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The Walking and Colic Thing

While I’m sort of used to it, one of the articles that I posted not so long ago generated a whole lot of controversy. It was about Colic Myths. And one of the myths that was particularly objectionable, at least to some people, was the myth—and it is a myth—that you should walk a horse with colic no matter what.

Before I get started, I want to make sure that we get a few things clear. Walking isn’t a substitute for good management. If your horse is in pain, call your veterinarian, and follow his or her advice (including if he or she says to walk your horse). Don’t let your horse thrash around and hurt himself if he’s in pain.

But should you force an undiagnosed horse with colic pain to walk? That is, should you walk your horse no matter what? Well…here’s the entire section that generated the hubbub.*

“COLIC MYTH – 3.  Walk your horse, no matter what. I think that the idea that horses need to be walked when they have a colic probably comes from the concern over twisting a gut. “If they can’t lie down, they can’t twist their gut,” is how the thinking must go, I guess.

Walking is not directly therapeutic for a colic. If a horse is relatively comfortable lying down, there’s no real reason to get him up just so that he can walk. Imagine you, on the couch, feeling bad after that spicy food you ordered against your better judgment; how would you feel if someone came up to you and said, “OK, let’s go, we’re going for a walk.” Justifiable homicide, in my book.

That said, there may be some slight benefit to walking a horse with colic. It may help distract the horse with a mild case of colic, and help him forget about his pain. It also gives the owner something to do until the veterinarian arrives!”

So when I’m writing this, I’m thinking that this statement can’t possibly be too controversial. Oops. Here are some of the responses/comments.

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The gauntlet seems to have been dropped. First of all, it looks to me as if at least two of the three comments incorrectly equate colic with constipation. They seem to refer to defecating (“pooping”) as the “cure” for colic. (Interestingly, that’s what the ancient Chinese thought about colic). Of course, there’s lot more to colic than that. Constipation is one of many causes of colic. Colic is a symptom—constipation is one cause. If a horse is constipated and starts defecating, that’s great. But not all colics are caused by constipation, and not all horses with colic that defecate are then out of the woods. Let’s look at the comments, one by one.

COMMENT #1—Hopefully I’m neither a fool nor a blowhard. But even if I was, I could still be right. Name calling, besides being a bit infantile, is a logical fallacy called ad hominem; you try to discredit the person rather than specifically addressing the question at hand.

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©David Amsler / Flickr CC by 4.0

Anyway, I have tried to do my homework—I’ve written a book on colic, I’ve written scientific publications on colic and colic surgery, I’ve performed colic surgeries, and I’ve lectured on colic at professional conferences in the United States and Australia. Add 32 years of experience, and I’d like to suggest that I’m not uninformed.

The really curious statement (to me) is, “I’ve never lost a colic and I keep them walking—can he say the same?” The answer, of course, is, “No.” But on a medical level, the question is pretty hard to comprehend. To me, the question is along the lines of saying, “I know more than the neurologist. Whenever I have a headache, I put a cold cloth on my head, and I’ve never had a brain tumor.” Or, “I know more than the pediatrician. Whenever my child has a fever I make him chicken soup and he’s never developed meningitis.” Most headaches aren’t caused by brain tumors, most fevers don’t result in meningitis, most horses with a pain in the gut aren’t in need of surgery. But if the problem is serious, well, cold cloths or chicken soup or long walks just won’t do the trick.

I can confidently and conservatively estimate that I’ve seen a couple of thousand cases of colic in my career, almost all in different horses.

ASIDE:  Can you imagine having one horse for 32 years that had a colic once a week? It would be awful.

Colic is the number one medical problem of the horse. It seems that there has rarely been a day I wasn’t treating, traveling to/from, consulting about, or monitoring a horse with colic. I have seen my fair share. I would think that most horse owners haven’t seen—much less walked—thousands of cases of colic in their lives, but  you never know, I guess. So, mostly, I think that the comment points out the limitations of one’s own personal experience. Happens to all of us.

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A vet who is not Dr. Ramey, but also has great hair, performing an exam on a horse.

I try to get all horses that require hospitalization or surgery to correct their colic to the hospital ASAP. However, I can also sadly confess that I’ve not been able to save every single one. In fact, I hope in my writing that I have not implied that my skills and knowledge have risen me above the humbling and horrible experience of losing horses that medicine and money and love couldn’t save. Time and experience also bring humility, at least to some.

