The term colic is feared within the equine community. As many horse owners know, colic is an unpredictable, painful, and sometimes fatal condition.

Colic refers to abdominal pain in your horse. It is an amorphous condition that can lead to potentially serious health complications.

Colic may present as a mild case that is resolved in less than 24 hours with veterinary treatment. Colic can also be more severe, requiring emergency surgery. [1]

Colic is usually triggered by a combination of several factors including diet, workload, and stress exposure. It may also be caused by gas buildup, feed impaction, grain overload, sand ingestion or parasite infection. [1]

Horses are more susceptible to digestive upset than other domestic animals due to the unique function of their digestive system.

Studies shows that digestive disorders, such as colic, diarrhea, or enterotoxemia, represent approximately 50% of medical problems in adult horses. [2]

This makes it important to find ways to minimize the risk of gastric upset and to act quickly if your horse shows signs of colic.

A number of symptoms can indicate your horse is suffering from abdominal pain, such as pawing, rolling, laying down, loss of appetite and general signs of discomfort.

Colic is something all horse owners strive to prevent. In this article, we will discuss natural strategies you can employ to reduce the risk of colic and other digestive problems in your horse.

What is Equine Colic?

Colic refers broadly to many forms of abdominal pain or upset in horses.

It does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, breed, environment, or workload. It can affect any horse at any time. [3]

Sometimes a horse owner knows exactly why their horse experienced colic. However, more often than not, colic is idiopathic, meaning that a specific cause cannot be identified.

While the origin of a specific colic case may be unknown or indeterminable, it is usually linked to general poor gut health.

As a veterinary condition, cases of colic can be divided into two categories: gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal.

Non-gastrointestinal colic cases refer to abdominal discomfort due to disorders of reproductive, nervous, respiratory or musculoskeletal systems.

Gastrointestinal colic cases, which are the more common of the two, refer to abdominal upset for reasons linked to digestive imbalances, gut distension, and gastrointestinal obstructions. [3]

You can learn more about the Different Types and Causes of Colic in this article.

14 Best Ways to Prevent Colic in Horses

Not all forms of equine colic can be fully prevented.

However, there are measures that can be implemented to help reduce the risk of developing this condition and to support good gut health.

These strategies revolve around your horse’s feeding regimen, workload, and management.

Here is our list of the 14 best ways to naturally minimize the risk of colic and other digestive problems in horses.

1) Access to Fresh Water

Providing clean fresh water to your horse at all times is critical to reducing the risk of many gastrointestinal problems such as colic.

Proper hydration supports digestive function by aiding in the transit of food through the digestive tract. If your horse does not drink enough, they are at greater risk of impaction colic.

Water also dilutes stomach acid and is required to produce saliva, which is important for beginning the process of digestion.

Horses should consume roughly two gallons of water per 100 kg of bodyweight under normal circumstances. A 500 kg (1100 lbs) horse is expected to drink 10 gallons of water per day.

You can help to increase your horse’s water intake by doing the following: [2][4][5]

  • Regularly clean out your water buckets or automatic watering systems
  • Always change the water in your buckets before refilling
  • Ensure access to water in the paddocks at all times
  • Don’t let your horse’s water get too hot in the summer
  • Don’t let your horse’s water get too cold in the winter
  • During training and hot weather, feed electrolytes to encourage greater water consumption
  • Some horses will drink more readily if you flavour their water

As part of your daily management tasks, ensure that good quality water is provided to your horse at all times. This will have a significant impact on reducing the risk of colic and other gastrointestinal problems. [2][4][5]

2) Adequate Salt Intake

Mad Barn founder Scott Cieslar refers to salt as the best anti-colic supplement you can give your horse.

Feeding your horse adequate salt as a source of sodium will help to increase water intake, prevent dehydration and reduce the risk of colic. [2]

Most equine diets are deficient in the electrolyte sodium. This mineral is found in hays and complete feeds but is often not provided in sufficient amounts to meet dietary needs.

Horses should consume at least 2-4 tablespoons (1-2 ounces) of salt per day and should be provided with free choice loose salt at all times.

