A Guide to Gut Sounds in Horses

As an equine acupressure practitioner, something I commonly use is what is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the ‘Four Examinations’.  The Four Examinations use the five senses and are a way of gathering information about a horse before using acupressure.  They include looking, smelling/ listening (these two senses are grouped together in TCM), asking (asking the owner/ guardian questions), and touching.

For the listening examination, one of the most common things I will listen for is gut sounds (borborygmus)–the rumbling and gurgling noises which occur as food moves through the digestive system of the horse.  Any abnormalities in or an absence of gut sounds is usually a pretty good cause for concern.

But you don’t have to be a vet or an acupressure practitioner to learn how to listen to gut sounds in horses.  It’s a useful tool for assessing intestinal movement and digestive function and is something that I believe every horse owner should know how to do.

It can even be used to help a rider determine physical stress of the horse during heavy exercise (such as an endurance ride).  So I’ve decided to write a basic ‘guide for gut sounds in horses’, if you will.  This should provide some helpful information that any horse owner can use.

How to Listen to Gut Sounds

You can either use a stethoscope or just place your ear next to the horse’s side to listen to gut sounds.   Obviously, a stethoscope will enable you to hear more clearly, but I often just use my ear.  (Use care when placing your ear next to your horse’s side though as he may kick if he’s in discomfort.)

There are generally four locations in which to listen to gut sounds.  They are located in the upper and lower flank area on each side of the horse.  This is the ‘hind gut’, where digestion of food primarily takes place.


gut sounds


Here’s what you’ll be listening to specifically in each of the quadrants:

  • Upper left quadrant: small intestine
  • Lower left quadrant: large intestine
  • Upper right quadrant: large intestine and cecum (the cecum is a common site for impaction colic.)
  • Lower right quadrant:  large intestine

The small intestine tends to be fairly quiet while the large intestine and cecum tend to be a source of more sounds.

Types of Gut Sounds

There are a variety of types of sounds you might hear when listening to the gut.  Normal gut sounds will likely sound like a mixture of grumbles, roars, and even tinkling sounds.  There is no specific rhythm, but you should hear a sound every few seconds or so.

When dehydration occurs (either from intense exercise or not drinking enough), there will be a decrease in the frequency and intensity of gut sounds.

Silence could indicate several things–gas, impending diarrhea, or impaction.  Again, if you listen to all four quadrants and don’t hear anything, a call to your vet is advised!

Faint tinkling sounds could indicate ulcers or possibly an infection, but this is something that a vet would need to diagnose.   A constant rumbling likely indicates diarrhea.

Obviously, if the horse is showing other signs of distress such as not eating, lethargy, rolling, pawing, etc, I wouldn’t even worry about checking gut sounds–I would call the vet immediately.

But learning how to listen for gut sounds is a good thing for any horse owner to know how to do–along with learning how to check the other vital signs.  Practice listening to gut sounds on several horses to get the hang of it.  Also, it’s a good idea to learn what ‘normal’ gut sounds sound like on your horse so you will know if they do become abnormal.





A Guide to Gut Sounds and Recovery

Know Your Horse’s Vital Signs

Checking the Vitals: Abdominal Sounds

Life and Death After Colic Surgery: Bob’s Story

As many of you may know, I lost my gelding, Bob, this past week.  It has been a difficult time for me, but also a time of reflection–about Bob’s life, the impact he had on me, and about the number one medical killer of horses–colic.  In hopes that it could help someone else, I’d like to share Bob’s story. 


Almost exactly six years ago, after a long search for just the ‘right’ horse, I found a six-year-old Quarter Horse gelding named Chigger who seemed to fit the bill.  He was hairy and a little on the thin side, but he was very docile and sweet.  Just the attitude I’d been searching for.  His registered name was JKR Bob Hicks, so I soon decided to call him ‘Bob’, as I thought ‘Chigger’ just wasn’t befitting of my gentle giant.

I had been mildly concerned over a cough Bob had when I rode him for the first time.  “Probably just a cold,” the former owners informed me.  But I brought him home and proceeded to ride him nearly every day.  He seemed like the answer to my prayers after my  heartbreak over a devastating lameness in my long-time partner, Hershey.

It happened exactly one week after Bob came to live with me.  I was asleep on that blustery January night when I was suddenly awakened by a loud banging noise from outside.  I immediately knew one of the horses must be in trouble.  I pulled on a coat and ran out to see what was wrong.

