By Kim Hallin
Through this newsletter we’ve shared lots of information about the importance of evaluating and understanding the ingredients that make up your horse’s diet. But as the saying goes, “Whatever goes in, must come out”. If you are neglecting to pay equal attention to your horse’s outputs, you could be missing key indicators about his overall health.
When your horse’s digestive and urinary systems are functioning effectively, the majority of the nutrients in his diet will get absorbed and utilized to support proper health and hydration, and to provide adequate energy. Still, the creation of waste is an important part of the digestive process. Anything that is not (or cannot be) absorbed by the intestines must pass through as solid waste (a.k.a. feces or manure). And the urinary system plays a critical role in eliminating waste products that are created when food is transformed into energy.
Are you one of those people who typically turns to look the other way when your horse shows signs that he is about to urinate? If so, stop. You should be paying close attention!
The average horse produces up to 2.5 gallons of urine daily. The main function of the urinary system is to filter the blood. By doing so, it eliminates wastes and excess water in the form of urine, acts as a buffer in maintaining the proper pH of the blood, and returns the necessary electrolytes, proteins, and minerals to the horse’s system.
Normally, your horse should produce a strong urine stream that rapidly empties the bladder. Difficulty urinating can be caused by a number of conditions affecting the bladder or the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine out from the bladder. Urethral problems are more common in male horses because their urethra is much longer and more likely to be blocked by stones or growths. Straining to urinate can also be caused by a blockage due to bladder stone, blood clot, or pressure from a mass on the bladder or urethra, any of which can be a veterinary emergency. For geldings, regular sheath cleaning is important, including the removal of any collections of dirt and smegma (often called “beans”) in the urethral diverticulum that can affect urinary flow.
Signs that a horse is having difficulty urinating include a weak and/or turbulent stream. These horses will sometimes stretch out into the “pee stance” but actually void very little urine. A horse straining to pass urine might also groan when urinating. Horses that are ill from other causes, especially conditions causing abdominal pain (colic), can also appear to be having difficulty urinating.
“Normal” urine can come in a wide variety of colors from pale to dark yellow. The more water there is in the urine, the paler the color will be. Cloudy urine is normal and is caused by the calcium carbonate crystals present in equine urine. Bubbly urine is also common and is no cause for concern (it’s actually related to the cloudiness). The foam you often see on the ground when your horse urinates is due to the presence of normal (and totally necessary) mucus that helps prevent the calcium carbonate crystals from forming stones.
In terms of odor, the more protein in your horse’s diet the more urea and ammonium — two breakdown products of protein — he will produce and excrete. This should explain the ammonia smell you notice if you walk by a fresh puddle or if your horse is confined to a stall.
Reasons to call the vet in regard to your horse’s pee include: frequent urination but in small amounts (be aware that mares may do this as part of their heat cycle and in those cases it is perfectly normal), blood in the urine, infrequent or obviously uncomfortable urination, and urine that is extremely dark in color. If you are concerned about your horse’s urine, try to catch some with a cup if you can and save it for your vet to examine.
The most important thing is to observe your horse regularly to understand what is “normal” for him, including stance, frequency, color and duration. Then, any time you suspect something is off kilter, call your veterinarian. Serious urinary problems in horses are fairly rare but the urinary, bladder, and kidney functions are all linked tightly together, and some problems like a ruptured bladder can be fatal.
The scoop on poop
On average, a 1000 lb horse will produce between six and eight piles of manure every 24 hours, with those piles weighing a combined total of about 50 lbs. To put it another way, one horse can easily create about nine tons of manure per year. No wonder so many of us feel that managing it is an impossible job!
Typically, horse manure contains a combination of undigested grass/hay particles, weed seeds and grain fibers, un-used minerals, cells that the body is constantly shedding, some fats, water, and sand or grit. Approximately 75% of the total weight of manure is water.
