Avoiding Colic

Reduce your horse’s chance of developing severe digestive upset by taking a few simple precautions.

1. Make feed changes slowly. The equine digestive system thrives on consistency. A sudden change in diet can overwhelm or disturb the gut flora that aids digestion, which can lead to colic. If you decide to change a horse’s grain or hay, allow at least a week to make the adjustment. Begin with a mixture composed of a quarter of the new feed and three-quarters of the old. After two days move to a half-and-half mixture, then feed a three-quarter new/one-quarter old mix for two days, and finally offer only the new feed.

2. Keep your horse well hydrated. Dehydration can lead to impaction colic as well as an overall slowing of gut motility. In fact, many mild colics are resolved simply with the administration of intravenous fluids to rehydrate the horse. Make sure your horse always has access to clean, fresh water. If he appears to have stopped drinking and you suspect he is dehydrated, consult with your veterinarian before offering him feed.

3. Keep grain secured. A horse who gets into the grain bin and overeats is a prime candidate for colic. Digestive upset, however, may be the least of a feed-room raider?s worries: Laminitis is a common consequence of overindulging in grains. Store concentrates in sealed bins in a room or spare stall with a secure door.

4. Load up on roughage. A diet high in hay and grass helps reduce the risk of colic in several ways. For starters, fibrous forage is digested relatively slowly in the equine gut and is less nutrient-dense than grains, which means it is less likely to cause digestive imbalances that lead to upset. Also, large amounts of hay provide increased ?grazing? time, which mimics how horses would eat in the wild.

5. Control internal parasites. Large and small strongyles, roundworms, tapeworms and other internal parasites threaten a horse’s general and digestive health. Targeted deworming, based on a horse’s circumstances and life stage, is essential. Work with your veterinarian to develop a customized plan.

6. Provide plenty of exercise. Numerous studies have shown that active horses—those who spend more time out of stalls than in them—are at a lower risk of developing colic. Strenuous exercise isn?t necessary: Simply walking in a pasture will enhance a horse’s digestive function. The ideal of 24/7 turnout isn?t always possible or practical, but the more hours your horse can spend turned out the better.

7. Feed frequent small meals. A horse’s stomach is designed to process a continual influx of small amounts of food. If possible, divide your horse’s current ration into three or even four meals a day. Automated feed dispensers will dole out grain in tiny amounts all day long. Or consider adding a late-night feeding to your routine or hiring someone to feed a midday meal while you are at work.

8. Limit sand intake. Sand settles in a horse’s large colon and cecum, irritating the bowel and even creating blockages. If your soil is even slightly sandy, feed hay from low racks or ground mats. In addition, consider feeding a supplement designed to prevent sand buildup in a horse’s digestive tract: Talk to your veterinarian about which may be appropriate.


Definition: severe abdominal pain caused by spasm, obstruction, or distention in the digestive tract

Signs: Sweating, pawing and rolling are classic signs of colic, but other less obvious changes in a horse’s behavior or demeanor, such as a mild anxiety, a preoccupied look or a sudden withdrawal from the herd, can also indicate trouble. The horse’s apparent level of discomfort is not always a good indicator of the severity of his colic. If he shows any signs of abdominal pain, call your veterinarian immediately.

Types: Possible causes of abdominal pain include:

– gas buildup

– gastric ulcers

– intestinal twists, impactions or strangulation

– sand accumulation

– inflammation, particularly of the right dorsal colon

– intussusception, which is the ?telescoping? of one section of bowel inside another

– enteroliths, concretions that form in the right dorsal colon

??Diagnosis: Most diagnostic workups for colic begin with a rectal exam and may include ultrasonic0 imaging, blood work and the analysis of abdominal fluid. In some cases, exploratory surgery is needed for a diagnosis.

??Treatment: Mild cases of colic may be resolved with the administration of medication and fluids. Others may require surgery to remove damaged intestines. Early referral to a surgical center is key in improving the chances of survival for a horse with severe colic.

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