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Horses, Colic and Beer: 5 Things You Need to Know

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As an experienced horse person with almost 25 years owning horses, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable. Except, the other day I saw something I really didn’t expect. It was a post touting warm, flat beer as a treatment for colic. I thought that was kind of weird so I did some research.

Now, keep in mind while I have a lot of experience with horses, I’m not a veterinarian. If you think your horse may be colicing, stop reading and call a vet. Colic isn’t something to mess around with and I’ve seen several horses die from it with even great treatment.

Let me share with you some of the things I learned.

1. Horses Can Drink Beer

two different glass of beers on barrel

I admit I did know this one. At least, I’ve known a few cowboys who’d give their horses a few sips of their beer and laugh about it. Some horses seem to enjoy the flavor.

I suppose it has to do with the taste of hops and barley. I don’t care for the stuff myself so I am not quite sure why anyone drinks it. In any case, in very small quantities it doesn’t seem to do them any harm.

2. In WWII Beer Was Recommended for Colic

In cases where a veterinarian was not available, WWII era documents recommended soldiers give their horses beer as one of many recommended treatments for colic. Of course, some of the remedies they used back then are questionable with recommendations for giving turpentine, eggs, and milk. (source)

In order to understand this, you must also think about the alternatives. On the battlefield, there may not have been access to a veterinarian. Where today we might tube a horse or x-ray it to determine what the issue is, they didn’t have that luxury.

brown horse lying on grass and other horses grazing in pasture

3. Different Treatments for Different Types of Colic

Not all colics are the same and different causes may indicate different treatments. Colic is a general term used to describe the condition where a horse is suffering from abdominal pain for whatever reason. The originating cause can be any of several factors including:

  • Gas
  • Dehydration
  • Impaction
  • Worms
  • Twisted Intestines
  • Sand Colic
  • Spasmodic Colic
  • Enteritis or Colitis

Twisted Intestines is probably the worst form of colic and often irreparable without surgery. This is where a piece of the intestine has been able to twist around itself and cause loss of blood flow.

4. Types of Colic That Can Be Treated with Beer

Let’s, again, preface the following with the fact that, if you think your horse is colicing, you should call your vet. There is no way for you to know what type of colic your horse is suffering from. Anytime your horse is in discomfort, it is best to leave the diagnosis to the professionals. That being said, here is what I found about treating colic with beer.

Spasmodic colic is the type of colic most likely to respond to beer as a treatment. This type of colic is typically caused by muscle spasms in the intestines. It’s kind of like indigestion.

An article by indicated that they contacted an Australian veterinarian with this same question. That veterinarian, Dr. Paul, stated that on occasion he has seen a horse trailer ride help spasmodic colic but sometimes he will advise his client to give the horse a beer until he gets there. (source) In any case, he still recommends only doing so on advise of the Veterinarian and certainly not as the only “treatment” that is administered.

Female vet examining horse outdoors at the farm at daytime

5. Colic Symptoms Differ from Horse to Horse

Just as humans have different pain tolerances, so do horses. Where one horse may seem extremely lethargic and unable to move or rolling constantly, another with the same level of pain may just decide not to eat his dinner that night.

This can make it hard to determine if a horse is experiencing colic symptoms. The best way to know is to be familiar with your horse’s behavior. At feeding time if he is normally right at the stall front waiting for you to drop his hay but now he’s standing in the back “asleep”, that might indicate there is a problem.

Keeping that in mind, some common symptoms of colic in horses include:

  • Loss of Appetite
  • Rolling or wanting to roll with increased frequency.
  • Laying down or wanting to lay down abnormally.
  • Looking at or kicking at the belly.
  • Swishing tail
  • Increased respiration
  • Decreased capillary refill time
  • Pawing
  • Parking Out
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Dullness

If you notice any changes in your horse or suspect colic, the best thing to do is write down the time and symptoms you think you see and call your veterinarian as soon as possible. With colic, the earlier you catch it the more likely your vet is going to be able to help your horse’s discomfort.

If Not Beer, Then What?

What if your horse doesn’t have spasmodic colic or you don’t have a beer on hand? What should you use to treat your horse for colic?

This is where your veterinarian will be able to help you. Some colics, like gas colic, walking the horse may help to relieve symptoms. With other colics, like impaction colic, walking won’t help anything and it is probably better to keep your horse still and quiet.

Veterinary medicine at the farm checking horses

When you call your veterinarian he or she will ask about the symptoms and let you know when they will be able to come out. They typically carry most of the supplies needed for treatment right on their truck which may include:

  • Laxatives
  • Fluids
  • Pain Relief
  • Antispasmodics
  • Tubing Equipment

In addition, your vet will be able to look at your horse’s vital signs to help determine what type of colic they may be suffering from. Your veterinarian might, for example, do a rectal exam and remove some manure to test for sand.

Related Questions

How can I prevent colic in my horse? There are several steps you can take to prevent your horse from colicing. These include:

  • Working with your vet to establish a deworming program.
  • Switching feeds slowly.
  • Ensuring hydration by always having clean water available.
  • Exercising your horse regularly.
  • Feed horses in feeders or on the floor with rubber mats to prevent sand intake.

There is no 100% preventative for colic. The most you can do is practice good stable keeping habits and hope that you don’t have to deal with this deadly horse health issue.

Can colic kill a horse? Colic can be fatal and death can happen quickly. It is imperative that you call your veterinarian at the first sign that your horse may be in distress. While not all colics are treatable, early treatment can help to save your horse’s life.

Can a horse survive colic? When a horse colics, the prognosis for survival depends on a variety of factors including:

  • How soon is the colic recognized?
  • How soon does veterinary treatment begin?
  • What type of colic is it?

Each type of colic is different and some types. like gas colic and dehydration colic, are less likely to cause death when caught early.

Should you walk a horse with colic? In most cases, it’s OK to walk a horse with colic unless they are very resistant to being moved or trying to throw themselves to the floor and roll. Sometimes it is better to let them just stand quietly if they will.

Girl horseback rider petting horse

Final Thoughts

I hope you have found this article helpful. Again, my number 1 recommendation is that if you feel that your horse is colicing, call your vet. No matter how much the vet call is, think about how heartbroken you will be if you wait too long and there is a big issue. While beer may help with colic in very limited conditions, your veterinarian will be able to advise the best course of action to get your equine partner feeling his best again!

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