Preventing Colic

by Dr. Nathaniel White

The digestive system of a horse is a complicated series of interactions among many different organs. The small intestine alone is 60 feet long in your average size horse. This entire digestive network is suspended and nourished by a thin membrane called the mesentery. Any malfunction, displacement, twisting, swelling, infection, or lesion of any part of this complex body system is what we recognize as colic.

Colic is the number one killer of horses. It is not a disease but a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. Colic can range from mild to severe, and in every case should be taken seriously. Many conditions causing colic become life-threatening in a relatively short period of time. Only by quickly and accurately recognizing colic and seeking qualified veterinary help can the chance for recovery be maximized.

Management can play a key role in prevention. The following guidelines can maximize a horse’s health and reduce the risk of colic.

  • Establish a daily routine including feeding and exercise schedules and stick to it.
  • Feed a high quality diet comprised primarily of roughage where possible.
  • Avoid feeding excessive grain and energy-dense supplements. (At least half the horse’s energy requirements should be supplied through hay or forage. A better guide is that twice as much energy should be supplied from a roughage source than from concentrates).
  • Divide daily concentrate rations into two or more feedings rather than one large one to avoid overloading the horse’s digestive tract. Hay is best fed free-choice.
  • Set up a regular parasite control program with the help of your equine practitioner. Utilize fecal testing to determine its effectiveness.
  • Provide exercise and/or turnout on a daily basis.
  • Change the intensity/duration of an exercise regime gradually.
  • Provide fresh, clean water at all times. (The only exception is when a horse is excessively hot. Then it should be given small sips of lukewarm water until it has recovered).
  • Avoid medications unless they are prescribed by your equine practitioner, especially pain-relief drugs (analgesics), which can cause ulcers.
  • Check hay, bedding, pasture and environment for potentially toxic substances, such as blister beetles, noxious weeds, and other ingestible foreign matter.
  • Avoid putting feed on the ground,especially in sandy soils.
  • Make dietary and other management changes as gradually as possible.
  • Reduce stress. Horse’s experiencing changes in environments or workloads are at a high risk of intestinal dysfunction.

If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, put him in a comfortable stall and remove his feed and water. Allow the horse to lie down if he appears to be resting. If the horse wants to roll or is behaving violently, attempt to walk him slowly. Don’t try to treat the horse. CALL YOUR VET and be prepared to provide the following information:

  • temperature, pulse and respiratory rate;
  • colour of mucous membranes and capillary refill time (tested by pressing on the the gums, releasing, then counting the seconds it takes for colour to return);
  • behavioral signs, such as pawing, kicking, rolling, depression, etc.;
  • digestive noises or lack of them;
  • bowel movements including colour, consistency and frequency;
  • any recent changes in management, feeding or exercise;
  • medical history including deworming and past episodes of abdominal pain;
  • breeding history and pregnancy status if the patient is a mare, and recent breeding history if the patient is a stallion.

By Dr. Nathaniel White
Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Centre