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We Are Flying Solo

January 17, 2021

Belly-cosity: Dealing With Troubled Tummies

About a week ago, I went out around 11 pm to give the guys their "midnight snack," a winter routine where I take them warm soaked alfalfa pellets to provide some comfort food when there isn't much grass to nibble on overnight.  As per usual, Solo met me in the shed with a nicker, well-knowing what it means when I come out the back door in the dark, & I waited for Echo to wander in, as he is generally off amusing himself in a farther corner.
He was slower than usual & when he did step into the light of the shed, I noticed that his general attitude was a bit off.  He didn't come all the way up to the front of his spot & he stood with his head down, pawing at the floor, which was also unusual - I watched him more closely.  As Solo dug in to his mush with relish, Echo stated he had no interest in his treat.  Then I noticed he was panting beneath his sheet & I was fairly certain of my answer at that point:  he was feeling colicky.
Some random pics of when he's feeling better
My Colic Protocol
The first thing I do in response to any equine condition aberration is run through a quick timeline of (a) when things changed and (b) what the possible variables are.  In this case:
  • Echo had cleaned up his entire dinner at a normal rate about six hours earlier, appearing bright-eyed & bushy-tailed at that time.
  • He had not yet finished his hay in his net from dinner.  This isn't necessarily unusual by itself, but he had left a bit more than I would expect.
  • I had seen him take several good drinks with dinner & he is generally an enthusiastic drinker, so I didn't yet fear dehydration.
  • After putting him on x-ties, I walked his paddock with a flashlight & found some pretty fresh poo that looked normal.  Returning to shed, I saw he had also pooped in x-ties & that looked normal, so I didn't have immediate impaction concerns.
I took his temperature to confirm it was normal.  In a rare lapse, I didn't have my phone on me to time things (I like to keep it on me primarily for equine response needs), so I couldn't take a true pulse, but I was familiar enough with his baseline that I could tell it wasn't terrible, maybe just a tiny bit elevated. 
Normally, at this point, I call the vet to have him on the radar.  Here, I made an exceedingly rare exception, based on my past experience & knowing the horse.  I have a very long-standing relationship with Dr. Bob, so I was 100% (another exceedingly rare thing for scientist me, heh) certain of what he would tell me to do.  Presented with a horse showing obvious signs of intestinal discomfort -- poor Echo looked EXACTLY like I feel when I have eaten something that has gone horribly wrong -- with no other signs of infection, with poop functioning normally, not dehydrated, not sweating, not rolling around, he would tell me to give bute to ease the belly cramps & monitor.
So I had our phone call in my head as I made up a syringe of bute.  I've learned you can't get a horse who doesn't want food to eat it, so I put the powdered bute in a dosing syringe, mix it with water, & squirt it in their mouth.  You could also use applesauce to make the horse happier, I just didn't have any. 
At that point, it was time to just wait, there was nothing else to be done.  The least stressful thing I could do for him was leave him be in the quiet night, where he could hang out with Solo & let the painkillers do their thing.
It's always a long stretch, staring at your bedroom ceiling, turning things over in your head while your brain imagines all kinds of nightmarish scenarios.  All I could do was just repeat to brain that we covered all the bases & patience was the only option.  I did send an email to vet, so they would see it first thing in the morning -- because of course this was a Thursday night before an ice storm, so if I did need any kind of service the next day, I wanted them to have the info.
As soon as it was light out, I went back out to check on Echo & found that logical brain was validated & emotional brain was once again vanquished -- Baby Monster was back to his normal, obnoxious self, clamoring for breakfast by chewing on anything that I didn't want him to chew on.  To be safe, I gave him only a reduced ration, made into soup with lots of water.  I kept an eye on him through the day, but he was fine, the passing cramps having thankfully gone away.
I'm not sure what triggered this incident; there was a big weather change, but both horses are generally pretty stable digestively with that sort of thing.  I did use a different cut of hay, I'd gotten a few bales to fill a gap while waiting for a new delivery, & while it didn't bother Solo, it's certainly possible that something irritated the more sensitive Echo.  But it's hard to say.   

