It was my first visit to Barbara’s barn. I had just finished a routine physical exam and vaccinations on her 12 year old mare, Ginger. I asked Barbara if she had any concerns, and she replied, “Yes, there is something. Ginger occasionally gets belly aches. Why would that be?” I questioned Barbara about the barn feeding schedule, amount and type of hay and grain, and anything I could think of that might give us a clue. I did learn that the episodes came just every so often, and that an oral dose of Banamine made her comfortable every time. Barbara had made some feed changes, but couldn’t remember there being any connection with the colic episodes. She also couldn’t recall any special relationship to weather, time of day, or the season. After 10 minutes of conversation I was stumped as well, and suggested that she consider keeping a daily journal on Ginger.
After many years of practice I have found very few owners who keep daily records on their horses. Those that do have a wealth of information at their fingertips and when mysteries like Ginger’s colics come up, a pattern often emerges that that can give you an answer.
Here is what I suggest. First, get an inexpensive notebook. Just a simple spiral one works fine. Enter the date in the left margin. After that, write in your entry. It’s that simple, and should be kept simple. When the pages start to fill, you have something very powerful. Keep one book for each horse, and keep the journals in the barn where they belong. Resist the temptation to put the entries on your smart phone or in your computer. If you are like me, you’ll forget to put the entry into your computer when you get back inside the house. There are smart phone aps for this, but they are still not as good as a notebook. You may not have the phone in the barn, and if you are away, no one else has access to the information.
Here’s a sample of what a typical page on a made up horse might look like:
3/1/14 Spring vaccines (EWE-Tet on left side of neck, rabies on right). Vet says teeth OK for now. Cataract in left eye about the same. Still not enough to cause any significant vision problems. Taped for weight. 1050 pounds
3/2 Doesn’t want to put head down. Sore to touch right side of the neck. Called vet. Advised hot packs, who said, if no better call back. Hot packed 2x before going to bed. Eating ok. Temp 100.5
3/5 Neck OK. Can get head down now. Vet here to check boarder’s horse. Felt neck and said next time we should spread shots out. Maybe give the rabies in hind quarter instead of the neck.
3/7 Lunged for 20 minutes. Moving well.
4/2 Up to 45 minutes of work. At end of ride resists going right. Legs not swollen. Foot seems OK.
4/3 Walks OK, but lame RF at trot on lunge. Called vet. Told me to check pulse RF and check bottom of foot. Pulse stronger than LF . Abscess? Vet said could come out tomorrow if still a mystery. Soaked with Epsom salts for 20 minutes tonight.
4/5 3 legged lame this AM. John the farrier was in barn and he checked. Foot sensitive with testers over 2nd nail hole on inside of RF foot. Found tract and opened it to drain. Told me to soak for 2 more days and to keep a boot on that foot. Soaked once tonight .
Some of the entries may quite ordinary , but they are packed with information. Writing down where the vaccines were given is always useful in case a horse does get a reaction. Noting which leg was lame and what was done becomes a permanent record. We think we’ll never forget, but without it being entered, we probably won’t even remember which leg it was months later.
Wondering about Barbara and her mare Ginger? Barb did start keeping a journal, and made an entry every time the mare got colicky. She made a note of weather conditions and any changes in her management. The colics continued, off and on for several months. The next time I was in the barn was almost a year later, and I asked to see her journal. When we looked at it together, we found the pattern! All along I had been thinking that her colic was intestinal and somehow diet related. But when we read the entries, we saw that Ginger’s colicky episodes were always toward the end of her heat cycles. It seemed like her colics were from ovary pain when she was about to ovulate. The clincher was that the record showed that Ginger never colicked from October until January. Those are the months that most mares do not come into heat. Without the journal entries we would still be trying to figure it out. I did an ultrasound exam of her reproductive tract. Everything looked normal. The recurring colics (the word just means abdominal pain) were from the pain she felt close to ovulation. The one dose of Banamine that Barbara was using was an appropriate drug for what was going on, and there was no need to investigate further. In time Barbara put the mare on an herbal remedy designed to lesson painful ovulation and smooth out heat cycles. The mare has not colicked since.
I keep the journals for my two donkeys in separate spiral notebooks right in the feed trunk in my tack room. Each has a ballpoint pen clipped to the cover so that I don’t have to go back to the house for one. Vaccinations, dental work, and other medical stuff is all entered. Comments by the farrier are noted. If one of my guys is off feed I enter pulse, temperature, and respiration. I also note any severe weather or other changes that might be going on that day.
Keeping a separate horse journal for each of your animals is a good equine management tool, and important in becoming more aware of what is going on with your horses. It is invaluable when you are looking for answers. It doesn’t take many months of journaling for patterns to become evident.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM