Bill and Juanita, owners of Allenspark Lodge B&B, are living their dream...

running a successful business and riding as often as possible.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Colic 101

Last few days our blog has mostly been about "Colic".  Some of you non-horsey types may not understand the disease, so here is a quick primer on it.

Colic is a general term for "pain in the gut" (not pain in the butt).  When you have a "colicky" baby  it's usually not life threatening to the infant, at least not since the "Don't Shake the Baby" campaign got started.  In people, it's mostly just pain from gas or cramping.

Colic in horse's is different. It can be, and often is, fatal.  The severity of colic in horses is due to the design of the horses digestive system, and how they are being fed and housed.  A wild horse has access to feed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but has to walk 10 to 20 miles a day to get it.  That goes a long way toward keeping things moving in their gut.  Most domestic horses have a couple bigger meals each day, and stand in a pen an awful lot of the time.  They don't much mind, because it is easier to find their forage (it shows up magically after they holler for a few minutes), but their systems need more work to work.

Colic is most dangerous when it is a blockage of some sort in the horses digestive system, and it's a big system.

*5 feet of esophagus. (swallow tube)

*Stomach. (4 gallon capacity)

*70 feet of small intestine (where most nutrients are absorbed)

Then you get to the large intestine.

*4 feet of the "cecum", an interesting organ that has no real counterpart in humans.  It's an 8 gallon bladder that holds a grass soup so bacteria can break down the soup into components that the intestines can absorb.  A number of colic's are caused here by changing the feed the horse eats too quickly, and not having the right bacteria in the gut for fermentation of the new food.  (I suspect the same problem is seen in humans with gluten intolerance.  If you go for a couple weeks eating no gluten, the bugs in your gut that break it down will starve.  Then when you start again, AARRRG!  Colic!)

Question---I wonder, if you  gave a horse brewers yeast, would they make beer in the cecum?

*12 feet of large colon (absorb carbohydrates, which were broken down from cellulose in the cecum.)

*12 feet of small colon (absorbs the water from the soup and turns the poop into balls)

*1 foot of rectum (Holding chamber)

Tooth to tail you end up with over 100 feet of tubing that holds nearly 50 gallons of primordial soup, in an animal that can't even burp.  If any thing goes wrong (kinks, blockages, etc) the animal will be in great distress, and may die.

Years ago, I talked with a vet about the types of problems he most often saw in horses.  He told me "Four legs and a gut, that's all horses are.  If you can work on those, you have over 90% of the problems covered."

Makes my little bit of heartburn seem kind of... insignificant.



  1. 'Question---I wonder, if you gave a horse brewers yeast, would they make beer in the cecum?'

    LOL (with relief that Queen Estes is on the mend)...No, no beer will come out the other end, but Brewer's Yeast is a good thing to feed a horse that is older or one that has just gone through a severe colic or diarrhea episode. Brewer's Yeast, Fast Trak or any supplement that has significant microbials to aid in building up and/or keeping the gut flora levels up speed recovery and help the gut to not have another episode of colic.

    I realize that Estes had a case of sand colic, but older horses do tend to have more colic issues than younger to middle aged horses. A lot of times it is because the microbials (gut flora) do not flourish in their systems. Might I suggest adding water to her feed to help increase her fluid intake, as well as a full recommended dose of some sort of supplement that will help increase her gut flora.

    Do keep an eye on everyone else when you start feeding the phsyllium. If you suspect that they might have sand in their systems as well, the phsyllium can cause colic when they start to pass it. Once a horse is on a regular schedule (2x' a year or whatever) the chance of colic decreases because the sand load is probably minimal.

  2. I had one colic episode with both kids (our doctors definition is colic is when both the mom and baby are crying), and one mild one with my horse. Neither is fun, both causes are mysterious, and I hope to never experience it again.

    The one thing I was surprised by was how horses can't throw up. You'd think such a straightforward, one way system would be a good thing, but sometimes a good upchuck would help.

  3. I know all too well about colic and its many causes after having lost a colt to it four years ago and almost losing Old Red last year. With Red, my vet added Epson Salts to the fluids he pumped in and it worked wonders. I'm glad to hear Estes appears to be doing better now.

  4. Great overview of the extensive nature of the equine gut - so big, so sensitive, and so central to a horse's overall health!

    Colic isn't just blockages in the gut - it's really any kind of gastrointestinal pain. Most times, the vet has no idea what caused it - gas and spasms, blockages (like you mentioned), twists. Sand colic really is one of the few times that colic can be diagnosed. Often, it's related to a problem in the hindgut - can be from feeding large grain meals (which has to be absorbed by the small intestine, but often moves to quickly to be digested and interferes with the hindgut), bad feed, changing feeds too quickly, not enough water - and so many other things.

    Glad to hear your horse made it through - and sorry to hear that some fellow readers have lost horses to colic. Always scary, always heartbreaking.

  5. Loads of good information... And as our equine vet says: the only reason a horse poops is because there's more poop pushing it out.

    Only, he said it a bit more colorfully!


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