The Big Four: The Most Common Causes of Equine Fatalities

rollinghorseWhen that special horse enters our lives, it changes everything. We happily begin shoveling manure, slogging through mud and lugging heavy tack to and fro. Essentially, our lives revolve around our horse’s welfare and when our horse is frolicking about or enjoying themselves, we feel that joy. When our horse is in pain, so are we.

On the other end of the spectrum is the death of a beloved horse. Coping with that death can be an challenge unto itself, click here, but understanding and preventing is all we can do. The four most common causes of death amongst horses as listed in the 1986 Morris Animal Foundation Survey as: Colic, Old Age, Accidents and Laminitis. If we can learn something more about each of these issues and become a more educated horse owner, we increase our chances of giving our horses a happy life, to whatever end.

Colic: This one word encompasses an incredibly complex series of issues. There are many types of colic that can occur, spurred by many different reasons. To begin, horses cannot vomit. We have all had those times in our lives that our stomachs have been upset, either because of a bug or something we ate and have sent us running to the restroom. That option is not available to horses and once something is swallowed, no amount of begging will bring it up again. Incidentally horses cannot breathe through their mouths either, have you ever seen a horse pant?

But having this one way track means that when an issue occurs in the gut, either a distention (in the case of a gas colic where there is no blockage but food cannot be moved normally along), torsion (in which the intestine twists) or even lipomas (fatty tumors that loop around the intestine and tighten) then the pain which occurs can be dramatic. There are many more ways colic can happen, including impactions and non-gut based reasons. If you would like a more detailed explanation there is an excellent UC Davis article on the subject of colic: click here. An extensive list of colic signs is also included in the article.

In a natural environment some colic issues would not be a problem. The domesticated horse has feeding patterns that can cause problems to arise. Naturally a horse is meant to eat small amounts of grass and other forage continuously throughout the hay. This small but consistent flow of nutrition is very different from the feed bombs that we drop on our horses two or three times a day. The domesticated horses stomach goes from gorged to empty, gorged to empty. This causes a variety of issues in the intestinal tract but one of them is colic. Less spoken of but no less important is the water content in the feed. Natural grasses are alive and so have a much, much higher water content than the dried forage that practically we must give our equine partners. This moisture inherent in the feed lubricates and hydrates the gut much better versus our dried hay. Some owners try soaking their feed but for most, especially at large boarding facilities, dried feed remains a part of life. Still other horses will attempt to mimic their natural grazing habits by eating sand, which is another cause of colic.

But what do to? The treatment of colic is the domain of the veterinarian and all we as owners may do is give the horse their best chance by knowing the signs and maintaining them the best we can until the vet arrives. Hand walking is a standard of maintenance care. There are vets who will also say if your horse is laying quietly in its stall then that is fine as well. Personally I am of the hand walking camp no matter the state of your horse. The reason being is that pain ebbs and spikes, colics can worsen or resolve and none of us knows which direction the tides may turn. If only we could know! But even though your horse might be laying quietly for the moment being, in the next he or she could be rolling frantically. Why are we against rolling, you might ask? Because, gentle reader, we cannot know the reason for the colic. If it is a torsion or some other kind of twist then the rolling could very well cause the issue to worsen. The other option is that the rolling could actually cause a twist of some sort. The point is that there is something abnormal with your horse’s gut and it is not a safe time for your horse to thrash about, possibly harming itself further. The second is knowing how to take your horse’s temperature and heart rate, as well as watching his or her breathing patterns. If you can call into your vet with that information it will give her an idea of what to expect when arriving. At the bottom of the article is information on how to take your horse’s temperature and heart rate. Finally is the power of observation. At what time did the symptoms begin? How long have they been occurring? How many piles of manure have been passed? Are they dry, moist? How many are in the stall? Are there shavings on the horse’s back? Is the stall in disarray, indicating rolling? What does he or she do when you stop hand walking them? What does their breath smell like? All of these signs and symptoms are important pieces of information to pass on to your vet.


Old Age: While our animals’ lives coming to an end is always a dark time, I was glad to read that old age claims a large number. It is how I hope all of the horses around me will eventually go, many, many years from now. But with death from old age comes with it its own unique challenges. Usually a decision must be made by the owner in these cases to put their horse to sleep. In times like these the temptation to keep them around beyond their time is huge. We love them and we do not want to see them go. We don’t want to be alone without them. It is a struggle to separate our desires from what is best for our equine partner. Usually it becomes a conversation about quality of life. Are they struggling to get enough nutrition? Do they have a chronic issue that leaves them living in pain or discomfort? Are they not able to get to their feet without a struggle? Are they listless? Is the light in their eyes fading? You know your horse and their personality and together with your vet and trainer, if you have one, you can decide what comes next. When arranging the last moments of your horse’s life you must also decide whether to be there with them or not. When putting a horse to sleep, the final moments can cause some physiological reactions that can be disturbing to those not familiar with the process. It is different from that of a cat or dog, but rest assured that these bodily reaction occur after the horse is mentally gone. There is no shame in saying goodbye and leaving the memories of your horse intact as a living creature. That is not a failure on your part and your horse will not resent you for your absence.