The sheer volume of equine waste makes regular stall and pasture cleaning essential to horse health. If manure is not cleaned up regularly (especially in stables) it creates the perfect environment for the production of unhealthy ammonia fumes, as well as an inviting place for molds, bacteria and parasites to thrive. While this scenario can create significant health issues for your horse (mainly because horses eat from the ground and can easily ingest the bacteria/parasites from old manure and inhale the ammonia fumes from passed urine), it’s important to note that horse manure is unlikely to spread any disease to people. This is even more true when the manure is exposed to the elements because most bacteria, including e-coli, are killed by sunlight. Human and dog waste are far more likely to spread disease and parasites to humans. So, while it can be unpleasant to find horse manure under foot, it’s usually not anything to be concerned about in terms of human health.
If you are like many horse owners, you probably prefer to delegate the job of cleaning and managing manure to others. But if you aren’t getting a good look at your horse’s manure every single day, you could be missing critical clues about his health. In fact, many professionals consider fecal production to be one of the horse’s key vital signs, along with temperature and heart and respiratory rates. It’s crucial that you know what the normal manure production frequency, amount and appearance is for your horse because changes in one or more of these is often the first indicator that trouble is afoot.
The first thing to remember is that every horse is different and because their individual diets vary this means not all horse poop will look (or smell) the same. There’s actually a great deal of variation between horses and, even slight day-to-day changes can be normal for any specific horse. What’s most important is that you learn what to expect with your own horse(s) and that you pay close attention when something changes.
The material within a pile of manure should be almost entirely broken down, with few or no recognizable chunks of fiber or other feedstuffs. A “perfect” pile of horse poop is moist, but not too wet, with formed fecal balls that have a slightly shiny surface constituting a pile. The fecal balls are formed by the last portion of the large intestine squeezing the contents into ball-like shapes as it extracts water. If there is too much water for the intestines to handle effectively, resulting in manure that is runny upon elimination, this can indicate a health problem.
It’s perfectly normal for some horses to pass a little bit of water before and/or after they defecate. And your horse’s manure may look a little softer (more like a cowpie) after a work session, when he’s nervous or stressed, due to diet changes, as a result of eating new spring grass or when temperatures soar. As long as your horse doesn’t consistently have loose stools, this type of poop is not necessarily a major cause for concern.
Antibiotic use can also cause loose stools since it kills both the good and bad bacteria in the gut. Using a pro- or pre-biotic, as well as a product that feeds the beneficial microbial population in the gut, is always wise after giving antibiotics to your horse. Long-term use of NSAID’s (bute/ banamine) can also cause loose stools. You might consider natural alternatives like Turmericle Powder whenever possible. This product actually supports and protects the horse’s digestive system!
While slightly “loose” manure is not necessarily a problem… when you consider the massive ability of the horse’s colon to absorb water, something pretty major has to be happening in the colon to cause significant changes in fecal consistency. If your horse is truly “squirting the walls” with liquid diarrhea, or if his manure is foul-smelling, he probably has a serious problem that warrants a prompt call to the vet. Severe diarrhea can be due to a virus or other illness, bacterial infection, or severe inflammation such as from eating a toxic plant. Horses with severe diarrhea can become dehydrated rapidly so you don’t want to “wait and see” very long with this sort of situation.
If you notice a yellow, stringy coating on your horse’s manure, it’s most likely mucus. Chances are this means the manure was delayed passing through your horse’s intestinal tract. Seeing mucus means it’s time to pay close attention to your horse. The most common reason for a slowed trip through the intestines is a feed impaction, which can lead to colic. Make sure your horse is consuming plenty of water to keep the manure soft and make it easier to pass. To boost water intake, consider soaking his hay and/or adding extra water to his Cool Stance for a couple of days. Adequate exercise is also important for gut health, and restriction of horses to a stall can be associated with decreased intestinal motility.
Fresh manure ranges in color from pale yellow to very dark brown. Shades of greens and brown are the most common. Manure color is determined by the color of the feed the horse consumes and the amount of digestive fluid (bile) required to break it down. The more protein a feed contains, the more bile is necessary for digestion. In general, protein-rich feeds cause the horse to produce darker-colored manure while a diet rich in mature grass will usually cause the horse’s stool to be paler.
