Recognize Potential Emergencies


Colic, by definition means "abdominal pain." Problems arising from any of the organs within the horse's abdomen can produce pain, and the horse will present with signs of colic. By far, the most common causes of colic are problems involving the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), i.e. the stomach, small and large intestine.  

The horse has a relatively small stomach and a long intestinal tract. The midsection of the small intestine (the jejunum) is approx 65' or 19.5 m long and attached to a long membrane through which run blood vessels that nourish the gut. The large intestine folds back on itself several times, and narrows at these points. The anatomy helps to explain why the GI tract develops excess gas build-up, displacements, impactions and obstructions, and torsions and "twists" that not infrequently result in the blood supply to the gut being compromised.  

The signs of colic can include any of the following: repeated pawing with a front foot, looking back at the flank area, curling the upper lip and arching the neck, kicking at the abdomen, lying down, rolling, repeatedly getting up and down, straining to pass manure, loss of appetite, depression, and sweating. Depending on the type of colic and its duration, you may notice a change in the colour of your horse's mucus membranes (pale or white, or dark red to purple) if you look at his gums in his mouth.  

Depending on the cause of the colic, the horse's condition can deteriorate within hours, hence the need to communicate with your veterinarian early in the course of the illness.

Some types of colic can be successfully managed with medical treatment only. Often impaction colic associated with the presence of dry ingesta in the large bowel is treated successfully with a protocol involving any or all of:  analgesics, fluid therapy, intestinal lubricants or laxatives, and drugs to protect against endotoxin.  

Some types of colic require surgery to resolve. Colics due to a mechanical obstruction in the intestine that cannot be relieved medically or colic in which the blood supply to the intestine is obstructed will require surgery. Horses with these types of colics usually deteriorate relatively rapidly due to the level of pain and the ensuing shock. Fluid therapy and analgesics are given to help stabilize the patient. The decision to have surgery performed is usually made after considering several factors such as the horse's age, past medical history and physical state at the time of referral to a surgical hospital, the type of colic and its duration and response to treatment, the distance to the surgical unit, the costs entailed, and the possibility of a successful outcome. The prognosis for survival with a successful surgical outcome improves if the decision to perform surgery can be made as soon as possible.

Acute Allergic Reactions

Acute allergic reactions that affect the entire horse's system are known to occur and depending on their severity can be life-threatening.  

Horses may present with any or all of these signs: sudden onset of laboured or difficult breathing, a drop in blood pressure (the pulse may feel abnormal), sudden onset of hives and collapse. These kinds of reactions have been reported in association with the administration of compounds such as vaccines, antibiotics (like penicillin), vitamin E-selenium preparations and thiamine to name a few.   

Contact your veterinarian should your horse begin to show any of these signs. Treatment, when needed, is likely to include an injection of epinephrine with or without drugs such as corticosteroids and antihistamines.   If your horse experiences this type of reaction, make sure to note it in his medical record as well as the circumstances under which the reaction occurred, the date, treatment and response.


On _______, "Rusty" was given ____ml of _______ for _________.  He then developed_______ within _____ minutes of injection.  Dr ___________ examined him at ________and administered ________________.  The outcome was successful, and he was back to normal by ____________.   

The "Down" Horse

Finding your horse down and unable to rise is a definite cause for concern. However before rushing into the area, remember that it will be important to not put yourself or others at risk as you attempt to help him. Do what you can only if it is safe for you to do so.

There are many reasons for a horse being down: an injury (e.g. broken bones), neurological disease (e.g. rabies), exhaustion due to heat stress/heat stroke, severe colic, shock, poor body condition, exposure to some toxins are just a few possibilities.  

If it is possible, secure the area to prevent other animals from running through and possibly further injuring your horse or yourself.  

If your horse is struggling as you approach him, it is important to try and calm him with your voice.  

Make sure you look around the area. You may see an obvious reason for his inability to rise: he may have caught his foot or leg or halter in such a way that he is unable to get up. If you are unable to extricate him safely, call your veterinarian (for assessment and possible sedation) and your local emergency rescue services or fire department (this group has a variety of equipment at their disposal for emergency rescues).

If it is safe to do so, perform a quick examination of your horse looking for any obvious injuries that he may have sustained such as bleeding wounds for which you can administer first aid. If the weather or his condition dictates it, you can cover him with a blanket to protect him and keep him warm while you wait for help to arrive. If he is on his side, positioning a folded blanket under his head will protect his eye on the "down" side from being abraded. Stand and work over him from his "back" side, which is safer, and not his "leg" side.