Yesterday when visiting one of my favourite properties the morning was disturbed with the thought that another horse on a property down the road was in need of assistance. Fortunately the vet was called and knowledgeable horse people were on hand to help the owner get her horse upright and eventually releasing some good sized poops. It reminded me of this article I wrote a decade ago, the advice is still valid and hopefully you won’t ever need the information.
The word ‘colic’ is one most horse owners fear hearing. There are many clinical signs that can be associated with colic to give an owner an early warning. The most common include pawing repeatedly with the front foot, looking back at the flank region, curling the upper lip and arching or twisting the neck, repeatedly raising a rear leg or kicking at the abdomen, lying down, rolling from side to side, sweating, stretching out as if to urinate, kneeling, straining to defecate, distension of the abdomen, loss of appetite, and a decreased number of bowel movements.
In its strictest definition, the term “colic” means abdominal pain. Over the years, it has become a broad term for a variety of conditions that cause the horse to exhibit clinical signs of abdominal pain. Consequently, it is used to refer to conditions of widely varying etiologies and severity. To understand these etiologies, make a diagnosis, and initiate appropriate treatments, the veterinarian must first appreciate the clinically relevant aspects of the horse’s GI anatomy, the physiologic processes involved in movement of ingesta and fluid along the GI tract, and the extreme sensitivity of the horse to the deleterious effects of bacterial endotoxin that normally exists within the lumen of the intestine. Reference Merck Manual www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/21700.htm
As most horses will not exhibit all the above clinical signs, they are a reliable indicator that your horse is in pain. For your veterinarian to make a diagnosis and decide on appropriate treatment he will need to thoroughly examine your horse and consider your horse’s past history for any such episodes. Your horse may have colic because the wall of the intestines has become excessively stretched or otherwise damaged by gas, fluid or feed, excessive tension or obstruction of the bowel, twisting of the intestines, or inflammation or ulceration to all or part of the intestinal tract.
For your vet to be best able to assess your horse, have the following information ready to provide:
The history of the present colic episode and previous episodes, if any. This must be ascertained to determine if the horse has had repeated or similar problems, or if this episode is an isolated event. The responses to treatment are important information as well.
The duration of the episode(s).
The horse’s heart rate, and whether it is normal or has changed.
The colour of the oral mucosa and its speed of refill.
The severity of the pain.
Whether feces have been passed, and their quantity and characteristics.
The horse’s deworming history (schedule of treatment dates, drugs used).
The horse’s dental history (when the teeth were floated last, and whether anything was extraordinary)
Whether any changes in feed or water supply or amount have occurred.
Whether the horse was at rest or exercising when the colic episode started.
When using aromatherapy with a horse who has suspected colic, our aim is to help relieve his pain or stress while waiting for the vet to arrive. As you can see from the brief points extracted from the Merck Veterinary Manual, colic can have several causes and it is very important that you have your veterinarian do a thorough examination to have the best possible outcome for your horse.
Some horses can become dangerous when they are experiencing pain. They can strike out as a reaction to the pain or to annoying outside stimulus you provide while they are distracted by the pain. Because of their olfactory application, essential oils are easily implemented and of remarkable benefit while waiting for your vet.
All you have to do is waft an open bottle under your horse’s nose and let him tell you which essential oil is going to help him the most.
Essentials Oils to Offer in a Colic Situation
Roman Chamomile is very useful to let your horse inhale if he is pawing and chewing at his side; it helps with more aggressive behaviour in a horse that is in pain. It is also useful with a horse that is becoming difficult to handle while uncomfortable.
Peppermint, Fennel and Aniseed will assist a horse that has gas; the scent will assist with its dissipation. These essential oils are also digestive stimulants so in some cases can help improve the motility of the gut.
The cleansing effect of Lemongrass or Lemon may also appeal to your horse. Lemongrass particularly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and has an affinity with smooth muscle, such as that which lines the large intestines.
If you or others at the barn are generating fear around this horse, you can use Frankincense. A few drops in a spray bottle of water with a dash of white alcohol or detergent to disperse can make it a useful spray to clear the air. This can be combined with Bergamot for its ability to clear anxiety; Bergamot is a digestive stimulant and commonly referred to for keeping in check “butterflies in the tummy”. Bergamot is also useful if your horse’s colic has been preceded by a bacterial or viral infection.
Where you suspect some of your horse’s pain may be due to spasm, you can still use Roman Chamomile, however you may also offer Basil or Marjoram to help ease discomfort. Combining these will address spasm effectively and without feeling intrusive, especially with winter time colic where the body needs warming – and for this you could make a blend in cold pressed olive oil, as it also warms the body to apply, if your horse is obliging.
One blend of essential oils I have used with success with horses that are showing early signs of colic is 2 drops of Basil, 5 drops of Bergamot and 3 drops of Lavender in a tablespoon of cold pressed vegetable oil applied to the abdomen of the horse. This blend eases discomfort and stress so the horse is more comfortable while you wait for the vet to arrive.
During winter, Ginger or Pepper essential oils can also bring warmth to the body just from their scent. As some early herbalists believed that most illness was caused by cold invading the body, these two essential oils may just be what is needed. They both target the digestive system and stimulate it into working with more ease.
When recovering from a bout of colic, your horse can be offered essential oils such as carrot seed, garlic and thyme to help his body rebalance the gut and its function so he can again have an efficient digestive system. However you can also offer any other of the above essential oils to your horse; his response may give you further insight into his general disposition after the event.
The added bonus with having these essential oils with your horse while waiting for the vet is that as you offer them to your horse, you also inhale and smell the scents and this will help you with your stress levels. The calmer you are when your horse is in pain, the better both of you will deal with the situation.
It is important that you do not replace veterinarian care with essential oils. Some horses with colic may need either medical or surgical treatments which can only be determined by your veterinarian.
First published Natural Horse Magazine Volume 5 Issue 5 – 2003 written by Catherine Bird