Providing your horse with a salt block is not enough to ensure adequate salt intake. Studies show that loose salt is more readily consumed and better able to support hydration.

During hot weather or when in heavy work, you may need to feed more salt to replace what is lost in sweat and to maintain electrolyte balance. [2]

3) Increase Turnout

Horses that are stalled with limited turnout are at increased risk of colic compared to horses with access to pasture for prolonged periods of time. [2][4][5]

Research shows that horses kept in a stall for more than 12 hours per day have decreased gut motility. This means that food does not move through their gastrointestinal tract well.

Stall confinement also contributes to boredom and increased stereotypic behaviours such as cribbing, both of which are associated with a higher risk of colic. [2][4][5]

To prevent this, give your horse as much turnout as possible.

Encouraging your horse to express natural species-appropriate behaviors such as foraging, grazing, and socializing within a herd will keep them moving and reduce boredom.

This movement will in turn reduce colic by promoting the transit of food through the gastrointestinal tract and decreasing stereotypic behaviours. [2][4]

4) Use Elevated Feeders

Horses are exposed to large amounts of sand throughout their lifetime, especially if they live in sandy regions. But even horses who don’t reside in sandy geographical areas can encounter sand in their arena, on trails, in their paddocks or in their stalls.

Over time ingestion of sand can lead to serious health complications such as respiratory issues and digestive disturbances. [2][6]

Horses grazing in sandy environments are at risk of sand accumulation in the digestive system. This can result in sand colic which is marked by irritation and obstruction of the gut.

To help prevent sand ingestion, feed your horse from an elevated hay net or feeder so that it is lifted off the ground. [2][6] Soaking your hay can also help remove dust and debris.

Increasing the fibre content of your horse’s diet may also alleviate sand colic and promote the excretion of sand from the digestive tract.

A University of Florida study recommends feeding hay at a rate of 2.5% of body weight to maximize sand removal. This equates to 12.5 kg for a 500 kg horse (or 28 lbs for a 1100 lbs horse).

5) Make Feeding Changes Gradually

Horses have a delicate digestive system that is sensitive to change. Abrupt changes to feed quality, quantity and schedule can increased risk of colic. [4][5][7][8]

Studies show that changing feeding practices multiple times per year greatly increase the risk of colic. Hay changes are the most significant factor for digestive issues. [4][5][7][8]

If you are changing to a different batch of hay, make the transition gradually over two to three weeks.

Ideally, obtain a hay analysis for any new hay being fed so you understand how it compares to your original source of hay.

A hay analysis can also help you ensure your horse’s dietary requirements are being met. You can submit your horse’s hay analysis online and our equine nutritionists will help you balance your horse’s diet.

6) Feed Quality

The best way to prevent gut problems for your horse is to feed a forage-rich diet that is balanced and maintained on a set schedule.

Horses are hindgut fermenters, meaning that dietary fibre is fermented in the hindgut to extract energy and nutrients. Feeding adequate fibre supports the equine microbiome which is responsible for fibre fermentation.

Avoid high-grain diets which can contribute to dysbiosis and excessive acidity in the hindgut. This condition, known as hindgut acidosis, is a precursor to hindgut ulcers and a number of other digestive issues.

Hay quality is also a major factor in colic. Hay that is slightly moldly is often ignored by horse owners. However, mold in feed can lead to colic in horses. [2][9]

Mold is a source of toxins. If ingested in large quantities, these toxins can disturb the delicate balance of microorganisms in the gut, resulting in digestive upset. [2][9]

Check both grain and hay to ensure it is fresh prior to feeding, especially if the feedstuff has been exposed to moisture. [2][9]

Feed should be stored in a cool, dark environment with no exposure to moisture. If you are unsure if your horse’s feed has gone moldy, it is better to avoid feeding it and spend the money to purchase new feed rather than risk a digestive issue that could lead to colic. [2][9]

7) Avoid Pelleted Feeds

Feeding your horse grain concentrates such as a complete feed or sweet feed can increase colic risk.

While small amounts of pelleted feeds are unlikely to cause a problem, feeding these in higher quantities can dramatically raise their risk.