Being Ready
It's pretty inevitable for any horse to have some colicky episodes; even Solo, my Iron Horse, has had a crampy instance or two.  Many of these will be relatively mild, but as we know, they can go unpredictably awry for innumerable reasons & this can happen with even the very best of care.  While there are never any guarantees, because horses, you can try to stack the deck for yourself by:
  • Learn your horse's routine -- how does he approach his food, what is his energy level, what is his normal expression?  This can help you catch things early, although I recognize that it's trickier if you are boarding, but you can still build a good staff relationship to help monitor these things.  
  • Familiarize yourself with his baseline vitals:  temp, pulse, respiration rate.  Learn the normal colour of his gums, his normal capillary refill time, & his normal water intake.
  • Talk with your vet in a non-stressful time to outline an appropriate general response plan that's right for you.  This is the time to ask questions about when your vet would like you to call them, data they would like you to have ready when you do call, supplies you should have on hand, & any other steps they would like to you to take.
Normal equine values from Horse Side Vet Guide

Hopefully, you won't have to use this plan, but if you do, I've found it improves my ability to mentally & emotionally manage the situation if I have a checklist & some sort of decision tree thought out beforehand.  Are there any other tips you would add?


  1. Glad Echo's bellyache was of the (slightly) less nerve wracking variety. Thanks for sharing the Horse Side Vet Guide app!

    This works well those of us lucky enough to have their horses at home. I always fill Val's 15 gal water tub to the brim - morning and evening, so I don't have to guess at his water consumption for the previous 12 hours.

    1. That's a good tip! Since my two share water sources, I don't know exactly how much each drinks, but I check the tank levels each meal.

  2. I volunteered briefly at an animal rescue after the Sonoma fires in 2017, and the veterinarian there made a big deal about rectal temps below 98 (I don't recall her exact concerns but it was a potential clinical sign in her view). But we could not get a single one of those inexpensive, common digital barn thermometers to display reliable temps and they weren't temping the same as hers. I did some research later and they just aren't that accurate, since they are pretty cheap.

    Thoughts on a slightly nicer thermometer to use so we can pull more accurate rectal temps?

    1. Excellent question, Nicole! So mine is from the vet school, they sent it home with Solo, let's not talk about how much that one cost me, LOL. Lumiscope is the brand, but I don't know the model & I don't know how truly accurate it is.

      There are two elements - accuracy & precision. Accuracy is how close a measurement is to the true value & precision is the repeatability of the measurement. To track a trend, precision is most important, as you really want to know whether the temp is significantly higher or lower than what is normal for your horse, which is why you want to establish what his baseline is. Even between my two horses, Echo is normally a degree cooler than Solo, so they can have individual variation.

      My science brain sees a couple of options available -- (1) ask your vet which tools they recommend. (2) Check your own tool against your vet's during routine visits. (3) Take repeated measurements under different conditions (environmental temps, morning vs. evening, etc) with your own tool on the same horse when they are healthy.

      These steps should give you enough data to be able to identify when things are out of whack. I have not heard before particular concerns about horses being hypothermic, as you mentioned, I will have to look into that more.

  3. Aww glad that it resolved without drama - I definitely love the long standing relationship with a vet where you know what they'll say so you can run through and report back without the intial consult. I miss my old vet.

  4. Whew, that’s a relief. It was really interesting to read about how you analyzed the situation and how you responded. I’m very impressed! Having a wee bank account and some small animal veterinary assistant experience in the past, I’m pretty comfortable with making the emergency/non-emergency call with dogs and guinea pigs (which can colic, too, BTW). But since I don’t own a horse I’ve never had to with one of them.

    Where do you like to measure pulse and respiration? I’d like to check these on my lease guy. I assume my trainer/BO has a thermometer so maybe I could even check that, if it’s not a big deal to Kiefer. He’s generally an easy-going guy so I would expect not. Nobody’s a fan of a butt thermometer overall, though!

    1. Response really does depend a bit on the horse & how well you know them & their history. I did not know guinea pigs can colic, but I guess that makes sense since they graze! Thanks for the new fun fact!

      Since I look at my horses at least twice a day, I don't technically count resp. rate, because it can be confounded if they sniff at something, etc, but I know what their breathing should look like under different conditions, combined with their facial expression (generally, it's hard to pant without looking somewhat distressed). Also watch for unusual nostril flaring, non-normal sounds (wheezing, roaring), & feel with your hand over each nostril to make sure air is coming out evenly & normally. You can also look at flanks to see if it looks like horse is forcing or laboring to move air, even if the breathing rate isn't elevated, it looks different than normal relaxed breathing.

      For "central" pulse, I push my fingers into the base of the neck just in front of the shoulder, at the base of the jugular crease. It can take some digging around & patience to find it. A stethoscope is better & easier, but that would require me to spend more $, so I practiced until I could get a consistent read manually.

      For digital pulse (to check foot pain/inflammation), I wrap my fingers around the medial side (inside) of the pastern, on the rear corner of each foot.

      Remember when taking a pulse, don't use your thumb or forefinger, otherwise you might end up taking your own pulse instead of the horse's. ;-)