HealthWatch: Colicking Horses at Risk

This week's HealthWatch looks at colicking horses at risk of clotting disorders.

A horse probably won’t learn to crib by watching another engage in the behavior, according to researchers who performed a recent study to learn more about why horses develop this common stereotypy. However, genetic predisposition does appear to be a factor, especially among Thoroughbreds.

Dr. Julia D. Albright and her colleagues at Cornell University surveyed horse owners about cribbing. Although 49% of owners thought cribbing was a learned behavior, only 1% of cribbers actually started cribbing after exposure to another cribber.

“Cribbing is complicated and probably caused by many factors,” said Albright. “Cribbing seems to start at a fairly young age, and after the horse begins to display the behavior, the initiating factors probably aren’t contributing. In other words, if you have a young horse, we recommend weaning in groups in a pasture and with little creep feed. However, if you have a 10-year-old cribber, lots of pasture time probably won’t make a difference.”

Social isolation and being housed next to an aggressive horse might aggravate a crib-biter.

“These horses aren’t ‘bad,’ and we should stop physically and verbally punishing, shocking, and isolating them,” she said. “For the health of the cribbers (and barn), the behavior should probably be stemmed with a cribbing collar, a diet low in concentrates and high in roughage, and pasture time.”

Albright recommended changing the perception of this behavior as a simple vice. “These horses have a true neurologic pathology, comparable to obsessive compulsive behaviors in humans,” she explained.

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Colicking Horses at Risk of Clotting Disorders
Horses with colic are at a higher risk for developing disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), a life-threatening blood-clotting disorder that can cause excessive bleeding or excessive clotting.

Blood clotting is a complex process. When blood vessels are injured by trauma, the vessel releases special proteins to create a blood clot and stop the bleeding. In addition, the vessels might activate proteins that can initiate the clotting process when bacteria or viruses circulate in the blood.

In colicky horses, toxins or shock can cause excessive coagulation, which can be fatal. Horses require immediate therapy with heparin to attempt to stop the excessive clotting or bleeding, said Dr. Nat White of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, who commented on the study.

“Once DIC starts, the prognosis is usually poor because of the severity of shock as well as the coagulation abnormality,” White said. “Colic needs to be treated early so if shock occurs, it can be treated before it becomes severe.

“Coagulation abnormalities in horses with colic can only be prevented by early recognition of severe colic and early treatment,” he emphasized.

Thoroughbred Gene Study
Thoroughbred genes could help researchers better understand how exercise might assist in combating the growing obesity epidemic among human populations and diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

“Over the past 400 years the fastest and strongest racehorses have been selected for, which has resulted in the elite athletic animals we see today,” said lead researcher Dr. Emmeline Hill of the Animal Genomics Laboratory at University College Dublin, Ireland.

Four hundred years of human selection for fast, athletic Thoroughbreds means specific genes have been reproduced in these animals. Researchers have identified an overabundance of genes involved in insulin signaling, fat metabolism, and muscle strength in these horses as compared to others.

“By comparing genetic data from Thoroughbred and non-Thoroughbred populations, we have been able to identify various regions in the Thoroughbred genome that exhibit ‘signatures of selection,’” she said. “In addition to potentially being able to impact selection decisions in Thoroughbred breeding, this information could be invaluable to human researchers,” said Hill.

Excerpted from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Free weekly newsletters at