As I approached the small lean-to shed, I saw Bob frantically pawing at the inside wall.  My heart dropped as I knew it must be colic.  I called my vet.

The news was not good.  My vet did what he could to make Bob comfortable, but told me that I would likely need to make a decision soon.  Either elect to have colic surgery or put him to sleep.

My whole world seemed to turn upside down in those early morning hours.  I desperately wanted to save this horse that I was just beginning to fall in love with, but colic surgery?   It seemed so risky.  My husband didn’t think surgery was  good idea, but told me the decision was mine to make.

By seven a.m., my mother and I were driving to the veterinary hospital where Bob would have surgery.  The attending veterinarians thoroughly assessed him and agreed that surgery was indeed his only hope for survival.  I signed the papers for the go-ahead.

I was a nervous wreck waiting for the call from the vet.  But several hours later, the phone rang, and I received the news I’d been hoping to hear–Bob had made it through the surgery.   He’d had an impaction in the large intestine which they were successfully able to remove.  I was overcome with relief, but still cautious.  I knew there were many complications that could arise after colic surgery.

I waited with baited breath for the vet to call each day and tell me how Bob was doing.  He was cautiously optimistic, and I began to feel better each day.  A week later, when I was able to pick him up, I was given a little different news by another veterinarian.  She told me that Bob had what are known as adhesions (fibrous bands of tissue that develop as a result of intestinal inflammation), and that this could pose a problem.

I brought him home and tended to him day and night.  He seemed to make a smooth recovery and my fears soon began to melt away.

Several months later, I was able to begin riding Bob lightly again.  My joy soon became overshadowed by the discovery that Bob’s personality had seemingly changed though.  Instead of being the laid back, dependable horse that he’d been when I first bought him, he seemed nervous and spooky, and sometimes a little sullen.  I was hopeful that with enough riding, he’d be back to normal though.


1st time back on Bob after surgery


Over the months, Bob did calm down, but he never completely returned to being the horse he’d been that first week I’d brought him home.  I began to wonder if he’d only been that calm simply because he hadn’t felt good.  I’ll never know the answer for sure.

The following winter, I remember being worried that Bob would colic again.  After all, horses are more prone to colic in the winter–and he was at higher risk since he’d had surgery.  I knew that I could not afford surgery again (financially or emotionally).  Bob made it through with no problems though.  I began to believe that we were in the clear.

Physically, Bob began to blossom.  He gained weight–too much weight–and I had to restrict his grazing.  After I put him on a balanced, forage-based diet, his red coat brightened and his hooves looked great.  I received compliments on him wherever I went.

Bob After

Fast forward to this winter.

Bob seemed happier than ever living with his ‘herd’– Hershey, and my two mares, Lee Lee and Kady.  I had turned the previously separated genders out all together a few months ago.  I decided to switch the herd over to my ‘winter’ pasture a few weeks ago, and was gradually giving them some turnout time in a larger pasture which still had a small amount of green grass.

Last Tuesday, Bob did not seem interested in coming up to the barn to eat his breakfast.  I immediately knew that something was wrong.  I put a halter on him and led him to his stall to make some assessments.  I heard minimal gut sounds so I began using the acupressure points for colic.  The gut sounds became normal and he began eating his hay.  I decided to give him banamine as well and watch him closely.

He appeared to be better until the next morning.  This time, he was laying down and showed no interest in coming to the barn for breakfast again.  Like the previous day, I brought him up, did acupressure, and he began munching on his hay again.  I decided to take him into my vet though.   Something just didn’t feel right.  (by the way, he was passing what seemed to be normal manure all this time.)  I wondered if the small amount of grass in the new pasture was causing gas colic.

My vet gave him oil and banamine, but noticed that he had a slight temperature.  (I hadn’t thought to check this.)  He told me it was likely a virus which was coinciding with a case of mild colic.  I took Bob home and turned him out, where he seemed to be his perky self once again.

I took my daughter to pre-school and ran errands for several hours, but when I returned home Bob was laying down by the lean-to shed.  The very one he’d been pawing at that fateful day six years ago.  I knew this was not a good sign.

I got him up and called my vet once again.  He agreed to come out to palpate Bob for an impaction.  It quickly became apparent that Bob was in considerable pain and his condition had become quite severe–I could not keep him up.  So I let him lay down and I sat with him. Every so often he would lay flat and groan, but then he would sit back up.