Research shows that every pound of whole grain or corn feed added to a horse’s diet increases colic risk by 70%. [12]

In comparison to horses fed hay exclusively, horses consuming pelleted feeds have a 6 to 9.5 times greater risk of colic.

This is another reason to opt for a forage-first feeding program and to minimize the use of grain-based feeds.

8) Reduce Excess Stress

Minimizing stress and anxiety is important to prevent colic and digestive discomfort in your horse. While it is hard to eliminate every stressor that your horse is exposed to, aim to reduce stress to support overall gut health and well-being.

Common stressors that may result in colic include: [2]

  • Abrupt changes to the environment
  • Abrupt changes to your horse’s typical schedule
  • New herd placement or loss of companion
  • Low position in the social hierarchy and competition for feed and water
  • Travel or trailering
  • Excessive training with minimal recovery days
  • Intensive competition schedule

Many gastrointestinal conditions such as ulcers and diarrhea are linked to stress. These conditions also exacerbate the risk of colic development if they are not addressed.

9) Avoid Long-Term Use of NSAIDS

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are medications used to promote pain relief and reduce inflammation in horses.

Common NSAIDs include pheylbutazone (bute), firocoxib (Equioxx) and Flunixin meglumine (Banamine). They may be administered to alleviate joint pain or to promote comfort following an injury.

Short-term use of NSAIDs can be beneficial, however, long-term use has been shown to cause recurring low-grade colic. [10]

Researchers have demonstrated that long-term administration of NSAIDs can reduce gastric pH, increasing the acidity of the gut.

NSAIDs also inhibit prostaglandins, which causes decreased production of mucous in the gastrointestinal tract. Mucous plays an important role in maintaining intestinal barrier function and preventing the formation of ulcers.

Consult with your veterinarian to determine whether your horse’s use of NSAIDs is a risk factor for colic.

Investigate alternatives to NSAIDs for addressing pain and inflammation in your horse. Nutritional supplements such as MSM, omega-3 fatty acids and hyaluronic acid have good evidence for supporting joint health in horses. [10][11]

10) Address Dental Problems

As horses age, it can become harder for them to chew due to tooth wear and decay. Feed that is poorly chewed can result in decreased breakdown and digestion in the digestive tract.

These factors can result in choking, intestinal impactions, nutrient deficiencies and colic. [2]

This risk of colic can be prevented by ensuring your horse receives regular dental care.

If teeth are showing signs of wear, you may need to alter how you provide your horse’s feed. Horses struggling to chew their food may benefit from soaking their grain, feeding softer feeds, or feeding soaked hay cubes or chopped hay.  [2]

11) Balance Activity Levels

Regular exercise has been shown to increase gut motility, promote water intake, and help maintain a healthy digestive tract.

However, too much intense activity in the form of training or competition can increase the risk of colic.

Intense exercise has been shown to increase the risk of gastric ulcers, particularly if your horse is exercising on an empty stomach.

Exercise causes the horse’s abdomen to be compressed and increases pressure on the stomach, resulting in the splashing of gastric acids. This can cause ulcers to form in the upper squamous region of the stomach which is less protected from stomach acid.

A heavy workload can also increase stress levels in your horse. Furthermore, intense training and competition are associated with irregular feeding regimens and changes in the housing environment, which increase the risk of colic in horses. [2]

It is important to provide your horse with regular rest days and keep them on a predictable schedule. Do not engage in heavy training 6-7 days a week.

Never exercise your horse on an empty stomach. Build light rides into your horse’s training schedule and give them off days if they seem over-worked. Not only will this decrease colic risk, but it will also support exercise recovery and performance. [2]

12) Deworm your Horse

Internal parasites such as worms and strongyle larvae can play a role in the development of colic.

These parasites may cause obstruction of the intestinal tract, trauma, irritation or toxicity that result in colic. Parasites can also impact gut motility. [2]

Studies indicate that adult horses who are regularly dewormed have a decreased risk of colic. If your horse is not regularly dewormed, contact your veterinarian to learn more.

Your veterinarian can help you determine which dewormer is right for your area and your horse. They can also help you decide on the best schedule for administering a dewormer.

