A Colicky Story

I read an article – http://dressagedifferent.com/2013/11/18/the-big-four-the-most-common-causes-of-equine-fatalities/ – which reminded me of my encounters with colic, and I thought it best to share what little knowledge I have.

When we were younger we knew of colic, the fact horses couldn`t be sick, don`t feed sugar beet pellets dry, etc etc. We had native ponies, and they were fed basic rations and lived out 24/7 so the years passed with me blissfully ignorant to this illness. When I was … 14, I think, my friends and I found one of the youngsters in the stream at the bottom of the field. Our instructor had just left on a two hour hack, so while the eldest of us rang the vet and our instructor, I was sent to ride my 3 year old bareback down the lane looking for one of the liveries, who was a bit more knowledgeable than us teenagers. All I really remember is the filly being shot by the vet an hour later. To this day I couldn`t tell you the extent of the colic.

Then I went to college and was enlightened to the ins and outs of colic; how to spot the early signs, and what to do. I then began spotting colic on a daily basis!

I moved away from home a couple of years ago, and almost immediately a horse at my new yard colicked. Surgery was offered, and she was rushed to Liphook hospital where she was operated on successfully. Approximately 4″ of gut was removed. The aftercare was very intense, and I remember her owners being completed dedicated to giving her handfuls of soaked hay every hour, and she was on box rest with no turn out for six weeks. Then turn out was limited, increasingly in minute intervals. By November, the mare was almost back to normal, or as normal a life as she could be expected to lead. She was ridden lightly by her owner, could go out with the usual herd, albeit only for a few hours a day, and never if they had hay in the field. Almost simultaneously, a friend of my Mum`s pony succumbed to colic, and unfortunately died on the way to Bristol Equine Hospital.

From these experiences I worried about colic and the implications. I could think of nothing worse than my horse suffering, but couldn`t fathom the high maintenance aftercare. Last summer, a neighbours horse had colic, had colic surgery, but then died three days later. I would hate to unintentionally prolong any horses suffering.

Perhaps the worst experience I`ve had with horses, and one I will remember for the rest of my life, was when one of the riding school horses went down with colic. It was Saturday morning and the first grooms to the yard found Star lying down in the field. He was cold and covered in mud, so they brought him in and covered him in rugs. When I arrived he was standing in his stable, head down, but getting a bit warmer. It was a wet spring, but the horses had been without rugs for a couple of months, and the previous night was nothing out of the ordinary, so he stayed without a rug. I always worry if a horse is too warm they can`t cool themselves down and can do themselves an injury, or even colic. Once the yard had started for the morning I checked Star; he was starting to sweat so I peeled a layer off, to find him very tucked up. I used the curry comb to try and get the circulation going and then he started to look uncomfortable.
We took him to the lunge arena and let him walk round to see if he would settle. I gave him a couple of trots, but didn`t ask if he was reluctant. This is one of the old wives tales, that say movement helps rejiggle the intestine. Whether it`s true or not, I am unconvinced. After fifteen minutes and no change I took him back to the yard. Where the owner insisted he was syringed a bute.
Another old wives tale, does giving a horse Bute help prevent colic? Again, I am unconvinced, but logic tells me it doesn’t. Bute is aimed for hard tissue injuries (e.g. bone, arthritis) so isn`t as effective on soft tissue (you`re better off using Danilon). Furthermore, have you ever tried syringing bute into a horse? It doesn`t dissolve, therefore it blocks the syringe, and most of it goes round the horse`s lips and muzzle. Then there is the fact that there is a problem with the gastro-intestinal tract, so why would you medicate in the same tract that isn`t functioning correctly? I`ve also read that Bute can mask the early signs of colic, meaning that you can leave it too late to call the vet. Then there is the thought that if you give the horse medication without your vets knowledge or instruction you can potentially cause problems later during the treatment. Anyway, I`m open to suggestions, but it appears that Banamine is better for colicky horses. Google it yourself and read up on this hotly contested debate.

Back to my story. Star had been given the bute, most of it as I expected was around his muzzle so he looked like he had rabies. I put him in a stable as he was still fairly quiet, but within five minutes he was trying to roll. We started walking, and then he started spasming. It was awful to watch, his whole body convulsed. It started slowly, with spasms about ten minutes apart. The vet was called for advice.
The yard owner came out then and told us to stop walking him so he didn`t get tired, so I put him in a quiet stable. She examined him, and mid-examination he convulsed, and I almost had to catch him as he lurched forwards and start walking him around the yard. Now we were allowed to ask the vet to come. The spasms came quicker and quicker. Star needed persuading to keep walking now, he kept trying to get down. A groom followed me, slapping his hindquarters to keep him moving. We moved to a back paddock, out of sight of the clients, and counted the agonising minutes until the vet arrived. By that time she arrived the spasms were every two minutes and Star was exhausted. I felt so cruel forcing him to walk, you could see the pain in his eyes. I had started to cry a few minutes earlier because I knew it was too late. He was suffering so much.
The first question asked by the vet was “is he a candidate for surgery?” We said no, so she administered the drug intravenously, took his vital signs, did a rectal examination. She couldn`t see anything, so decided to try tubing him to check the front of the digestive tract. Unfortunately, his nostrils were weird (I think it was related to his COPD and when she inserted the tube blood gushed out. Within five minutes we were preparing to euthanise.
I`ve seen horses put down, led them up for shooting, but never held one as they`ve been injected. I watched Star fall to his knees, and the light go from his eyes, before we covered him up with old rugs.
I was devastated, he was one of my favourite riding school horses, and had gone in such a painful, horrid way. I was determined to do my best to educate people about colic.
Upon speaking to the vet afterwards, she told me that old horses quite often colic when benign fatty tumours (lipomas) twist round the intestine thus blocking it. She said there was nothing we could have done, or could have predicted it. I spent the following days beating myself up about what I should have done better, what signs I should have spotted sooner, how I should care for the rest of the horses. I doubted everything I knew.
A fortnight later I organised for one of the vets to come and give everyone at the yard a talk about colic.

Now I have come to terms with the fact that Star died. Tragic, yes, but it happened and I should use my experience and new knowledge to ensure the health and well-being of the rest of the horses in my care. I`m not going to lecture you, or rewrite some other articles about types of colic, but rather give you a few links to peruse.


3 thoughts on “A Colicky Story

  1. firnhyde Nov 27, 2013 / 7:12 am

    Colic is a horrible one :-/ Such a sad story about Star. With the few mild colics I’ve had to deal with, I’ve simply treated it by limiting food and water intake for a short while, some walking with a little bit of trotting if they’re not tired or in too much pain, and bute or some other NSAID injected into the muscle (once the colic is under way, not to prevent it – just to give the horse a bit of pain relief). Sometimes dosing with castor oil has helped as well, to lubricate a blockage in the guts.

    • therubbercurrycomb Nov 27, 2013 / 9:38 am

      Agreed, but very few people know the early warning signs. And sometimes the signs aren`t noticeable, or you think you`re being neurotic. Have you had much experience with surgery?

      • firnhyde Nov 28, 2013 / 7:41 am

        No, I’ve never had a colic go that far. Luckily, I feed all my horses myself every day, so I know their habits extremely well; I can pick up on it when they feel off-colour long before stuff gets serious. Mine all live out, though, with ad lib roughage and as small an amount of concentrate as I can get away with – I’d rather have them a little too thin than eating too much grains – and I’ve just been lucky. Serious colic can come out of the blue with no warning and no apparent cause, so I’m in no position to boast, no matter how carefully I feed.

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