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Knowing the warning signs of horse colic

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It’s important to know what to do and what to look for when your horse shows signs of distress.

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It’s important to know what to do and what to look for when your horse shows signs of distress. Photo Store

An emergency can occur at any time and the ability to respond to the situation quickly and appropriately can mean the difference between a positive or negative outcome for your horse.


One of the most common issues a horse owner will have to deal with is colic. Some simple and practical information can help you provide some first aid for your horse until the vet can get there.


Let’s begin by going over what is normal in the horse:
The normal resting heart rate for a horse is between 24-40 beats per minute. The easiest way to measure this is with a stethoscope placed against the chest behind/underneath the left elbow. Alternative means to measure heart rate with your fingers include under the base of the tail or under the curve of the lower jaw at about the level of the eye. It is easiest to count the number of beats that occur during a 15-second period and multiply by 4.


A horse’s normal resting respiratory rate is between 8-20 breaths per minute. This can be measured by watching the animal’s rib cage rise and fall.

Normal temperature for a horse is between 37.0-38.4 C. A digital thermometer purchased at the drug store is handy to have on hand if you own a horse.


Colic is a term used to describe when a horse is experiencing abdominal pain. This pain can be due to benign problems such spasms of the colon or too much gas in the colon, but it can also be due to more serious problems, such as intestinal twists. Horses that are experiencing abdominal pain display several characteristic behaviours that must not be ignored. The main behaviours are pawing at the ground, sweating, rolling on the ground, elevated heart rate (>40bpm), laying down more often, yawning often, lack of appetite and curling the upper lip – this is not an exhaustive list but some of the more typical signs.


If you see these signs, you will want to contact your vet. In the meantime, try to get a heart rate for the vet and try to keep the horse up and walking. Never administer anything to a horse without discussing it with a veterinarian first.


Colic can be a very scary condition for you and your horse.  Knowing what to look for and catching the signs early can make the difference in your horse getting the help it needs.


Chris Bell is an equine veterinarian and surgical specialist who operates Elders Equine Veterinary Service, with clinics in Cartier and Winnipeg. See www.eldersequineclinic.com

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