A horse showing sudden signs of discomfort may need veterinary attention. Until the veterinarian arrives, you can often make a difference by how you handle and treat that horse.
First, however, you need to determine whether the horse is suffering from colic (abdominal pain), or muscle pain due to muscle cramps.
In an emergency situation, how you treat these conditions will be different, so you need to determine which it is.
A close evaluation can give clues regarding how serious the condition might be. Check vital signs such as temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, capillary refill time and color of the gums.
Listen to the abdomen with a stethoscope to assess gut sounds - whether or not there are any gut sounds, their frequency, and the type of sounds. If there are no gut sounds, this means things are shutting down, which is not a good sign.
Every horse owner should invest in a thermometer and stethoscope and learn how to use them. You need to know what your horse's normal temperature, heart rate and respiration rate is, and be able to listen to gut sounds.
Though you may not be able to differentiate between types of breathing, types of pulses and types of gut sounds, you can count gut contractions and gurgles -how many per minute.
If you have a record for each horse's "normal", this gives a baseline for comparison. If he's not isn't violently colicky, you can check those vital signs, and after you walk the horse around awhile, check again.
If those signs aren't going back toward normal after an hour, call your veterinarian.
Learn how to check capillary refill. Lift the lip, find a pink spot on the gum and press it for a few seconds with your thumb, then see how quickly that spot turns pink again. It should turn pink in 2 seconds or less.
If it takes 3 seconds this indicates a little shock, 4 to 5 is mild shock, and 7 seconds or longer (and subnormal temperature) is severe shock and a medical emergency.
Check to see whether the horse is passing manure. He may pass a little manure at first and then cease - if there is a blockage or shutdown. Examination of the manure may give clues - whether dry and hard, or sort and runny, or contains sand.
The history of the horse can be helpful - such as a sudden change of feed or overload on grain. If he hasn't been drinking enough water, he may have an impaction. Monitor him closely and if signs are serious or become worse, call your veterinarian.
If the horse is trying to roll violently, keep him on his feet (if possible) until the veterinarian arrives, and ask the veterinarian if you should give a dose of Banamine in the meantime.
If you live a long ways from medical help, some veterinarians will prescribe Banamine for you to have on hand, to be given in certain situations.
Keep in mind that any drugs you give the horse could temporarily mask the seriousness of certain conditions and make the veterinarian's job harder for proper diagnosis when he/she does arrive.
Muscle cramping (tied-up muscles) associated with exercise is often mistaken for colic because the horse is uncomfortable and may paw and sweat, but if you try to walk him (as you would for colic), you will make his condition worse.
You need to make a quick determination regarding how to handle the situation.
There are two kinds of severe muscle cramping: sporadic and chronic. Overwork in a normal horse can occasionally cause muscle cramping if he is not in fit condition for the work.
More frequent episodes can be due to a genetic defect in muscle metabolism. These horses may tie up soon after starting exercise - even mild exercise - especially if they have not been getting regular exercise.
This condition has been called azoturia, Monday-morning disease, tying up, set fast, or corded. It involves painful cramping of large muscles in the rump and, sometimes thigh and shoulders. Signs range from minor discomfort to collapse and death.
Muscle cramping generally occurs during or after exercise. Chronic tying up occurs early in a workout or soon after exercise begins and is caused by inherited muscle abnormalities.
There are two distinct types: polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) in Quarter Horses, draft horses and warmbloods (horses with heavy muscles), and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER) in Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Arabians.
By contrast, sporadic (infrequent) tying up can occur in any horse, and usually occurs after many hours of steady work and muscle fatigue. The horse may have worked too hard for his fitness level, or strained some muscles.
Dehydration from a long day of hard work may lead to inadequate blood circulation to tired muscles. These horses will usually be fine if rested, but in some cases may need fluids and electrolytes. This type of tying up can be prevented by not overworking a horse beyond his abilities.
Signs of tying up may appear suddenly. The horse comes to a stiff halt, begins to sweat, is reluctant to move, and may want to lie down.
If you run your hand over the rump muscles, they are tight, stiff, and sore--similar to sudden cramping in your own leg when you sprint or do something you're not used to.
It may look like the horse has a urinary problem because of his stretched-out stance. If he can walk at all, his hind legs are stiff and dragging. The longer the cramp lasts, the more intense the pain because the muscle is deprived of oxygen.
The spasm squeezes the capillaries, hindering blood flow. There may be a peculiar odor to the horse's breath, urine, and sweat--and his urine will be darker than normal.
In mild cases, signs disappear within a few hours if the horse is given immediate and complete rest and not moved. In moderate cases the horse is anxious, trembling, very stiff and reluctant to move, and these signs may last for 24 to 48 hours.
If pain is extreme the horse will go down. Severe cases need immediate veterinary assistance.
Prompt treatment usually relieves the cramping. While waiting for the vet, blanket the horse to keep him warm and relaxed, avoiding movement.
The veterinarian may treat him with tranquilizers, pain relievers, and muscle relaxants to increase blood flow and relieve spasms. If muscle cramps are relieved in an hour or less, chances are good the horse will recover swiftly.