Horses were a valuable farm animal in the 1800s. Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

Early one January morning in 1887 a farmer from Tabor, Iowa, hitched his team of horses to a sled and headed out to get some wood about four miles from home. By the time he returned at the end of a long day, one of his horses was suffering from a serious case of colic.


Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.

Cheryl MullenbachCheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.

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Horses were a valuable commodity on the farm in 1887. One farmer said his horses were the “main hope” for making a living for his family. So when a horse got sick, it was a serious and costly problem.

The Tabor farmer had fed his horses a hefty breakfast before setting out for the day. After working all day chopping and loading the wood onto the sled, he started for home. On the way he came across a creek, where the horses stopped to drink. One of the horses gulped down two full buckets of the icy water. Before reaching home, the horse became so distraught the farmer had to stop and leave his load of wood on the roadside.

It was obvious to the farmer that his horse suffered from a bad case of colic. It was a common malady in horses; and, if severe enough, it could result in the animal’s death.
Farmers knew the signs of colic in their horses. Slackening pace, attempting to lie down, pawing the ground, rolling, looking at his flanks. When the pain was more intense, the animal could become violent.

In 1887 farmers and scientists had limited knowledge about the causes and treatment of colic, but they believed the problem involved gas and fermentation in the horse’s stomach.

There were a variety of treatments. If the farmer had access to a drug store, it was recommended he get some chloride of lime and dilute it in water. It would work if the stomach was not badly distended by a great volume of gas. But spirits of turpentine would penetrate where chloride of lime would not. Experts cautioned that only an ounce of turpentine should be used, as it was a very potent remedy. And as soon as the gas subsided, the animal should get a quart of raw linseed oil.

But in 1887 many farmers lived far from a drug store, so they looked for tonics that they could find on the farm. Laudanum and ether were common treatments. Some concocted a special mixture of hot pulverized coals added to common table salt and dissolved in tepid water. A farmer from Colfax said when his horses suffered from colic he dissolved a lump of asafetida about the size of a hen’s egg in a quart of water to relieve their discomfort. He claimed he’d never lost a horse to colic.

Other experts advised farmers to remember the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” They suggested watering horses at least two hours before eating. If the water was ice cold, one bucketful was plenty. And if the water was consumed during digestion, half a bucket would be better.


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1 Comment

  1. OMG. Why in the world would you publish this information? It’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Cheryl Mullenbach should have balanced these awful statements about folk remedies with comments from an equine vet. Everybody knows that some dummy is going to try this stuff and kill his horse. SO IRRESPONSIBLE!!!

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