Horses Prone to Colic

A Guide to Helping Prevent Colic and Keeping your Horse Healthy

Colic is one of the most common digestive issues in horses, cases can range from mild to severe and potentially be life-threatening. Horse owners should always be diligent about management and nutrition strategies to help promote a healthy digestive system as well as prevent future colic episodes.

What is Colic in Horses?

Colic is a general term that refers to abdominal pain in horses. While some cases are so mild they go undetected other cases can quickly become a medical emergency.

What Causes Colic?

Colic can stem from various causes, in most cases however the underlying cause of a colic episode is never determined. The following are some risk factors for colic in horses, many of which are preventable.

Common causes of colic that horses prone to colic exhibit include:

  • Change in Hay, including feeding a new cut.
  • Grain/Commercial feed changes including amount fed
  • Lack of Water
  • Increased stall time
  • Change in activity
  • Deworming, failure to provide appropriate deworming
  • History of Colic

Signs & Symptoms in Horses Prone to Colic

Symptoms in horses prone to colic may vary depending on how long it has persisted and the horse's level of pain tolerance.

Early treatment of a colicky horse and being able to recognize the various signs is key to a positive outcome.

A few noticeable signs that horses prone to colic show may include:

  • Pawing
  • Often looking at their side
  • Lying down or rolling
  • Kicking or biting their flank or belly
  • Not eating or drinking water
  • Off-colored mucous membranes
  • Change in drinking behavior
  • Lack of bowel movements
  • Tacky gums
  • Sweating
  • Depression
  • Heart rate over 45-50 beats/minute.

Common Types of Colic in Horses

Colic is a broad term that refers to several underlying conditions. The potential of the condition can be anywhere from mild to life-threatening, depending on the type and the overall health of the horse. To manage colic in horses, it is crucial to identify the colic type. The most common types of colic are listed below.

Spasmodic colic

Spasms in the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract cause this type of colic in horses. The horse may exhibit signs of abdominal pain and discomfort, such as rolling, kicking at the belly, and sweating. One of the most common forms of equine colic but is usually temporary and easily treated.

Impaction colic

This type of colic occurs when a horse overeats roughage or doesn't drink enough water, leading to a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract. The horse may have a decreased appetite, a swollen belly, and signs of abdominal pain.

Strangulation colic

This is a severe category of colic caused by a twist in the horse's intestine cutting off blood flow to that region and will typically require surgery. Signs of this type of colic may include severe abdominal pain, rolling, sweating, and a distended belly.

Gas colic

Gas colic in horses refers to a type of colic caused by an accumulation of gas in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. This can be caused by a change in diet, low roughage consumption, parasites or administration of dewormer. The horse may exhibit signs of abdominal discomforts, such as rolling, kicking at the belly, and sweating.

Treatment in Horses Prone to Colic

An accurate diagnosis is crucial because horses prone to colic require treatments depending on their conditions and types. Since the most common cause of colic in the horse is gas or spasmodic colic, the majority of horses respond to basic medical treatment that may include a pain-reliever such as Banamine (flunixin meglumine), sedation, fluid therapy, or a laxative such as mineral oil.

When to Consult a Professional

If abdominal pain persists and there are signs of partial bowel obstruction and/or the horse appears to be going in to shock your veterinarian may suggest immediate referral to equine hospital for more extensive care and possible emergency surgery.

Preventative Care for Horses Prone to Colic

Each case of colic is unique and requires consideration of multiple factors, such as the horse's overall care, diet, and exercise.

Although horses are prone to colic, many types of colic are avoidable through simple diet management and precautions. Taking proactive measures to reduce your horse's colic risk is essential.

The following measures may help reduce colic risk in horses, however, always consult with your veterinarian to establish an optimal nutrition plan for your horse. Review and update these plans annually to account for changes in exercise, nutrition, health, and other factors that may play a role in overall health and performance.

1. Always provide your horse with fresh, clean water.

Studies suggest that horses without access to water for one to two hours are more prone to colic, and this risk rises by ten times for horses over six years old.

During winter, it is crucial to ensure that automatic waterers and other water sources have free-flowing water. Horses are more likely to drink warm water in colder weather, and adding hot water to buckets twice daily is adequate.

When traveling long distances with horses prone to colic, making routine stops for them to drink water is crucial.

2. Avoid feeding your horse hay on the ground in sandy areas .

Horses might consume enough sand that may bother their gut or affect motility. To reduce the amount of sand intake:

  • Use hay racks, feed tubs or hay nets
  • Put rubber mats or catch pans underneath the feeding racks to prevent your horses from eating scraps without sand.

3. Diet

Make any changes to the diet gradually, this includes commercial feeds, types of hay, cuttings or even batches of hay. When transitioning from one feedstuff to another, take at least 7 to 10 days to slowly introduce in to the diet and blend with previous feed to help ease the stress on the hindgut and reduce risk of gastric upset.

Cereal grains generally provide a higher level of carbs/starch, which ultimately turns to sugar and can cause irritation to the stomach if ulcers/gastric upset are present. Often times, owners increase calories through larger grain portions for horses in heavy work. It is always important to read labels and understand the amount of starch and sugars you are feeding. While starch helps produce energy, too much starch can disrupt the pH in the digestive system. If horses are in need of more energy/weight, try other sources such as Rice Bran, which can help keep the digestive system in order and is overall easier on the stomach. No matter what grain you are feeding, try keeping the amount to smaller portions that are spread out between multiple feedings. Adding alfalfa into the diet when possible can also help buffer stomach acid.

4. Float your horse's teeth every six months.

Routine floating ensures your equine chews its feedstuff appropriately and thoroughly.

5. Deworming

Routine deworming plays an important role in reducing the risk of colic in horses.

6. Closely observe and care for your equine as much as possible yourself.

Knowing your horse's usual behavior and habits can help you notice subtle signs or changes early on.

Supplements that may lend support

A healthy gut can help reduce the risk of colic to a great extent. Consider adding a digestive support supplement with prebiotics, probiotics, enzymes and yeast culture to help support a healthy GI tract, to assist with nutrient absorption and digestion of feedstuffs. Research shows the following ingredients may lend support to healthy digestive function:

Probiotics: help to replenish good bacteria in the gut

Prebiotics: food for the good bacteria and also help to inhibit absorption of harmful bacteria in the hindgut.

Yeast: Offsets negative impact of high starch diets and supports fiber digestion in the hindgut.

Enzymes: help to increase the proper digestion of sugars and starches in the foregut.

Always consult with your veterinarian to establish an optimal nutrition plan for your horse. Review and update these plans annually to account for changes in exercise, nutrition, health, and other factors that may play a role in overall health and performance.