In order to take good care of our horses we have to understand them. And one of the best ways to understand them is to ask questions about them. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about horses and ponies.
Q: A horse at the stable where I take my riding lessons got colic. The instructors knew he was sick because he didn’t eat his feed. He just stood in his stall, pawing at the straw and looking at his sides. The people at the stable kept him walking around to help him recover. Why does a horse with colic have to walk around?
A: Not all horses that get colic need to be walked around. Whether or not horse with colic should be walked depends on what has gone wrong with his intestines.
A horse’s intestines form a very long tube that is narrow in some places and wide in others. A horse has almost 100 feet of intestines packed into his body. (That’s approximately the distance a baseball player runs when he goes from home plate to first base.) To fit inside the horse, the intestines are coiled up with a lot of bends and turns.
Normally, muscles along the walls of the intestines contract and expand to squeeze food and waste material through the long passageway. But many different things can go wrong with this very complex system.
Sometimes the food or waste material passing through a horse’s intestines get stuck in a bend or narrow place and causes colic. If this happens, the horse probably won?t eat his feed and he may stand in his stall or pasture looking glum or listless. Walking a horse with this type of colic helps, because it makes his heart pump blood faster. This speeds up the action of the muscles in his intestines, encouraging them to work normally again.
Another kind of colic makes horses feel the same way you do when you eat too much. Overeating makes your stomach strain to digest all the food. When a horse gulps down too much of certain foods, his overloaded intestines have to do extra work to process the food. This is probably the kind of colic the horse at your riding stable had. It hurts more than colic caused by stuck food, and that’s why he was pawing and looking at his belly. Here too, walking can relieve the horse’s discomfort and help get his intestines back to normal.
These are just two of the many types of colic horses can get. For example, the horse’s intestines may be twisted or pinched. Horses with this sort of colic should not be walked around. If you find you horse thrashing about, rolling in his stall or pasture and sweating a lot, he may have this kind of colic. Food and wastes are stuck in his intestines, and the flow of blood to that area is cut off. The condition causes great pain and is a very dangerous type of colic.
If your horse is showing signs of serious colic by his violent behavior and heavy sweating, call a veterinarian immediately and have someone help you keep your horse calm so that he won?t hurt himself or you.
Q: My pony foundered last spring and the veterinarian said it happened because he ate too much grass. How can what he eats cause problems in the feet?
A: When a horse or pony founders, the soft inside layers of his hooves tear away from the hard outer parts. Normally, these two portions are linked by millions of tiny fibers. The soft inner layers of the hoof have blood flowing through them, but the tough outer parts, which are somewhat like your finger nails, do not. Sometimes when these layers of fibers peel away from each other, the main bone inside the hoof also slips out of place. If this happens, the horse or pony isn?t likely to recover enough to be ridden.
These events inside the hoof can happen for many reasons. In your pony’s case, his stomach probably wasn’t used to the grass he was eating. In the spring, grass is very rich and harder to digest than some foods.
When a horse or pony’s stomach can’t digest something, his system produces certain chemicals. In large amounts these chemicals can be poisonous. As these poisons seep into the bloodstream, they eventually travel to the feet. Because the horse’s feet have the smallest blood vessels, the poisons usually collect there. Gradually, as the amount of poisonous chemicals builds up in a horse’s feet the hard outer layers of the hooves begin to separate from the soft inner parts.
Although foundered ponies can often be cured, they can easily founder again. From now on, you’ll have to be extra careful not to let your pony have rich treats like spring grass and grain because they could do him more harm than good.
Q: People have to sleep lying down in bed. How can horses sleep standing up in their stalls?
A: Horses can rest standing up but they can’t go into a deep sleep without lying down. They are able to rest while standing because they have a special set of supports (tendons and ligaments) in their legs that can be “locked” in standing position. When a horse has “locked” his legs in place, his muscles don’t have to work as hard to keep him upright. (You can lock your knees, too, but you’ll notice that your balance isn’t very good.)
To go into a very deep sleep a horse needs to relax all of his muscles completely, including those in his legs, so he lies down when he is preparing to take a good long snooze.
Q: What does the frog do?
A: The triangular part of the bottom of the hoof, which is called the frog, helps your horse’s foot absorb the impact it gets when he throws his weight on it to walk, trot or canter.
When you horse’s hoof hits the ground, the outer portion spreads a little bit, even though it is hard, as it absorbs the shock. When it does, the rubbery frog widens. Then, after your horse takes his weight off the hoof, the frog contracts and pulls the outside part back in again.