The Mountain Behind the Barn
Horse manure. You’ve shoveled, forked, lifted, pushed and pulled your share of
it. You might not want to read about it, but the condition of that manure can be a clue to
your horse’s health.
Have a horse long enough and you might start grumbling about the quantity of
that entire poop. A good size horse will produce somewhere around 50 pounds a day.
That adds up to nine tons a year! Unfortunately, this is just a fact of life that goes with
animals on a mostly roughage diet. We grumble about the amount, but if a horse hasn’t
made any for awhile it’s time to be concerned.
Impaction, or as the old horsemen used to say, “Stoppage”, is the most common
cause of lack of manure in a horse that is eating. An impaction is a tightly wedged mass
of food material in the large intestine. Impacted horses will show some signs of
colic. The pain is less severe than a gas colic or twisted intestine, but can last days
instead of hours.
I don’t feel like I have completely examined a horse until I have walked into the
stall and kicked some manure apart. The amount, form, color, consistency and smell can
all provide clues as to what is going on inside the horse.
Horse manure is formed in balls because of the anatomy of the last several feet of
the horse’s intestine. This section is not just a smooth flexible pipe. It looks more like a
long garter snake that has swallowed a string of tennis balls. Water is absorbed from the
fecal material on its way through, and toward the end it is easily molded, taking on that
ball shape. When the manure loses its form and become more like cow flops there may
be a problem. Some horses get loose when they are nervous, but if a watery diarrhea
persists its time for a vet visit.
There are other things to watch for. Long, obvious pieces of undigested feed in
the manure may be an indication of a dental problem causing improper chewing of
roughage. The next time your vet is out I’d have them examine the teeth.
Some horses graze very close and will pick up gravel or sand as they graze. This
grit in the horse’s intestine tends to collect in the colon and can cause sand colic. You
can check for this by taking a good handful of manure and putting it in a gallon zip loc
bag. Mix well with water and hang the container with one corner down. Within 15
minutes the heavy sand will settle down to the tip. Sand can be cleared out by using
feeding psyllium (the ingredient in Metamucil) on a regular basis.
Internal bleeding anywhere along the intestine also shows up in the manure. If
the bleeding occurs in the stomach or small intestine, the blood will be partially digested
and will darken the manure. If the bleeding is from the large intestine, the manure will
have streaks of red in it.
Internal intestinal parasites use the host’s manure as a vehicle to get their eggs
out. For this reason, it’s important to keep your horses away from the manure pile.
Letting horses graze around the manure pile multiplies worm problems. Manure
provides an easy way to check on your horses worm load. When your vet visit is
scheduled save some from the morning clean out to be analyzed. Put a sample (a
tablespoon) in a quart labeled zip lock bag for them to take back to the lab.
Some people are quite adept at noticing a difference in the smell of manure. I
had a technician years ago who could tell by that difference that a horse was about to get
sick. She would know a good 24 hours before there were any other signs.
All this boils down to knowing what normal manure is for your horse. You
handle it every day anyway. Get into the habit of tearing a ball or two apart with your
foot, shovel, or fork before it goes into the wheelbarrow. It soon becomes a habit and is
just another part of good horsemanship.