Self Selection

I’ve been home this weekend, for a busman’s holiday, and one of the jobs my Mum gave me was to handgraze her friend’s horse who is recovering from colic surgery. It’s a great arrangement on the yard, as the mare needs holding out four times a day. There’s a timesheet, and whenever anyone has a spare fifteen minutes or so (while their horse is eating their bucket feed or they’re chinwagging over a cup of tea) they will hold her out for grass. Then they pop their name on the timesheet and her owner knows what she’s had each day and by who. It’s such a great example of teamwork and a supportive yard in what would otherwise be a full time job.

Anyway, I digress. Mum’s instructions to me were to walk past the lush green grass on the side of the track, and head for the weedy area as this mare turns her nose up at the grass, preferring to devour the variety of weeds instead.

Mum and I have talked about how horses often opt for the unexpected plants in hedgerows, and how there’s been a lot of research in the properties of different plants. For example, cleavers has a beneficial effect on the skin and lymphatic system. This was Matt’s plant of choice when he was on box rest.

Mum spent a lot of time when he was on box rest cutting down a variety of grass, plants, herbs and hedgerow while Matt was confined to his stable to provide a variety of forage to stimulate him and to enable him to self select what his body needed. What he ate, he was given more of the following day, and when he moved onto a different flavour, his bucket reflected this. Once he could start going for walks she handgrazed him on the verge and hedgerow during his walk outs.

This is why I like it when the fields have a native hedge, and aren’t just seeded grass, as it provides some enrichment for the horses. Recently, once the grass in Phoenix’s summer field had been eaten, she showed more of an interest in grazing the sides of the track as we walked to and from the field. I tend to go with the flow, letting her choose where to stop. It was always interesting that she opted to munch on the tall thistles.

I could remember that milk thistle is good for cleansing the liver, but I didn’t think these were them so I had a look on my plant identification app (this is the ignorant gardening geek inside of me raising its ugly head), and Phoenix was definitely eating plain, bog-standard field thistles. Very carefully I might add, as she cleverly wrapped her tongue around the spikes and devoured it, stem and flower.

For anyone wondering, milk thistles have round, purple flowers with pale green leaves with white veins, giving a mottled effect. This thistles Phoenix was so delighted by have narrower, taller purple flowers, and leaves of a uniform green. I’m going to keep an eye out for any milk thistle and she if she’s as taken by that as the usual subspecies.

Then I began to wonder why the thistles were such an attraction, despite the dangers involved in eating them. Once source I read said that thistles have deeper roots than grass so are more nutritious. This aligns with my observations in the garden, where all the weeds have far deeper and longer roots that the grass, which is why they’re so difficult to eradicate and why my lawn will never resemble a bowling green. It’s a sensible theory. My Dad’s theory is that thistles probably have a higher water content than grass, especially during the hot months we’ve just experienced, so are more attractive to horses.

Dried thistles are very palatable too, and less spiky so even the fussiest horses will eat the leaves and stems. I’m building up the courage, and trying to remember my gardening gloves, to cut down an armful of thistles to put in the field for Phoenix and her friends to pick at if they wanted. In the meantime, I’m sure she gets enough enrichment from the hedge at the back of the field and the variety of grasses and weeds in the paddock.

It’s always interesting watching your horse’s choice in forage whilst grazing, and definitely worth identifying the plant so that you can supplement it if necessary, or take them to areas when it grows in plentiful supply for them to nibble at.

Has anyone’s horse got a favourite non-grass plant which they always search out? And have you looked it up to see the benefits of that plant?

Impaction Colic

There’s been a lot of talk recently by vets about the dangers of impaction colic at this time of year.

Impaction colic is caused by a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract, usually caused by a build up of solid material (often food or partially formed faeces) which prevents normal passage through the gut.

The risk of impaction colic increases in winter when horses move from a diet of grass, which is 75% water, to hay, which can be up to 20% water, because there is a higher percentage of dry matter in their intestines to move.

Horses on box rest, with limited movement, or like last week when the horses stayed in due to the snow and ice, are more at risk of impaction colic because reduced movement reduces peristalsis so food matter travels more slowly through the gut and is more likely to get stuck.

