First Aid for the Uncomfortable Horse: Is it Colic or Tying Up?

A Connemara pony - A breed susceptible to tying-up.
A Connemara pony - A breed susceptible to tying-up. Royal Veterinary College

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.

Tying up

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.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.