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Main Content

Prevent Colic

By T.L. Dew

When your horse appears restless, stretches his neck or legs, or rolls on the ground, it might be an early indication of abdominal pain, commonly referred to as colic. 

At its worst, colic can kill a horse, but most cases can be treated, says Dr. Bob Rednour, a North Carolina veterinarian who has spent his 28-year career specializing in the treatment of livestock.

Colic can range in severity from mild gastrointestinal cramps to ulcers to extreme conditions of twisting and rupture of the intestines.

The exact cause of the colic may not always be determined, but some environmental factors such as stress, parasites, and an inadequate diet can create digestive problems.  

“Preventative care is of the utmost importance,” Rednour says. “Nutrition is critical.”

A horse’s diet should always have more hay or grass-type fiber in it than grain, Rednour says.

The more coarse the fiber, the more saliva the horse produces, which improves digestion. “That saliva is Mother Nature’s natural lubricant for the intestines,” he says. 

Older horses that might be losing teeth may not be able to chew full-stem hay, so a hay stretcher could be mixed in with the grain. Other sources of fiber also can be incorporated into the diet, including alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, wheat bran, and rice bran. 

Owners also should be careful to avoid any rapid changes in horse feed, which also can lead to colic. Switching feeds can change the bacterial digestion process and should be done by mixing the two foods and slowly discontinuing one while starting another. 

Likewise, when a horse’s diet is altered because of the changing seasons, make sure those transitions occur with minimum impact.

“One of our biggest transitions is leaving grass in the fall and going back on grass in the spring,” Rednour says. 

When a horse’s diet changes from grass to hay, a lot of moisture they consume through the grass is lost. If the horse’s water consumption changes during this time, the owner can add electrolytes to the horse’s diet to encourage it to drink, Rednour says. 

The return to green pastures in spring also must be gradual because of the high-starch content in fresh grass, which also negatively affects the horse’s digestive system. 

“The horse’s body can’t adapt that quickly,” he says. “Slowly increase that time on the grass.” 

By being mindful of the equine’s digestive system, horse owners can easily take the necessary steps to keep their animal healthy and pain-free.