Protecting the Health & Well-Being of Your Horse
During Show Season
By Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald
During the winter months, you are in preparation mode for the upcoming show season, working diligently to get your horse fit and well trained for your chosen discipline. As part of your preparations, it is important to consider the health and well-being of your horse during the show season, which is, from your horse’s point of view, often a highly stressful time.
Colic, a broad term describing abdominal pain, is a constant concern of every horse owner. Colic is not a disease, but a symptom of a disease, and any horse can experience an episode of colic. There are many causes of colic, but these causes are generally related to changes in the anatomy and microflora of the gut. In addition, a number of factors can contribute to those changes. Some of the common causes of colic can be an abrupt change in feed or routine, stress, pain, sand ingestion, dental problems, or heavy parasite burden.
How do we recognize a colic episode in our horse?
Signs of a colic episode can vary in severity. Mild signs include not finishing a meal, decreased manure production, stretching out in a similar way in preparation to urinate, but not actually passing any urine, standing quietly but inappropriately sweating, or an increased respiratory rate. These symptoms are vague; a horse with a fever may display some of these symptoms, but these are early signs that something is not right and that you must pay close attention.
More obvious signs of colic include lying down, flank watching, abnormal mentation, persistent pawing, lip curling, and throwing themselves against the walls of their stall. Sometimes, a horse will be unusually quiet and seemingly depressed during a colic episode.
Severe signs include a visibly bloated abdomen, persistent rolling, getting up and down frequently, and lying down for long periods of time, which is not normal behavior for a horse. Thirty-minute prone rest is typical, but lying down for extended periods is a clear sign that something is not right.
Each colic episode is unique and should be taken seriously. Some horses will have mild colic signs that rapidly progress, and others will start showing very severe signs at the start. Every horse has a different pain threshold and a different way of exhibiting discomfort, so knowing your horse’s “normal” behavior is imperative in order to monitor their health appropriately.
My horse is stabled at a showground and is showing colic symptoms. What now?
Immediately remove any feed left in the stall. Your horse should not consume any additional feed until their condition has been evaluated. Contact a veterinarian as soon as you notice your horse is exhibiting signs of colic. Most of the larger shows have an equine veterinarian on-site or have recommendations for veterinarians in the area. Make sure that you always carry information with you regarding any medications that the horse is currently taking and an accurate history of their care. The veterinarian will observe your horse to gauge their pain level, complete a physical examination and a rectal exam, and pass a nasogastric tube before advising on appropriate treatment and care.
What can I do to mitigate a colic episode during the show season?
There are many risk factors associated with traveling and competing our horses. Sudden changes in routine and diet, being confined to a stall for many hours of the day, and limited access to turnout can all contribute to a colic episode. Some horses cope with stress better than others, but sticking to as close to your normal routine as possible is important. If possible, feed your horse their usual grain at the same time as you do at home. Offer free-choice hay brought with you from their usual supply, and carefully monitor their manure output. Take note of changes in manure consistency, and monitor closely if you see changes.
It is especially important to closely monitor your horse’s water consumption. Dehydration can put your horse at a higher risk for impaction colic. An average 1,000-pound horse requires approximately 6 to 10 gallons of water a day, but may require more in particularly hot weather or if working hard. Keep in mind that horses typically do not enjoy drinking frigid water. If the weather is very cold, it might be a good idea to use a heated bucket to encourage your horse to drink.
Providing a salt lick in the stall is also good practice. And get your horse out of the stall as much as you can. Frequent exercise will keep your horse’s gut moving!
Not every cause of colic is preventable, but there are some steps that you can take to try and decrease the risk of colic episodes. You know your horse better than anyone. Monitoring your horse’s behavior, thinking ahead, and taking simple precautions will help to ensure that you and your horse have a safe and enjoyable show season!
Elizabeth MacDonald, BVMS, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (LAIM) Clinical Instructor in Equine Medicine
Dr. MacDonald earned a bachelor of arts in biology from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, before completing a bachelor of veterinary medicine and surgery with honors at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. She also completed a master of science in biomedical and veterinary sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 2015.
Prior to being named a clinical instructor at the Equine Medical Center, Dr. MacDonald completed an internship at the New England Equine Practice in Patterson, New York, and a residency in large animal internal medicine at the Marion duPont Equine Medical Center.