One night last winter I got a phone call from an anxious client. His 20 year old Arabian mare was in distress. Ordinarily this is a very cranky animal, but tonight she was depressed. She kept pawing with one front leg, and every so often would look around at her left flank. What concerned this man the most was the fact that the mare kept trying to lie down. He and his wife had been keeping her on her feet by walking her. In fact, when he called the horse had already been walked for two hours. I had some trouble talking to him, because every few seconds he would interrupt our phone conversation to yell out to his wife, “Keep her walking. Don’t let her go down!”
After I had seen the mare and the situation was under control, I asked him why he had been so insistent on walking her. He replied that he had always heard that colicky horses should be walked. I’ve often heard this myself, but after many years of attending colics I no longer agree.
When you see a horse in pain, it is natural to want to help. The something that everyone can do is to snap a lead shank on the horse and start walking. Often when I pull in a barn yard on a colic call, I spot the two walkers. Some people will walk their horses about 100 feet, turn and walk back. Others seem to favor a large diameter circle walk. Sometimes, before I get called “the walk” has been going on for a long time and there is a deep groove in the dirt where the horse has been walked. By the time I arrive the owners seem to need help as much as the horse.
I am speaking with empathy. At vet school we students had to walk colicky horses. Because the walk is slow and without specific destination, after an hour your feet start to trip over each other. It’s like walking aimlessly through a huge museum or department store. It doesn’t take long before your eyes start to glaze over and your feet and back start to ache. In most cases, I think it’s unnecessary.
Think for a minute. If you had a belly ache, would you go out on a two hour walk? If you are like me, you’d probably head for bed. You would twist and moan until you found a comfortable position, and then stay right there. That’s exactly what a colicky horse wants to do. He will go down, may flip, and get into some real peculiar positions. As he hits the ground and rolls he may pass some gas. If he gets no relief he will probably jump up, walk several steps, and then go down again.
Most colics are no more serious than our occasional stomach aches. The pain is often from some portion of the gut distended by gas. It hurts. The lying down and rolling is an attempt to somehow relieve the pressure. It may help. I don’t buy into the theory that a rolling horse may twist his intestines. Lots of horses roll plenty when turned out in the morning, with no harm done.
A very small percentage of colic cases are in real trouble. One example is a complete twisting of the intestine. You may have to keep this horse walking to keep him from seriously banging his head on the ground until help arrives. You certainly don’t have to walk every horse that has belly pain. Call your vet and describe what the horse is doing. We will often suggest Banamine and have you watch the horse for an hour. If he wants to go down and doesn’t have a roomy stall, turn him out where he has room to lie down without injuring himself. If the Banamine isn’t effective within the hour, call back. If your vet thinks that the colic is serious enough to warrant hospitalization and possible surgery, it’s always a case of the quicker the better. Hours of walking won’t help.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM