Strategies to Reduce your Horse's Chance of Colic

Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

Last month I encouraged all horse owner’s to develop a preparedness plan in the event their horse colics.  This month we will discuss strategies that will hopefully minimize the chance that you will need that plan.  We will discuss feeding strategies as well as other important management techniques that will help keep your horse happy and healthy.

Feeding your horse properly is one of the easiest ways to help prevent episodes of colic.  Remember  the digestive anatomy of the horse, with its small stomach and large hindgut for digesting forage does not often fit well with  modern management practices.   The horse is designed to forage continuously throughout the day, typically for almost 18 hours.  This provides a continuous input of material to the hindgut without overwhelming the stomach.

1.Maximize intake of good quality forage.

To mimic nature, ideally a horse should consume 2% of its body weight in high quality forage per day.  This allows the best match to the horse’s normal feeding strategies.  Remember high quality forage does not necessarily mean rich or high energy forages which can lead to obesity.   Simply put, high quality hays do not contain molds, potentially toxic weeds or insects, or are not excessively coarse and stemmy.  Of course, toxins and molds can easily cause digestive upsets or result in feed refusals.

2.Avoid very coarse hay or staw as feed.

Excessively coarse hay may be harder for the horse to masticate and may lead to impactions.

3.Prolong feeding/chewing  time.

If your horse needs to consume less than 2% of its body weight due to the need to maintain proper body condition, using a slow feeding hay net will help prolong the horse’s feeding time.  As we increase the amount of time the horse spends chewing, more saliva will enter the stomach and buffer the acid that is continually secreted.  As horses only salivate with oral stimulation, this increase in chew time is extremely important.  This helps to maintain a healthy stomach and avoid ulcer formation.

4.Split up concentrate meals to smaller portions.

If the horse needs substantial amounts of concentrates in order to maintain body condition or support athletic performance, be sure to spread feedings into smaller amounts.  High volumes of concentrate may overwhelm the horse’s ability to digest it properly in the small intestine.  When concentrates escape to the hindgut they are fermented by a type of bacteria which produces organic acids and lowers the pH of the horse’s gut.  By lowering the volume fed at one time, this will avoid fluctuations in pH of the horse’s tract and promote a healthier population of microflora.

5.Slowly introduce new feeds.

If new types of feeds are to be introduced to the horse’s diet, be sure to do so gradually to allow time for bacteria to adjust.   Due to the ability of bacteria to either proliferate or reduce in population with changes in substrate offered to them, a change in the horse’s diet can wreak havoc in bacterial populations. Often this is what results in the overproduction of gas, a frequent cause of colic.

6. Maintain a consistent feeding schedule.

If your horse does not have free choice access to hay or pasture, be sure to maintain a consistent feeding schedule.  Horses are certainly creatures of habit that do best with consistent schedules.  This will avoid periods of time with the horses’ stomach in an unnatural empty state, or overeating due to excitement of feeding.
7.Avoid feeding horses off the ground.

Ingestion of sand can lead to the development of impactions or colitis from irritation of the gut wall.  Routine feeding of psyllium can aid in sand removal from the hind gut.  Feeding off the ground will also limit the exposure to parasites which are a frequent cause of colic through either blockages or disruption of blood flow.

8. Practice strategic deworming and parasite management.

Regular parasite control is therefore key to colic prevention.  Remember from previous articles that this does not mean indiscriminate deworming of horses without knowledge of their true parasite load.  In fact, an increase in colic in young horses due to ascarid impactions may be in part due to the anthelmentic resistance occurring in these worms.   Rather, remember to follow strategic deworming practices in consultation with your veterinarian.   Follow good pasture management practices and avoid overgrazing. This will help to limit your horse’s exposure to parasites.

9. Allow adequate water intake.

As winter approaches, it is especially important to remember that proper water intake is vital to maintaining normal flow of digesta through the horse’s tract.  Normally horse’s drink about 8-12 gallons of water per day.  We often think about increasing a horse’s water intake when it is hot or the horse is heavily working, but fail to think about water intake in the winter.  Horse’s actually don’t like cold water, and will greatly reduce their water intake if not offered warmer water.  Providing a heated bucket or tank will encourage your horse to drink water at the same rate throughout winter.  Be sure that it isn’t sending off any stray shocks however!  That will easily lead to dehydration as the horse is too frightened to drink!  You can also increase a horse’s water intake by offering a mashed feed.  Don’t forget however not to rapidly alter his diet!

10. Provide regular dental care.

While all of these tips primarily refer to the feeding management of the horse, other factors can influence his risk of colic.  Providing regular teeth maintenance will allow your horse to chew his feed properly.  As mentioned previously, coarse hay or poorly chewed hay can create impactions in the horse’s tract.

11. Exercise the horse on a consistent schedule.

Regular exercise for stalled horses is equally key.  Horses naturally travel several miles per day while foraging. We have created a rather artificial, sedentary life style for most of our horses. It is up to us to help provide a form of regular exercise and stick to a schedule.  While this may be difficult owners, it truly is best for the horse.   In fact, some companies are working towards creating automatic feeders which force a horse to travel through its paddock to obtain its feed. Such systems also have the added benefit of prolonging feeding time as well.

Next month we will discuss additional management strategies that will reduce your horse’s risk of colic which are linked to your horse’s lifestyle, breed or even sex!

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