Horses who are dehydrated, due to heavy exercise, a drier diet, insufficient fresh water, or cold weather making their water sources icy cold, are at risk of impaction colic because less water in their system means that there is less fluid to soften the food as it travels through the digestive tract so it is prone to building into a bigger bolus and getting stuck.

Horses, well ponies really, who binge eat are at risk of impaction colic because of the sheer volume of food entering their body in a short space of time. Also, unsoaked sugar beet that is eaten will expand in the digestive tract, so potentially forming a blockage.

There are numerous other causes of impaction colic – roundworm infestation (I saw a particularly gory video doing the rounds on Facebook first thing this morning), poor dentition, sandy soil, repeated sedation, eating straw – but the main reasons I spoke about are particularly important when considering your winter management of horses.

Ensuring that they have enough access to fresh water, which isn’t icy cold is paramount. It’s very easy to overlook water supplies when the ground is so muddy or there’s snow lying around, but horses won’t drink water that is too cold, which can then lead to it not being refreshed and going stale. On cold nights you can insulate water buckets in stables by surrounding them with straw which will help keep the chill away.

Making the transition from grass to hay slowly, and using soaked hay will help reduce the risk of impaction colic. Horses who are known to be fussy drinkers would benefit from dampened or soaked hay, or haylage throughout the winter. You can also increase their water intake by feeding soaked feeds – sugar beet, or the Allen and Page soaked range for example.

Whilst horses have evolved to be trickle eaters, when placed in the stable environment we give them fixed meal times. Which can lead to them scoffing down their haynets and then standing with an empty stomach for hours. Some owners give a bigger quantity so it takes longer for them to eat. Perhaps a better option is to work out a routine so that hay is given frequently throughout the day. For example, if your horse comes in at 4pm, could he have a small haynet then. When you arrive after work, say 6ish and ride, or pamper, he could have his hard feed and another smallish haynet then a friend who is there later than you could give your horse his night net, which is much bigger. Then in the morning, an early riser could give either breakfast or a small haynet which will keep your horse going until turn out. Then a small ration in the field will fuel him through the day. I can remember at college we’d bring the horses in and put them to bed with hard feeds and small haynets at 5pm, and then at 9pm they were given their night nets, which spread their food intake as much as possible. I’m waiting for someone to invent hay dispensers, which give horses a ration of forage at a set time in the middle of the night.

Alternative ways of slowing down eating is to double net, or use small holed haynets, or to soak the hay so that it requires more chewing to break it up to form a bolus to swallow.

I think one thing that people often overlook in winter, because of the reduced light, reduced turnout, and reduced saddle time, is exercise. A horse who is stabled and only turned out for a few hours a day is likely to have reduced gut activity because peristalsis is increased with movement which makes them more prone to stodgy droppings and food taking longer to pass through the system. I know one horse like this: she’d quite happily scoff hay for twenty hours a day, with only a little walk round her field to break it up, and when she’s ridden she tends to be really backward thinking and lethargic until she’s produced this elephant sized dropping, whereby she immediately picks up the pace and becomes more comfortable. I think there’s a combination of her being greedy, and a lack of general exercise because she’s too busy stuffing her face, means that her gut is slow and lazy. If she were mine I’d probably soak hay, use small holes nets, reduce the quantity so that she has to venture out and scavenge on the grass, and have different feeding stations around the field, to force her to move about more and to increase the water going into her. She would have a small soaked feed, not that she really needs it, but it gets water into her system. In terms of exercise, she’d probably benefit from going on the walker or a short, gentle hack before being schooled so that she has chance to empty herself which should make her more comfortable.

The horse above would be one that I would be very conscious of if she was ever on box rest or restricted turnout as I think she’d be a likely candidate for impaction colic.

Talking of which, make sure you can identify the symptoms of colic, or signs of the onset of colic, which are listed below:

  • Passing fewer droppings
  • Droppings which are drier, smaller, and more firm.
  • Horse seems quiet, or depressed.
  • Refusing feed.
  • Showing signs of being uncomfortable.
  • Pawing the ground.
  • Looking at their stomach.
  • Kicking their belly.
  • Sweating.
  • Rapid, shallow breathing.
  • Increases heart rate.
  • Lying down.
  • Rolling.

