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Horse Articles :: How to Prevent Colic in Horses

Preventing Colic in Horses

Colic is the most common cause of pre mature death in domestic horses. It is also the most frequent cause of major veterinary bills. However, the vast majority of colic cases could be easily prevented through correct management. A study of the existing research into this illness, including case studies covering thousands of cases of horse colic, which has identified the most common causes of colic, is the basis for the following recommendations.

1) Worming.
Ensure that the horse is on a regular deworming schedule. All other horses which share the same pasture should be on a synchronized deworming schedule, to prevent cross reinfection. If a horse has a heavy infestation of worms to start with (e.g. if it has not been dewormed for a long time), then the actual deworming itself can be dangerous, so one should use a laxative to reduce the worm population prior to starting a deworming schedule.

2) Food and Pasture.
Horses have evolved to eat and digest throughout the day. Their digestive systems are based on ’continuous processing’, rather than periodic feedings (such as one finds in people or large carnivores). Consequently, restricting them to feedings only twice or even a few times per day is unnatural and places a strain on their system. The ideal situation is for the horse to spend the majority of its time on pasture, constantly eating and moving. If this is not possible, it should be fed as often as possible so that one comes as close as possible to the ’continuous processing’ it has evolved for. One should never feed food which has gone off (e.g. moldy, fermented).

3) Hay before Grain.
The horse digestive system is designed for ’high volume, low calorie’ food such as grass and hay; foods which are ’low volume, high calorie’ such as grain do not provide the volume they require and can lead to various medical conditions (in particular, ulcers). Consequently, use high roughage foods in preference to grains, unless there are specific reasons otherwise (e.g. for intensive sports, grain may be necessary).

Furthermore, if one is providing both hay and grain, the hay should be fed first. One reason for this is that by reducing appetite with hay, it is less likely that the horse will ’bolt’ the grain (see ’bolting’ below). Another reason is that there is evidence that hay following by grain is digested much better than grain followed by hay.

4) Soak Pelleted Food.
It is advisable to soak pelleted food before feeding to horses. The main reason for this is that pelleted food expands in contact with water, so if a horse ’bolts’ a large quantity of dry pelleted food, it can rapidly expand to an excessive volume upon contact with fluids in the stomach. By pre soaking the pellets, the food is expanded before it is eaten. This also reduces the rate at which the horse eats, reduces the risk of choke and ensures that additional water is ingested (for horses that are poor drinkers).

5) Excessive Feed.
Horses sometimes manage to get into the feed stores (e.g. where you store grain or other high calorie food) and stuff themselves, which can result in colic. It is wise to keep the room with feed locked, so that if a horse gets out of its stable or pasture, it will not be able to get into the feed room.

6) Bolting.
If your horse ’bolts’ (swallows without chewing) its food, discuss options with your veterinarian. For example, with hay pellets one can pre soak them in water.

7) Water.
Ensure that the horse has access to water at all times. If for some reason the horse has not had water for some time, provide water in small amounts at first rather than allowing it to drink a large amount at one go (particularly after exercise). Likewise, if a horse has not been drinking for some time (horses often refuse to drink during transport), ensure that when it resumes drinking that it is gradual.

During winter, try to provide warm drinking water. A study by the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine determined that this increased water consumption by 40 (warm water compared to near freezing water). As inadequate water consumption is an important cause of colic (impaction colic), providing warm water is advisable. Further, there is strong anecdotal evidence that consumption of large quantities of cold water in a short time (e.g. after exercise or after water deprivation) can cause colic.

8) Exercise.
Colic can be caused by inadequate exercise (e.g. horse spends most of day in stall), excessive exercise (especially if horse is out of condition), or rapid changes in the amount of exercise. Consequently, one should avoid these extremes.

9) Bedding.
Ensure that the horse does not eat its bedding, certainly not in large quantities. If it persists in eating its bedding, change to another bedding type which it does not eat.

10) Sand and Dirt.
Do not feed the horse on sand or dirt surfaces. Avoid stabling the horse on sand or dirt. Do not leave a horse on over grazed pasture.

11) Dental Care.
Correct and periodic dental care (e.g. annual examination, with work if required) will minimize the risk of horses not chewing their food properly due to dental pain.

12) Trapped.
A horse will sometimes lie down or roll so that its back is against a fence or wall, with the result that it cannot get up. Remaining in this position for a lengthy period risks serious colic (e.g. movement of colon into a dangerous position), so if one sees a ’trapped’ horse one should quickly move it, taking care to avoid accidental injury to oneself. Likewise, a horse that lies down in a paddock sometimes gets its legs trapped under or in the fence rails and needs to be freed.

13) Temperature.
Extreme temperatures (very high or very low) and rapid temperature changes can cause stress on a horse, particularly those which are weak (old or sick). During extreme weather, consider keeping the horses in their stalls. Alternatively, there are a range of horse jackets to protect from rain and/or cold. These should be used if there are sudden extreme changes in weather or if a horse is weak. In addition, although stables should have good ventilation, they should not be drafty (in general, drafts are more of a risk than simple cold).

14) Change.
Finally, one should be aware that horses do not react well to change or stress. One should minimise these as much as possible; if a period of change or stress is necessary (e.g. long distance transport, changes to feed), one needs to monitor the horse much more closely than normal and take special care of it. The ways in which change can affect a horse negatively are numerous. For example, horses will often stop drinking during periods of stress or if they are moved to another area where the water tastes different. As another example, adding or removing a horse from a herd can upset the herd social dynamics, resulting in considerable stress.

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