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The Mountain Behind the Barn


Horse manure.  You’ve shoveled, forked, lifted, pushed and pulled your share of it. You might not want to read about it, but the condition of that manure can be a clue to your horse’s health.

Have a horse long enough and you might start grumbling about the quantity of all that poop. A good size horse will produce somewhere around 50 pounds a day.  That adds up to nine tons a year! Unfortunately, this is just a fact of life that goes with animals on a mostly roughage diet.  We grumble about the amount, but if a horse hasn’t made any for awhile it’s time to be concerned.

Impaction, or as the old horsemen used to say, “stoppage”, is the most common cause of lack of manure in a horse that is eating. An impaction is a tightly wedged mass of food material in the large intestine. Impacted horses will show some signs of colic.  The pain is less severe than a gas colic or twisted intestine, but can last days instead of hours.

I don’t feel like I have completely examined a horse until I have walked into the stall and kicked some manure apart. The amount, form, color, consistency and smell can all provide clues as to what is going on inside the horse.

Horse manure is formed in balls because of the anatomy of the last several feet of the horse’s intestine. This section is not just a smooth flexible pipe. It looks more like a long garter snake that has swallowed a string of tennis balls. Water is absorbed from the fecal material on its way through, and toward the end it is easily molded, taking on that ball  shape.  When the manure loses its form and become more like cow flops there may be a problem.  Some horses get loose when they are nervous, but if a watery diarrhea persists its time for a vet visit.

There are other things to watch for.  Long, obvious pieces of undigested feed in the manure may be an indication of a dental problem causing improper chewing of roughage.  The next time your vet is out I’d have them examine the teeth.

Some horses graze very close and will pick up gravel or sand as they graze.  This grit in the horse’s intestine tends to collect in the colon and can cause sand colic.  You can check for this by taking a good handful of manure and putting it in a bread bag. Mix well with water and hang the bag up. Within 15 minutes the heavy sand will settle down to the bottom of the bag.  Sand can be cleared out by using feeding psyllium (the ingredient in Metamucil) on a regular basis.

Internal bleeding anywhere along the intestine also shows up in the manure.  If the bleeding occurs in the stomach or small intestine, the blood will be partially digested and will darken the manure.  If the bleeding in the large intestine, the manure will have streaks of red in it.

Internal intestinal parasites use the host’s manure as a vehicle to get their eggs out.  For this reason, it’s important to keep your horses away from the manure pile.  Letting horses graze around the manure pile multiplies worm problems.   Manure provides an easy way to check on your horses worm load.  When your vet visit is scheduled save some from the morning clean out to be analyzed. Put a sample (a tablespoon is plenty) in a labeled zip lock bag for them to take back to the lab.

Some people are quite adept at noticing a difference in the smell of manure. I had a technician years ago who could tell by that difference that a horse was about to get sick.  She would know a good 24 hours before there were any other signs.

All this boils down to knowing what normal manure is for your horse. You handle it every day anyway. Get into the habit of tearing a ball or two apart with your foot, shovel, or fork before it goes into the wheelbarrow. It soon becomes a habit and is just another part of good horsemanship.



-David A. Jefferson, DVM

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