Note that in horses with a very high parasite load, the use of a deworming paste can actually precipitate colic. This is why it is important to keep your horse on a regular deworming schedule.

With a regular deworming program, your horse will be protected against many common parasites and the risk of colic will be reduced. [2]

13) Understand Previous Medical Issues

Many studies have demonstrated a higher risk of colic in horses that have previously suffered from gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and diarrhea.

Horses that have experienced colic before are also at a higher risk of colicking again. [2][4][7] This is why it is important to make changes at the first sign of digestive issues in your horse.

Horses undergoing medical treatment are also at increased risk of colic due to stress and potential changes in intestinal motility. [7][8]

Many medical treatments are unavoidable. But you may be able to minimize stress and support your horse’s gut health in other ways to reduce disturbances in gut motility.

14) Support your Horse’s Gut Health

There is no equine supplement that can universally prevent colic in your horse. However, many gut health supplements have good evidence of efficacy and can support your horse’s overall digestive system.

Some examples of ingredients that you can consider adding to your horse’s feeding program include:

Mad Barn’s Optimum Digestive Health is a comprehensive gut supplement designed to support your horse’s immune system and digestive function.

It contains a unique blend of probiotics, prebiotics, active yeast, enzymes and immune nucleotides that restore balance to the gastrointestinal tract and help to reduce the risk of digestive upsets.

Optimum Digestive Health Equine Supplement
  • Prebiotics, probiotics & enzymes
  • Support hindgut development
  • Combats harmful toxins in feed
  • Complete GI tract coverage

Signs and Symptoms of Colic

The best way to prevent your horse from experiencing severe colic is to take action when you observe the first signs of digestive upset.

Horses will often show noticeable signs of colic, as this condition can be very painful for them. Common signs of colic include: [2]

  • Pawing
  • Rolling
  • Distress
  • Laying down
  • Spinning circles in their stall
  • Sweating
  • Bloating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Absence of gut sounds
  • Absence of bowel movements in their stall
  • Uneasiness/incredibly uncomfortable

If your horse is showing any signs of colic, it is best to contact your veterinarian right away. Early detection will increase your horse’s chance of recovery.

Summary

Colic is a frightening subject for many horse owners as it can lead to very serious health complications.

Although colic in horses is unpredictable and can be caused by a range of factors, there are many measures that we can take as horse owners to reduce the risk.

These measures include changes to the feeding program, equine management, environment, activity level, veterinary care as well as dietary supplementation.

Supporting your horse’s gut health will not only reduce the risk of colic, but will also help support their overall health.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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References

  1. Curtis, L. et al. Risk factors for acute abdominal pain (colic) in the adult horse: A scoping review of risk factors, and a systematic review of the effect of management-related changes. PLoS One. 2019.
  2. Goncalves, S. et al. Risk factors associated with colic in horses. Vet Res. 2002.
  3. Abutarbush, S.M. et al. Causes of gastrointestinal colic in horses in western Canada: 604 cases (1992 to 2002). Can Vet J. 2005.
  4. Cohen, N.D. et al. Dietary and other management factors associated with colic in horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1999.
  5. Cohen N.D. et al. Case-control study of the association between various management factors and development of colic in horses. J Am Vet Assoc. 1995.
  6. Landes, A.D. et al. Fecal sand clearance is enhanced with a product combining probiotics, prebiotics and psyllium in clinically normal horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2008.
  7. Proudman C.J. A two years survey of equine colic in general practice. Equine Vet J. 1991.
  8. Reeves M.J. et al. Risk factors for equine acute abdominal disease (colic): results from a multi-center case-control study. Prev Vet Med. 1996.
  9. Stewart, H.L. et al. Changes in the fecal bacterial microbiota during the hospitalization of horses with colic and the effect of different causes of colic. Equine Vet J. 2020.
  10. Ihler, F.C. et al. Evaluation of clinical and laboratory variables as prognostic indicators in hospitalized gastrointestinal colic horses. Acta Vet Scand. 2004.
  11. Hess, T. and Ross-Jones, T. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in horses. R. Bras. Zootec. 2014.
  12. Malone, E. Colic in your horse. University of Minnesota Extension. 2021.