I sat with him for nearly forty-five minutes while waiting for my vet, stroking his head and telling him that I loved him.   I realized that Bob’s time had very likely come.  Even though I was terribly sad, I was able to maintain a sense of peace and calm.

The news was what I’d expected–the prognosis was not good.  The peritoneal fluid (which is obtained by inserting a needle into the underside of the abdomen) was too yellow–indicating infection in the intestines.  My vet said adhesions were likely to blame.  Having already decided that surgery was not an option again, I made the only call that I could–to have Bob put to sleep.

I hugged him goodbye one last time.  Fortunately, my husband was there to stay with Bob until the final moment.  I could not do it.

After any loss, most of us ask why?   Death often seems to make no sense.  But as I asked myself why this beautiful gelding had been taken so soon and why I’ve had to deal with so much heartache with my horses in the last several years, the answer soon became apparent to me.

Bob, like Hershey, was my teacher.  Had Bob not been through colic surgery, I would not have become so educated on this dreaded condition.  And although the idea of starting this blog had already been on my mind, Bob gave me the inspiration for my very first post–on pigeon fever (which the pictures disappeared from, unfortunately.)

I’ve decided to look at it this way.  Had Bob been ended up in almost anyone else’s pasture six years ago, he would have died after that initial bout with impaction colic.  Most people probably could not or would not spend that amount of money on a horse that they’d only had for a week.   I was able to give Bob six more happy years.  And although he didn’t work out to be the barrel horse that I’d hoped he’d be, he taught me many, many things in those six short years.  For that, I will be eternally grateful.


Rest in peace, JKR Bob Hicks, aka ‘Bob’

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”   ~Alfred Lord Tennyson


(I wanted to add that many horses do fare well after colic surgery.  My best friend’s mare had surgery when she was fourteen and lived to be twenty-six.  She never experienced colic again after the surgery .)



Fifteen Fascinating Facts About Horse Digestion

I think many of us tend to ‘humanize’ our horses.  We think they should be clean.  We think they should wear nice, warm blankets when it’s cold.  And we think they should eat two or three meals a day–just like we do.

But horses are horses–not humans.  And we shouldn’t treat them as such. They like to get dirty.  They can regulate their own body temperature in most cases.  And they have a unique digestive system that is very different from ours.

If you have horses or are considering getting a horse, I’d say understanding horse digestion should be a top priority.  And while it may seem that the horse’s digestive system is quite delicate, you’ll find that many of the common digestive problems that do occur are due to the unnatural manner in which we feed our horses.

Here are fifteen fascinating (and good-to-know) facts about horse digestion:

1.  The horse is classified as a non-ruminant herbivore.  It’s digestive system resembles a cross between a monogastric animal (such as dog or man) and a ruminant (such as a cow.)

2.  As forage (the horse’s natural food) is chewed by the horse, the salivary glands produce up to 10 gallons of saliva (per day).  Saliva is crucial for neutralizing stomach acids and reducing the risk of gastric ulcers.

3.  The esophagus, which empties into the stomach, only works in one direction for the horse.  Food can go down, but cannot come back up (as in regurgitation or vomiting.)

4.  The capacity of the horse’s stomach is only about 2 gallons, which is quite small compared to other parts of the digestive system.

5.  Food only remains in the horse’s stomach for about 15 minutes before moving on to the small intestine.

6.  When the stomach is empty, acid can attack the squamous cells in the stomach lining, often resulting in ulcers.  This is why small frequent meals, access to a slow feeder, or access to pasture are important.

7.  The majority of the digestion and absorption of sugars, starches, proteins, and fats occurs in the small intestine.

8.  Horses don’t have gall bladders.  Instead, the duodenum (segment of small intestine that connects to the stomach) aids in the digestion of fats.

9.  Food enters and exits the cecum (also known as the ‘blind gut’) at the top.  If a horse doesn’t have adequate water intake, this can be a common site for impaction colic.

10.  The cecum and other parts of the large intestine contain active populations of bacteria and other microbes which help break food down in a process called fermentation.

11.  The bacterial and microbe populations become specific in fermenting the type of food the horse normally eats.  When a new food is introduced suddenly, the bacteria/ microbes cannot ferment it effectively and the result is often colic.  (This is why all feed changes should be made very gradually.)

12.  ‘Gut sounds’ or borborigmus are a sign that food is moving through the digestive tract.  An absence of gut sounds likely means there is a blockage (colic.)

