changes, you could catch it early.