In this article, we follow on from the emergency conditions considered in Part One (Cuts and other wounds) to deal with colic, tying up, blocked gullet (sometimes called ‘choke’) and the horse caught in an electric fence.
There are many possible causes of colic or sudden severe abdominal pain, and colic can range from mild to severe and fatal.
- Mild colic may cause only restlessness and mild agitation.
- Severe colic causes extreme distress with sweating, pawing, rolling, looking round at the flanks, kicking at the belly, complete loss of appetite and recumbency.
Colic is a particularly distressing condition for horses because they don’t tolerate pain well at all so they become very distressed and severe colic can be fatal.
- In mild colic it may help to walk the horse around slowly, keep it calm, don’t feed it, and consult a vet if the discomfort persists or worsens.
- With severe colic, the horse will be sweating or getting up and down repeatedly. Contact a vet immediately. Until he or she arrives you can walk it around slowly, watch for passage of faeces (a good sign and your vet will want to know) and try not to let it roll. Even the most severe colic can sometimes be treated successfully but the earlier the better.
Tying up is when the horse suddenly develops crippling cramp in some of its major muscle masses. It may occur anytime, but often during or after exercise.
The signs of tying up are that the horse suddenly seizes up and has difficulty walking.
- Stop exercise and unsaddle the horse.
- Walk it slowly around.
- Massage the affected muscles gently for a few minutes.
- The muscles most often affected are those along the back behind the saddle, which may feel hard and even knotted.
- Then walk the horse slowly round for a few minutes, and repeat the massage and walking until the stiffness and cramps subside.
- Keep the affected muscles warm with a rug or cover.
- Walk the horse home or take it home on a float.
- Consult your vet.
Complete muscle “lock-up” is a very serious condition. Severe permanent muscle and kidney damage may result.
- Don’t force the horse to walk or move
- Send for your vet immediately and urgently.
- Rug the horse to keep it warm
When a horse guzzles dry feed too quickly, a wad can become stuck in its gullet, leading to the distressing condition, ‘choke’. This can be very serious in horses, because unlike many other mammals, they have a very long soft palate at the back of the mouth which means that they can’t vomit and they can’t breathe through their mouth. If the gullet is blocked, saliva and food that are swallowed build up in the gullet above the obstruction and spill up into the throat then down the nose. The horse will cough, splutter, frothy fluid will come down its nostrils and it may drown in its own saliva.
If you suspect choke get your vet out right away. In the meantime:
- walk the horse round quietly in the hope that the obstruction will move on down into the stomach
- it can help if you try to distract the horse to relieve its anxiety, because the more anxious it gets the less likely it is that the obstruction will move on
When horses are fed chunky foods like small whole apples or carrots, there is a risk that a chunk will get stuck in the throat, causing the horse to choke. If there is no expert on hand, you can only try to keep the horse as calm as possible and hope that the object is choked up or swallowed spontaneously. If you are lucky, it may be possible to get a vet on site immediately, or there may be an experienced horseman around who is prepared to try to remove the object manually.
‘There’s a horse caught in the electric fence!’
Another nightmare scenario. If a horse is caught in a live electric fence you must stop the shocks or the horse will die of shock in a few minutes.
- Find a way to earth the fence or reduce its power quickly.
- You can do this by making contact between the wire and the ground.
- If you are wearing gumboots or rubber soles, stand on the electric wires.
- Alternatively, throw a fence standard (preferably a plastic one) across the fence and stand on it. You will get a shock from a metal one unless you are wearing rubber footwear.
- Once the fence is earthed, make sure the wire stays in contact with the ground before handling the horse.
- When the horse is free of the wire it will be suffering from shock.
- Keep it warm, offer it water and after a while a light feed.
- Stay with it until it seems settled and is grazing normally again.
- If it remains dull or won’t eat, call your vet.
There are of course many other serious and even life threatening conditions that can develop suddenly that require emergency action on your part. These include:
- Eye injury
- Broken limbs
- Acute founder (laminitis)
- Severely sprained tendons (acute lameness)
It’s not possible here to summarise the first aid required in all these scenarios, but the best general advice it so consult a vet or a very experienced horseman immediately and take whatever common sense action you can to relieve the horse’s distress and maximise the chances of it being given effective treatment.
Prevention is not good luck, it’s good management!
It’s stressful even thinking about these nightmare emergencies. Hopefully you won’t have to experience any of them. And as with so many other conditions, good management, a good steady food supply and good safe paddocks will help prevent them from occurring.