13.  A horse requires a minimum of 1% of his body weight daily of long-stemmed roughage (grass/ hay or some hay replacers) for normal digestive tract activity.  (This would be 10 pounds of roughage for a 1000 lb. horse.)

14.  The entire digestion process (from mouth to manure) for the horse takes anywhere from 36-72 hours on average.

15.  If it were to be stretched from end to end, the horse’s digestive tract would be about 100 feet in length.





Sugar Content in Feed and Forage Affects Horses’ Health

Follow that Bite: Fascinating Facts about the Horse’s Digestive Tract

The Equine Digestive System: A Food Factory

Digestive System of the Horse and Feeding Management

The Horse’s Digestive System                             

Horse Poop 101


horse and poop

For many of us, dealing with horse manure is a day-to-day occurrence.  We scoop it, we dump it, and we forget about it–for the most part.  But have you ever really taken a look at your horse’s poop?  It can actually tell you quite a bit about your horse’s overall health.

Normal Horse Poop

Every horse is different and their diets vary so that means not all horse poop will look the same.   You need to determine what is ‘normal’ for your horse so that if a change does occur, you’ll be aware of it.

Note the consistency, color, appearance, and size of your horse’s manure as well as how often he or she poops.  The average horse poops about 10-12 times per day and a reduction in frequency could be a sign of colic.


Dry, hard manure often smaller than normal and covered in mucous is a sign of constipation.  And most of us know that constipation in horses can easily lead to colic.  If your horse’s manure looks like this, watch him very closely as you may need to call your vet.

Loose, wet manure can occur for several reasons, including stress, changes in diet, and as a result of eating new spring grass.  As long as the horse doesn’t consistently have loose stools, this type of poop may not be a major cause for concern.

Antibiotic use  can cause loose stools since it kills off both the good and bad bacteria in the gut.  Using a pro- or prebiotic is a good idea after giving antibiotics to your horse.  Long-term NSAID (bute/ banamine) use can also cause loose stools.  You might consider these natural bute alternatives which should not affect your horse’s digestive system.

Diarrhea is different from loose manure and should be a cause for concern.  If the horse’s manure is liquidy and foul-smelling, there is likely a problem.  It could be the result of an illness, infection, or from eating a toxic plant.  If your horse has diarrhea, I would not hesitate to call the vet.


Horse poop can vary in color according to the diet.  Shades of greens and brown are very common.  If your horse eats a large amount of beet pulp, his poop may be a reddish-brown color.

If your horse’s poop is red or black, this is a cause for concern.  Red poop can mean that there is bleeding in the lower intestinal tract while black poop, although very rare, could mean that there is bleeding further up in the digestive tract.


Healthy manure consists of moist, well-formed balls.  Seeing small pieces of hay or grain in the manure is normal, but there are a few things you might notice in the poop that aren’t.  The following indicate a need for intervention:

  • worms in poop;
  • large or undigested feed particles (could be dental-related); and
  • gritty appearance (could be sand ingestion).


So my final message is this:  get to know your horse’s poop and never ignore changes in it.  The horse has a very delicate digestive system, as many of us are aware, and poop is a good indicator of what may be going on in there.



The Scoop on Poop;  What it can tell you about you about your horse’s health

Horse Poopology–The Science and Art of Horse Poop

What Does your Horse’s Stool Say?


Acupressure and Acupuncture for Horses: What’s the Difference?


The following post is copied, with permission, from Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Blog and written by Nancy Zidonis and Amy Snow, co-founders of Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute and authors of several animal acupressure books, including Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual.

A horsefly is mid-air, within inches of landing on the horse’s flank. The surface of his flank twitches just before the fly has a chance to land, warding it off in advance of being stung. This is how sensitive a horse is! He can feel everything within inches of his body. Whether this is a voluntary or involuntary response to the fly’s approach, it doesn’t matter, since it is purely information about how conscious and connected the horse is to the surface of his body and his immediate environment. It is because of the extraordinary awareness of his body and surrounding “personal space,” the horse is highly responsive to the powerful, yet seemingly gentle, ancient eastern healing modalities.

stone acupuncture needles

Acupuncture and Acupressure are based on the same principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).   The Chinese have found stone needles (Bian Shi) in tombs that are considered to be 5000 years old.  Historians have noted that acupressure began at about the same time or before acupuncture.