Accidents: It is an old trope to say that horses are Murphy’s Law in action. From phenomenal accidents that defy belief to everyday occurrences, the horse world is littered with stories of horses doing themselves harm. These stories can cause horse owners to attempt to wrap their horses in bubble wrap and keep them in a padded stall. But how far is too far? When do we cross the line from looking out for our horse’s safety to robbing our horses of a decent life? I believe that turn out should be a part of a horse’s routine. Of course be conscious of issues that might arise with your particular steed. If you have a stallion, even a sweet “he acts like a gelding” stallion, do not turn them out next to mares. Boot your horses for safety. Scan the paddock before letting them loose for anything out of the ordinary, sharp edges, broken fencing etc. Never leave the property and be close at hand. If your horse is herd bound and all other horses have been pulled from turn out, that is an accident waiting to happen. I believe that the reason the term “horse sense” exists is not because of the horse’s good sense, but rather the owner managing the horse! That being said, there is only so much we can do. For example, I was acquainted with a woman who owned a beautiful gelding who she adored. Everyday she would give him a brief lunge before she hopping on because he was still young and boisterous. One day she was lunging him as usual when he bucked, kicked himself in his own leg and broke it. Within a few hours he had to be put to sleep. There is nothing that could have been done. Now this story was not to keep you awake at night with paranoid scenarios, but rather to illustrate that there are times, even with preparation and sense, that the worst might happen. We can all be as practical and safe as possible and STILL the worst might happen. It is just as anything where as much as we want to control the outcome, life finds a way of evading us. All we can do is try our best, learn from others and hope that it is enough.


Laminitis: Otherwise known as founder, laminitis is a condition as complex and multifaceted as colic. It can occur for a variety of reasons to many types of horse. Just because you don’t have an overweight pony eating spring grass doesn’t mean you are exempt from risk of founder. That being said, obese horses to have an increased vulnerability to laminitis. By the way, though I am using the words “laminitis” and “founder” interchangeably, there are actually differences in the terminology. Laminitis refers to an inflammation of the laminae in the foot while founder refers to the rotation of the coffin bone within the hoof. When the laminae becomes so inflamed that it cannot maintain the coffin bone, causing it to rotate and descend within the hoof, it is called founder. But I am jumping the gun! For those of you not familiar with laminitis, it is as follows: A horse’s hoof is not solid throughout. If you imagine your finger nail thickening and wrapping entirely around the tip of your finger then you have a better idea of what a horse’s hoof is actually like anatomically. The first joint of your finger would then be his fetlock joint in this scenario. So inside your horse’s hoof, just like your finger, is a bone surrounded by many support structures, one of which is called the laminae. Your finger has a bone that ends at the tip as well, surrounded by flesh. The difference is that the horse’s support structures are designed to hold up hundred of pounds of, well, horse. When those structures fail the bone within begins rotating and sinking toward the bottom of the hoof, causing founder and an enormous amount of pain. The degree of rotation is the difference between life and death. Below I have included two videos, one is a wonderful overview of laminitis and the other emphasizes early detection. The basis for founder prevention is closely monitoring your horse’s weight and calorie intake.


Finally I was going to write an entire diatribe on checking your horse’s vital signs, but this particular video below does an excellent job. For now I will settle with writing out the average heart rate and temperature for a horse at rest as a base line for you to reference in an emergency.

Normal Temperature: 99 – 101 degrees

Normal Heart Rate: 28-44 beats per minute

4 responses to “The Big Four: The Most Common Causes of Equine Fatalities

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  2. Pingback: A Colicky Story | The Rubber Curry Comb·

  3. Pingback: Guest Blogger Filippa about Bella’s health scare and investigating hay quality « ASPIRE NEWSBOOK by www.·

  4. Fructan is a plant storage carbohydrate. It does not trigger a glucose-insulin response in mammals because fructan is fermented, not digested. While a fructan overdose, usually done experimentally in a laboratory setting, can trigger laminitis via an endotoxemic response from bacterial overload and die-off, the mechanism and clinical presentation is different from laminitis caused by hyperinsulinemia. In the latter, the clinical phenotype (obesity, ectopic fat, inflammation) is consistent with the pony in the video. What tips the balance to clinical laminitis is pathologically elevated insulin caused by digestible sugars and starch in grass. Hyperinsulinemia directly causes laminitis. A bolus of insulin in a non-IR equine triggers laminitis. This is the more common presentation in pasture associated laminitis, particularly in the US where grasses are not as high in fructan as UK ryegrass. This may seem like minutia, but in order to adequately manage insulin resistance, one must control insulin. To control insulin, one must understand the mechanism of the glucose-insulin response.

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