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Caring For Your Horse: 9 Tips For Preventing Colic

Your beloved horse may be big, strong, and proud – but her digestive system is sensitive and requires tender loving care. A case of equine colic – or severe abdominal discomfort – could be just around the corner, as every horse is susceptible. Its effects range from merely passing gas to experiencing extreme pain and threatening her life. In fact…

Horse Colic Is the Number One Horse Killer

Horse ColicEquine colic takes many forms, but generally, you can tell if your horse might be on the road to colic if you observe any of these symptoms:

  • Frequently looking at, and/or biting or kicking her flank or belly
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Rolling or wanting to lie down continuously
  • Little or no evidence of manure having passed
  • Excessive sweating
  • Manure appears dry or mucous-covered
  • Lack of appetite
  • Change in drinking behavior
  • Frequent attempts to urinate
  • High pulse rate (over 50 beats per minute)
  • Off-color mucous membranes (evidenced by examining gum tissue)

If you suspect your horse has colic, get immediate help from a veterinarian. This is not something you want to fool around with – even if the signs are vague, call in the expert for diagnosis and treatment. Too many times, an owner decides to wait for more concrete proof of colic and loses valuable time. Your chances of saving your horse from death increase exponentially the quicker you are able to get a vet on site to treat her.

Prevention Is The Best Answer

Not all colic can be prevented – but you can take steps to decrease the chance your horse will have to suffer from it. Here are nine proven tips for keeping your horse healthy:

1. Let Him Forage

horse foragingThe stomach of the horse is small in relation to his size; it only takes up 10% of the capacity of the digestive system. Because of this relatively small stomach, a horse naturally eats small amounts of roughage – continuously. Just watch your horse out in the field – he seems to eat without stopping, but if you watch long enough, he will take breaks where he stands like a statue. Domestication has changed this for many horses, particularly if they are stall-kept.  

Your horse is designed to eat grass and hay as part of a high-fiber, low-starch diet. Try to make this type of natural roughage the bulk of his diet, limiting the grains and energy-dense supplements that can upset the gut’s delicate bacterial balance. For every pound of grain or corn, the colic risk increases by 70%. Think about that one! 

Of course, some horses are expected to eat large amounts of grain and are fed once or twice a day to suit our lifestyle along with some hay. This can cause “traffic jams” in his digestive system due to the lower roughage content that may lead to upset and then, potentially, colic. If you do need to enhance his diet with concentrates, feed them to him in small amounts and more frequently. This allows slow and steady digestive action and helps prevent overloading your horse’s digestive system.

Foraging behavior is also important for the maintenance of a healthy digestive tract. The chewing process itself produces large amounts of saliva that help to buffer the acid that is produced in the horse’s stomach. Excess stomach acid can lead to stomach ulcers that produce pain and discomfort. This discomfort/pain may lead to a sub-standard performance on his part and/or a hostile attitude from him to his owner.

2. Don’t change your feeding program frequently or quickly

As we noted, your horse’s stomach is sensitive. Not all horses are affected equally, but a sudden change in what you feed him could upset the microbes in his intestine – and result in colic. If a change is needed, convert him gradually to a different diet over 7-10 days. For example, if he is exposed to a new type of hay, try to mix it in gradually, over several days, with the hay he is used to eating. A consistent feeding program is very beneficial in avoiding equine colic.

3. Make sure your horse has access to fresh, clean water

two horses drinking waterHorses that don’t have access to water for 1-2 hours increase their risk of colic. In winter, horses naturally drink less (they don’t like ice cold water, or the water in the trough is frozen) – so we recommend that you make sure automatic waterers and other water sources have free flowing water. If possible, in colder climates, install heaters especially designed for horse water tanks/troughs, so that your horse has access to tepid temperature water. This will help to ensure he drinks adequately. 

4. In areas with sandy soil, avoid putting hay on the ground

barn fire orevention hayIn geographic areas where the soil is very sandy, it’s easy for horses to ingest sand along with hay. This can cause a problem since it does not move easily through the digestive tract and may end up ”sitting” in the horse’s large intestine. Large amounts of sand can cause impaction or blockage and lead to colic. 

If putting hay on sandy soil is unavoidable, institute a good sand-elimination program. Discuss this with your vet and do your own research. It’s not difficult or expensive to administer, but the alternative – a trip to an equine hospital for sand colic surgery – is certainly expensive. Although many horses recover well, there are no guarantees with surgery and no guarantees that your horse will return to his active life for quite a while after surgery.

5. Make sure your horse gets exercise every day

treating horse colicMoving around helps stimulate the digestive system; it’s how nature has designed the horse. Horses that stand in stalls run a higher risk of colic due to inactivity. It doesn’t have to be a lot of exercise – just a regular turn out for her out into the pasture, for as long as you are able, is often enough to keep things going in the digestive area. In addition, a longer warm up and cool down before and after work are beneficial. If your horse is stall-kept, try to get her out for some sort of exercise every day.

6. Control parasites

Horses that are on a regular de-worming program are less likely to colic. Worms attach themselves into the lining of your horse’s stomach or intestines and wreak havoc with your horse’s health. They may “steal” the food that your horse needs (for their own survival) and even attach to your horse’s blood flow, disturbing it and robbing your horse of essential nutrients that are carried by the blood system. 

Consult your vet with help in this area; there are many factors that may put your horse at even more risk. Many owners maintain a program of removing manure from fields several times a week, as horses graze near the piles and may ingest worms in the process. This is particularly important in restricted grazing areas. In general, horses are thought not to graze in heavy manure areas, but there are exceptions, and in small paddocks it’s impossible to avoid.

7. Provide routine dental care

Your horse should have regular dental check-ups and have his teeth “floated” (filing down any sharp points) to ensure he can grind his food properly along with making sure that he has no bad or infected teeth that may require removal. A horse with sharp points on his teeth (and this happens to every horse at one time or another!) will not forage or eat well due to the associated pain. Be sure to obtain the services of a highly recommended professional. Some horses need higher maintenance than others; some can be seen successfully just once a year. As your horse ages, the dental maintenance becomes particularly important, because if your horse has lost weight due to her inability to eat or chew well, it’s difficult to get the weight back on. 

8. Reduce your horse’s stress

If your horse has to deal with changes to her environment or workload, it can cause intestinal disturbances. This really comes into play if a lot of traveling is involved, as is the case with race or show horses. Stress varies from horse to horse or breed to breed. Keep your horse’s forage level high and check with your veterinarian regarding either supplements and/or medication that help with a high stress routine or life change.

9. Monitor your horse yourself as much as possible

Schedules and situations don’t always allow it – but the more you’re around your horse, the more you’ll be able to ensure these preventive tips are being followed. Let’s be honest: No one knows your horse like you do, and no one has a vested interest as deep as you do, so the better you know your horse, the quicker you’ll be able to recognize subtle differences in behavior and signs of impending colic. 

And now there’s one additional tip:

10. No matter how well you follow Tips 1-9, your horse may still get colic – every horse owner’s nightmare!

horse outsideIt is the experience and opinion of many veterinarians and horse professionals (who have all been there!): Get Help NOW!

The longer you wait, the less likely it is your horse will have a good outcome. Veterinary medicine has come a long way in treating colic, but once your horse has passed a certain point, it doesn’t matter if you have the best vet in the world – there just may be no good answer for you or your horse.

So if you see any symptoms or the thought “colic” crosses your mind when you observe your horse – bring in the vet immediately. 

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