When your horse is on grass or very bright green rich hay such as alfalfa, his manure will be a bright green color when fresh. If your horse is eating paler green hay, his manure will be paler and if your horse is getting mostly brownish hay, his fresh manure will be a similar color. Intake of high quantities of beet pulp can lead to reddish-brown fecal balls and a sticky, clear film around the ball. For horses that are unaccustomed to vegetable oil, feeding too much of this can make their feces appear loose, grayish, and oily. Regardless of original color, when manure is passed outdoors the weather soon bleaches all of it to brown and the rain/sun will eventually break it down into the soil.
If your horse’s poop is red, flecked with blood or solid black in color when passed, this is cause for concern. Red poop or flecks of blood can mean that there is bleeding in the lower intestinal tract (such as from a rectal tear) while black poop, although very rare, could mean that there is bleeding further up in the digestive tract. The only exception is when a newborn foal passes its neonate meconium, which is its first black pelleted manure.
Constipation per se does not really occur in horses and is more commonly referred to as an impaction, falling under the colic category. Inadequate water access/intake is probably the most common cause of hard, dry feces.
Many horse owners worry about sand colic. The truth is all horses ingest some amount of sand and are designed to pass most of it rather effectively. Providing plenty of long-stem hay and grasses can help your horse pass sand through his digestive tract. To help determine if your horse has sand in his feces, follow these simple steps:
1. Place six fecal balls in a glass jar.
2. Fill the jar half full with water and shake well, then let it settle for 15 minutes.
3. If there is sand lining the jar, it is an indication that your horse is consuming sand but also means he is probably passing it easily.
4. If there is no sand, either your horse is not consuming substantial amounts of sand, or he’s not passing the sand he’s ingesting, putting him at risk for colic.
If you are concerned that your horse may be at risk for sand colic, call your veterinarian. He or she can use a stethoscope to listen to your horse’s gastrointestinal tract. Intestines that contain significant amounts of sand, despite little to no sand appearing following the “jar test,” sound like waves hitting an ocean shore.
The smell of your horse’s manure can signal a dietary surplus, nutritional imbalance or digestive malfunction. If his droppings smell like rotten meat, he may have significantly too much protein in his diet, or perhaps his body is not absorbing protein properly. An excess of carbohydrates in your horse’s diet can cause his dropping to smell like sour biscuits. Particularly foul smelling manure could be caused by a rapid change in diet, too much fat or protein in the diet, ulcers, salmonella, C Diff, or internal parasites.
Roundworms, strongyles, and tapeworms, among others, can cause myriad health issues such as chronic diarrhea, poor coat, weight loss, and even colic. Thus, managing internal parasites is an important consideration for all horse owners/managers. If you see actual worms in your horse’s manure, he’s probably carrying a heavy parasite load. (Note: If you just dewormed him, don’t be surprised if he passes a dead worm or two. This is especially common in youngsters, or horses that aren’t on a regular deworming program.)
There is a growing movement away from the traditional use of chemical de-worming products due to the emergence of resistant strains. If you are looking for alternatives, this article from Earthsong Ranch provides a lot of information. Also, talk to your vet about conducting regular fecal count exams.
The “bottom” line
Learning to use waste excretion as a guide to evaluate the health of your horse is essential. So don’t look away the next time you see a horse getting ready to pee… and let yourself become utterly fascinated with poo! Not just your own horse’s; pay attention to any horse manure you come across. The more you study equine manure and familiarize yourself with behaviors surrounding the elimination of waste, the more skilled you will become at reading the stories they tell.
I’ve gotten so good at reading the manure and wet spots left by my herd that even without seeing which horse actually left a pile or created a wet spot, I can usually tell which horse it came from. Size, color, consistency and location are all critical clues. This also means when I see evidence of a problem I can pretty easily deduce which horse is having issues and act accordingly.