Burping or belching is a normal physiological function in most mammals, including humans. It’s so natural that you may have never given it much thought.
But it’s not natural to every mammal. Horses are an exception since they don’t typically have the capacity to burp. Not only do they not burp, they also don’t vomit.
In reference to horses, it is said that any meal of a horse takes only a one-way trip – downstream of the gastrointestinal tract.
Because of this inability to burp or vomit, horses are at a great disadvantage when it comes to expelling foods that don’t sit well with their stomachs or those that cause gases.
But why is it that horses don’t burp?
Below, I’m going to cover the basics of a horse’s gastrointestinal apparatus and what makes it so unique that it prevents horses from belching.
Why Can’t Horses Burp?
The answer to this question is rather simple – the muscles of the equine lower esophageal sphincter are so strong that they don’t ever relax thus preventing any gases or regurgitated food to escape.
Not only that these muscles are strong, but the positioning of the lower esophagus is also such that it sits at an angle relative to the stomach that’s different from other mammals.
Because the equine esophagus joins the stomach as it does, when horses get gassy and the stomach distends, the valve gets even more tightly closed than before.
And to add another layer to an already difficult situation, the abdominal muscles can’t do much to squeeze the stomach as it sits deep within the rib cage of the horse.
As you may have already guessed, this can be very dangerous to your horse, whose very life can be in danger if it becomes unable to pass that gas.
Even when ingesting something potentially toxic, horses don’t have the ability to throw up for the same reasons they cannot belch.
Not to mention that horses have a poorly developed gag reflex, which increases the chances of your horse choking on larger pieces of food (e.g. whole apples).
When a lot of gas gets trapped in the gastrointestinal tract of a horse, horses develop colic, which should be treated as a serious problem and often, if the colic is severe, you should seek immediate veterinary intervention.
Symptoms of Colic In Your Horse
Horses with colic will display a few symptoms that in most cases will undeniably point to excess gas being trapped in their colon and intestines.
Here are the most common symptoms of colic in horses:
- Laying down often or rolling on the ground
- Bloated appearance
- Refusing to get up
- Decrease in appetite or refusing to eat
- Biting or kicking their belly or flank
- Problems with passing manure
- Discoloration of mucous membranes
Because of its serious nature, colic is a common concern with horse-owners. Unfortunately, because the GI tract of horses is built the way it is, it’s also common for your horse to struggle with colic.
Although difficult to prevent because of its often-unpredictable nature, there are some things you can watch out for to reduce their incidence and severity.
How to Prevent Colic in Horses?
To reduce the incidence of colic in your horse, make sure to follow my recommendations below:
- Ensure access to fresh, clean water throughout the day
- Ensure access to pasture (horses without access to pasture have an increased risk of colic compared to horses with pasture access) and daily exercise
- Significantly reduce or eliminate ingestion of sand such as via hay or grains (sand can cause gut motility issues or irritation)
- Feed grains or pelleted foods only if absolutely necessary (they’re associated with an increased risk of colic)
- Don’t feed your horse treats that can cause gas (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)
- Routinely file your horse’s teeth (every 6 months or so)
- Regularly deworm your horses
- Monitor for any changes in health and behavior
While these may not completely eliminate the risk of colic, they are factors that can contribute to the incidence of colic if they’re not managed well.
There are also different types of colic that your horse can experience and different severity levels.
From colic caused by coarse foods and dehydration to colic caused by gas build-up or poor motility, there are several things to look out for.
How to Treat Colic in Horses?
If you notice signs of colic in your horse, you should seek the help of a veterinarian, especially if you don’t know how long the horse has been struggling or if the colic is severe.
Sometimes, slowly walking the horse can ease colic. However, if walking doesn’t make your horse feel better, don’t force it.
Your vet will examine your horse and determine a treatment plan that can include:
- Mild sedation or an analgesic to control the pain
- Passing a nasogastric tube to the stomach that allow gases to escape (basically making the horse burp) but also checks for the presence of fluids in the stomach
- Bloodwork and/or ultrasound if the horse is taken to a veterinary hospital
- Abdominal surgery in severe cases
Fortunately, around 80% of colic episodes can be managed and treated on-farm, without the need for surgical intervention.
In any event, colic should be taken seriously, and you should do your best to prevent it or to reduce its severity.
The recommendations I listed above, if followed, can keep your horse at a low-risk level for colic.
The gastrointestinal tract of horses isn’t like most mammals and so they need extra attention when it comes to certain physiological functions that seem natural to us.
Burping or belching isn’t something you’ll see a horse doing because of how their stomachs and lower esophagus are built.
Because horses don’t burp, any gas build-up can cause their stomachs to distend and cause serious discomfort to your horse.
Even though you can’t eliminate colic in your horse, being attentive with their eating habits, water intake, exercise and other risk factors for colic, you can reduce the risk of severe colic.Horse Facts