Thinking back on the past few weeks, among the horses with colic I’ve seen (and sent to the hospital) are:

  • A severe impaction of the large colon that required several days of oral and intravenous fluids for correction
  • A nephrosplenic entrapment, a condition where the large colon flops over the nephrosplenic ligament and gets trapped, which didn’t respond to medical therapy, or rolling, and which required surgical correction.
  • A diaphragmatic hernia (really an unusual case) where the horse’s small intestines went through a hole in the diaphragm into the chest and got trapped
  • A really bad case of gastric ulcers

I can immediately think of two things that each of these horses had in common. First, they all were in pain. (That’s pretty much the definition of colic). Second, exactly NONE of them were cured by walking. In fact, all of them would have been dead if their treatment had only been walking. Just sayin’.

So mostly, the first comment makes me think that before you start name calling, you might stop to think how it can make you look.

COMMENT #2—Grammatical difficulties aside, the main point of this comment seems to have been, “walking a horse is a myth that’s a lie.”

If you go back to the article, the first thing that you’ll find is I never said what the person making the comment said I said. That’s actually a fairly common way of disagreeing with someone. You say something that the person never said, and then you disagree with them for supposedly having said it. There’s even a name for it—it’s called a “straw man” argument. Happens all the time.

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©James Verster / Flickr CC by 4.0

In fact, if you read on, you’ll find I said, “…there may be some slight benefit to walking a horse with colic. It may help distract the horse with a mild case of colic, and help him forget about his pain. It also gives theowner something to do until the veterinarian arrives!”

But I certainly agree with the last observation. That is, if walking a horse doesn’t help, there’s more going on than a simple colic. ‘Nuff said.

COMMENT #3—In the course of my practice, I often get to learn information about my clients’ personal lives. Sometimes it’s more than I’d like to know. However, I can’t ever remember having ever had a client tell me that after drinking apple cider, they “poop and poop and poop” after then taking a walk. You’d think that I would remember…but I digress.

That said, if apple cider had that effect on me, I’d probably keep the pantry well-stocked with apple cider, just in case, because I would never want my intestines to “spasm and twist.” That would indeed be “big trouble.” It would be trouble so big that would put me in the emergency room. So my question, insofar as both the bowel stimulating and preventing-intestinal-twisting aspects of apple cider, and given the almost endless varieties available, is: Granny Smith or Rome or Gala or….does it matter?

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©Mike Mozart / Flickr CC by 4.0

ASIDE #2: Feel free to share whatever information in comments that you might feel is appropriate. Even though others may think it’s TMI.

But here the big fallacy seems to be, “If it works for me, it must work for my horse.” That, of course, is a really big fallacy, for a lot of reasons, and most importantly because horses are very different from people, particularly when it comes to their GI tract. I wouldn’t ever suggest that you should always do the same things for your horse that are done for you, or vice versa (although there are some things that extrapolate fairly well). That said, I can’t imagine that there’s any harm in giving a horse apple cider, or even taking it for a short walk: a horse would probably even like it, although you might get to take an apple cider shower, horses being horses. But it in this particular case, it sounds like the hay is a big problem, too. Maybe better hay and less cider; I don’t know the circumstances.

An overconfident reliance on the therapeutic benefits of walking may even delay effective treatment. I’ve been called out too late to numerous horses that had been forced to walk for hours and hours, only to find the horse dead or in later stages of shock. On the other hand, I’ve also had calls where I arrive—even before the owner—to find a perfectly happy, healthy horse that 20 minutes before was displaying extreme signs of pain, and never got walked at all.

 
 

So, at the end of the day, after carefully reflecting on thoughtful criticisms, I have to stand by my statement that the mantra, “Walk your horse, no matter what,” is, indeed, a fallacy. While some horses may get better after a walk, it’s not always apparent whether the walk cured the colic or if the colic got better while the horse was being walked. Certainly, not all horses with colic need to be walked—I can only think of a few hundred examples from my own personal practice. And, certainly, if your horse has a serious problem, walking just isn’t going to fix it. ‘Nuff said.

*The word, “hubbub” is pretty interesting. It apparently dates back to the 1550s, whobub, meaning“confused noise.” While no one knows for sure, the word is generally believed to be of Irish origin, perhaps from Gaelic ub!, an expression of aversion or contempt, or from am Old Irish battle cry abu, from buide “victory.”