If you suspect colic, then ring the vet immediately, and whilst you’re waiting for them, walk your horse round. If it’s impaction colic then gentle movement may help to initiate peristalsis and push the blockage through their digestive tract. With impaction colic the vet will administer water and laxatives via a nasal tube, and may use liquid paraffin to soften and lubricate the faeces. Painkillers are usually injected intravenously. I’ve seen vets do a rectal examination immediately and pull out most of the offending blockage, before using the other treatment to help flush the system and make the horse comfortable. That does however, depend on the location of the blockage as the vet’s arm is only a finite length and there is a lot of colon wrapped up inside a horse!

After treatment, horses are starved and monitored to see when they pass droppings and to see if the colic signs ease. Again, gentle movement helps keep the digestive tract moving so helps shift the blockage. When the vet deems that the horse’s gut is free from blockage then wet food, such as grass and sloppy hard feeds can be introduced, gradually transitioning to their usual diet over a few days. Severe blockages often require hospitalisation as they can take days to clear. Thankfully though, impaction colic which is caught early and acted upon has a high success rate of treatment.

A Colic Scare

This morning we had a bit of a colic scare, which makes an interesting story.

The owners of the yard that I’m doing a bit of work for were going out to dressage this morning, so they turned out all the horses (except for the stubborn yearling who hates going in the field) early and I turned up about nine am, as they were loading up, to start mucking out. We decided that I should come in a bit later so that I was out of the way while they frantically plaited, washed, and argued. Then I could work in peace and quiet.

Anyway, I had just had a ten minute stand off with the stubborn yearling, who had finally decided that I am more stubborn than he, and was halfway through the first barn when the yard owner’s husband, a stockman by trade, appeared.
“What do we do for colic?” He asked gruffly.
Panic mounted inside me, but I calmly replied with “how bad is it?”
“I dunno. It’s one of the youngsters but I thought I’d come and get you first”. He’s a man of little words, but I managed to find out that the gelding had been rolling a bit and kicking at his stomach all morning. As we approached his field the rose coloured was standing dejectedly by the hedge. Uncertain of his identity, we approached him quietly and you could see he had been in distress, however he was now standing quietly. He wasn’t tucked up and didn’t have an elevated breathing rate, but I wanted to bring the pony in so I could monitor him for a couple of hours.

He was quiet enough to lead in, and I was informed as we closed a gate “he won’t like it. The last time he was in a stable he had his balls off”.

I chuckled to myself, but needed the reassurance of knowing the pony was close enough to grab if the colic worsened. As we neared the yard the pony stopped for a poo. Now that’s a good sign!

I put him in a freshly mucked out bed with no haylage and after a bit of calling he settled. I finished mucking out that barn and moved onto the adjacent one.

I could still see the youngster through the grills, and an hour later I was starting the final box. “He’s been really quiet” I thought, “when I’ve finished this I’ll turn him out again.”

With that, he suddenly made a noise. And another. I looked over.

“He’s got bigger!” I thought in shock, before realising that he had reared up and had his front legs over the door. I sprinted round to the stable, where he was now thrashing his front legs around as he seesawed on the door.

Simultaneously, the farmer appeared from the house. As we approached the door the gelding retreated into the stable, trembling. We calmed him down and when he’d stopped shaking I put his headcollar on and turned him out. Being stressed wouldn’t help the colic situation.

When we turned him out he immediately went back to his mates and tucked into the haylage, happy as Larry.

My conclusion to the colic symptoms is that this morning, the first real frost of the year, he had eaten some icy grass and had a bit of tummy ache, which went when he warmed up and the sun came out. Unfortunately it does mean that he’s at risk of it happening again, and if so may need stabling at night so he goes out when the frost has lifted. Frosty grass also has high levels of sugars, which means there is a high risk of laminitis. But that’s another story!

A Colicky Story

I read an article – – 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.