Colic Versus Tying Up: How to Tell the Difference

Author’s note: This is not an exhaustive, academic piece on colic and tying up. It is simply a quick primer on two equine diseases meant to give you some basic differences between the two.

The very first article I ever wrote for publication was about how to tell the difference between colic and tying up. It was originally published in the Quarter Horse Journal in 1997ish time frame, but for the life of me, I cannot find the source file for that article. It wasn’t much, about two pages is all, but it was the very first thing that someone actually paid me to write about. I’d pretty much forgotten about until I was serving as the lone IBM outpost in Montana, holed up in my Dad’s office. I looked up and spied this old bottle of colic medicine up on the window sill. (I think I looked up to get away from his slide collection.) Max and Sue, old friends of my parents, had spotted that particular gem in an antique store and knew just the man for it. It got me to thinking, however, that perhaps colic is a good topic to revisit. Good, basic knowledge is always useful.

What Is Colic?

Try placing your ear on your horse’s belly and listening for a moment. A normal, healthy horse guy has a lot going on inside. You’ll hear gurgling, burbling, all kinds of action going on in there. When a horse colics, however, all of those healthy gut noises decrease substantially or stop altogether due to intestinal blockage or torsion, problems with a pregnancy, or intestinal parasites. (So yes, this is yet another reason to deworm your horse regularly.)

Colic is an equine disease that can affect any horse, but simply put, it means that a horse is experiencing abdominal pain. Horses experiencing colic may paw the ground, roll, or try to nip at their own belly. As their pain grows in severity, colicking horses may roll or flail on the ground, kick or bite violently at their abdominal region. Depending on the severity of the colic, surgery may be required.

What Does It Mean When a Horse “Ties Up”

Exertional rhabdomyolysis, azoturia, and polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) are some of the technical, somewhat scary names given to a horse that is tying up, but they all refer to one thing: severe muscle cramping or muscle pain. Think of it as extreme version of a charlie horse that you might get in a muscle. This is what happens when your horse ties up:

  • Your horse stiffens up and does not want to move. This “hardening” is often most apparent in the large, heavy muscles of the horse’s hind legs. If you place your hands on your horse’s back or hind quarters, the muscles will feel solid, more rocklike than organic.
  • Sweat–more severe cases will see shaking or a thick, sticky sweat
  • Increased pulse and respiration rates
  • Pawing or trying to lie down
  • In acute instances of tying up, the horse’s urine will turn a dark, reddish-brown colour. Those rocklike muscles you felt on the horse’s back and hind end have been damaged, causing myoglobin to be passed into its urine.

PSSM is a genetic disorder that can cause chronic muscle pain and episodes of tying up. Performance horses are oftentimes more susceptible to tying up as they have regular exercise schedules.

Common-Sense Prevention

Here are a few, common-sense ideas to help you prevent your horse from colicking or tying up.

  • Make certain that your horse has ready access to plenty of fresh, clean water. Just like humans, horses need lots of water to remain hydrated and to aid digestion. The average person needs 8-10 glasses of water per day, but the average horse will drink anywhere from 5-10 gallons of water per day.
  • Feed a minimum level of grain. Unless your horse has a high-level activity schedule–think horse show, rodeo, jumping, eventing, or any type of regular exertion–you may not even need to feed grain. If your horse is not being exercised for a few days, consider cutting back on its grain until its exercise schedule resumes.
  • Feed the highest quality of hay that you can. And when you do feed hay, make certain that your horse isn’t ingesting a lot of sand during feeding. This can help you to avoid sand colic.
  • Discuss supplement and mineral usage with your veterinarian. He or she may recommend selenium, vitamin E, or electrolytes.

If you suspect that your horse is either colicking or tying up, do the following:

  1. Take the horse’s pulse, temperature, and respiration rates, and listen for gut sounds. For a horse, a normal pulse rate is 28-44 beats per minute, the normal temperature is 99-101°F (37.2-38.3°C), and the normal respiration rate is 10-24 breaths per minute. In Doc Randall’s opinion, the horse’s pulse is the most important thing to measure, but it is the vital sign most often left out.
  2. Check your horse’s gums as this will give you some insight as to how a colicky horse might be feeling. For a horse, the normal color is pale pink or even a pinkish white. It is neither normal nor a good sign for a horse’s gums to be purple.
  3. Denote any odd behavior such as pawing, rolling, or flailing. Horses that are colicking will often nip or bite at their abdominal region.
  4. Listen to your horse’s abdomen, denoting what sounds you hear. Keep in mind that while colic does mean “abdominal pain,” your horse may still have normal GI sounds if they have an ulcer or spasmodic colic (crampy gut).
  5. Check for fresh horse poop, taking care to see what it looks like. Does it look dry? How much of is there? How often has your horse been pooping?
  6. Determine if your horse has been drinking any water.
  7. Call your veterinarian. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian exactly what you are seeing. Additionally, don’t wait until the evening to call your veterinarian. If surgery is needed, it might be difficult for her to round up a surgical team on short notice.
  8. Hook your trailer up. Odds are pretty good that you’re going to your vet clinic. On the plus side, both Doc Randalls testify that many a trailer ride has fixed a colic.
  9. If you are positive that your horse is colicking, hand-walk your horse. If your horse is colicking badly, be prepared for the horse to be resistant and to not want to move.
  10. If your horse is tying up, move your horse to a stall immediately and cease unnecessary movement.
  11. If your horse colics or ties up regularly, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to determine an ongoing treatment and management plan.

A lot of what these veterinary blog posts talk about may seem common sense or old hat, but sometimes we all need reminders on some of the basics. After all, the very best medicine is often times good common sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s