Similarities between Acupressure and Acupuncture Historically, these modalities are identical in their approach to healing.  Understanding how to balance the many forms of vital energy that sustains and nourishes human or equine body is key to both disciplines.  In TCM, energy balance must remain or be regained for the body to be healthy or create an environment for healing. When there is an imbalance in the flow of energy, called Chi (pronounced “Chee” and also seen as Qi), the horse may have either acute or chronic signs of ill health.  Most experienced horse people know when their horse is “off.”  Sometimes we can tell by looking at his coat, a dull look in his eye, an unwillingness to change leads readily, or just something we can’t put our finger on.

Professional acupressure or acupuncture practitioners use a number of methods to identify the underlying pattern that is causing the horse’s imbalance.  With horses, we have to hone our observation skills, since they cannot tell us exactly how they feel, perform a comprehensive physical examination, while also gathering as much information about the horse from the current owner or trainer.  Once the practitioner has gathered enough information to discern a pattern, he or she will be able to develop a treatment plan involving specific acupoints to either tonify (add energy), or sedate (reducing energy).

For instance, if a horse is lethargic, his coat lacks luster and his eye appears dull, the TCM practitioner would perform a comprehensive examination.  The practitioner would determine the best points to help release a blockage or stagnation of Chi, thus clearing the flow of vital energy and body fluids to allow the horse’s body to heal and regain his natural harmony and strength.  Additionally, the treatment plan may include Chinese herbs, dietary recommendations, or exercise.

The TCM practitioner takes a holistic approach to attaining and retaining harmony and balance in the horse’s body. In acupressure and acupuncture acupoints, the specific points that are stimulated are the same points.  These acupoints are located along the energy pathways, known as meridians and extraordinary vessels, which are accessible to manipulation by either touch or needles.  Acupoints are categorized in relation to their functional effect on the body, again, the categorization and use of points is exactly the same in both healing arts.

The Distinction Between Acupressure and Acupuncture The most obvious difference between the two disciplines is acupressurists rely on the use of our hands, finger, and elbows to stimulate specific acupoints on the horse.  While acupuncturists use very thin needles that are quickly inserted into the skin at a particular acupoint, leaving the needle to perform the necessary clearing of an energy blockage or stagnation.

Both techniques can work effectively, but only a veterinarian trained in TCM and specifically in acupuncture can perform an acupuncture treatment. Acupressure can be performed by horse companions which offers the added benefit of an energetic exchange between horse and human. Acupressure is available and safe for all horse-people all the time. It does not require years of study in TCM to affect the health of your horse.  We have seen lots of people perform an acupressure treatment, having just a basic knowledge of acupressure and points, with good results.

Last summer a friend of ours took a weeklong adventure trip into the back- country of Colorado.  She and four of her friends had planned the trip down to the last meal and aspirin.  The trip was exhilarating; they had all the gear they needed to weather daily light summer rain, cold nights in higher elevations, and all the horses’ conditioning was paying off. On the fourth day out, mid-afternoon, the barometric pressure dropped drastically and a severe thunderstorm was moving in.  All of the horses became edgy and anxious, but one horse was starting to show signs of colic.  They were at least 35 miles from possible veterinary care.  Our friend, who had taken acupressure courses, knew the emergency points for colic and anxiety.  She immediately began to gently, yet firmly, apply pressure with her thumb on the specific points needed to resolve colic and anxiety conditions.

After a few minutes, she felt the horse relax and began to hear sound from his abdomen – what a relief!  The storm passed and they went on with their adventure. Acupressure gives every horse owner or trainer an opportunity to participate in the health and overall well-being of the horse.  Performing acupressure treatments can significantly increase your familiarity with your horse’s body while also enhancing your bond and energy exchange with the animal.

Since acupressure in noninvasive there is no risk of creating infection or introducing any foreign material under the horse’s skin.  With the use of needles there is a remote possibility of infection and, periodically, the horse’s natural muscle twitch reflex can dislodge the needle or it can break-off under the skin. There are many good reasons to use both acupressure and acupuncture especially for chronic musculoskeletal conditions and diseases.  A holistic veterinarian with an in-depth background in Chinese Medicine is a valuable resource for you to start your horse on the right treatment plan.

You can perform acupressure treatments between visits from the holistic vet to support your horse’s ability to heal.  The goal for all of us involved with animals is to offer optimal health through the best care we can give them.

For more information on Animal Acupresssure,  click here.