Colic in Horses

What is Colic in Horses?

There is nothing that strikes more fear into the heart of horse owners than an episode of colic. An umbrella term for abdominal discomfort, there are many different types of colic in horses that are relatively common and can range from mild to severe symptoms. It can be difficult to establish what causes colic in horses as many are treated medically and so don’t require surgery.  It is essential to involve your vet if your horse colics repeatedly as problems left untreated can lead to serious health issues and can be fatal.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Nutrition is one of many colic risk factors, and include:

  • Limited grazing time resulting in insufficient fibre intake
  • Feeding cereal-based concentrates – if fed in large quantities starch can reach the hindgut causing acidosis and resulting in dysbiosis
  • Sudden dietary change – it is recommended to take 7-10 days when making significant changes to the horse’s diet

Colic & Limited Grazing Time

Hudson et al., (2001) reported that stabled horses or those that had a recent grazing reduction were 3 times more likely to have colic than those at pasture 24/7. Why might this be the case? What’s protective about pasture? A reduction in grazing time also equals a change in diet which may also influence horse colic risk. However, there are some factors relating to grazing that are potentially beneficial for horse gut health.

  • The company of other horses may help to reduce stress levels compared to ya horse being isolated in a stable.
  • A horse at grass eats more or less continuously throughout the day – a behaviour known as trickle feeding.
  • The horse’s digestive tract functions at its best when receiving an almost continuous trickle of highly fibrous material
  • Continuous movement whilst grazing encourages the peristalsis action in the gut that keeps everything moving through the digestive system.

Top Tips for Managing the Risk of Colic in Horses

  • Make all dietary changes gradually.
  • Ideally offer forage ad-lib.
  • For good do-ers who gain too much weight on ad-lib forage, reduce intake to a minimum of 1.5% of body weight on a dry matter basis. Divide the forage ration into several meals daily, using small holed nets to slow the rate of intake.
  • Ensure free access to water and make sure your horse is drinking regularly.  In the winter months, the addition of some warm water to a cold water bucket may encourage horses to drink more.
  • Make sure your horse’s teeth are in good condition with regular dental check-ups.
  • If appropriate, encourage movement in the stable by positioning forage nets in multiple locations or by using a forage/treat ball filled with Dengie’s high-fibre Alfalfa Pellets or Pure Grass Pellets as a tasty low-starch treat.
  • For fussy feeders, multiple forage sources can encourage them to consume more and spend longer engaged in foraging activity. Bring the paddock into the stable by offering a bucket of Dengie Pure GrassMeadow Grass with Herbs or soaked Pure Grass Pellets alongside the usual forage ration.


Hay Horse Feed

Colic in Horses & Concentrate Feeding

Tinker et al., (1997) reported that feeding 2.5-5kg of concentrates each day significantly increased the risk of colic in horses. So, what links concentrate feeding and colic risk?

Horses have a limited capacity to digest starch in their small intestine. Starch escaping digestion in the small intestine ends up in the hind gut where it is rapidly fermented. This rapid fermentation produces a more acidic environment in the gut which compromises the normal defences of the gut. It can make the gut more permeable allowing substances that shouldn’t pass through the gut wall to do so. In addition to this, a more acidic environment in the gut is not favourable for fibre-fermenting bacteria to survive and so fibre digestion is compromised. These factors combined are linked to an increased risk of colic which may be relatively mild but occur on repeated occasions. A colicky horse is clearly one that has digestive health issues and even if symptoms appear to resolve, it is worth consulting a vet if the problem recurs.

How to Manage  Colic Risk When Feeding Concentrates

  • Limit meal sizes to no more than 1.5kg of cereal based feeds for a horse, dividing larger amounts of concentrates into 3-4 feeds daily to keep meal sizes small.
  • Limit starch intake to less than 1g of starch per kg of body weight per meal, or 2g of starch per kg of body weight per day.
  • Think fibre first – only use cereal based feeds if fibre and oil based feeds are not sufficient to maintain a horse’s condition
  • If using concentrate feeds, ensure that cereals included have been cooked by micronizing or extruding, which enhances the digestibility of starch in the small intestine.
  • Maintain a minimum forage intake of 1.5% of your horse’s body weight on a dry matter basis, no matter how hard they are working.
  • Use early cut hay or haylage to make a more significant contribution to energy requirements to reduce the reliance on concentrates and thus the risk of a horse with colic.
  • Use more digestible sources of fibre including alfalfa and sugar beet, such as Alfa-Beet or feeds that are high in oil, as part of the bucket feed to reduce the reliance on cereal-based concentrates. Alfalfa naturally has a calorie level comparable to a cool mix/cube, but when combined with oil in products like Dengie Alfa-A Oil, provides as much energy as a conditioning mix/cube.

Horse Colic & Diet Change

A change in diet is probably the most frequently reported risk factor for a colicky horse. A sudden change in diet disturbs the bacterial population in the horse’s hind gut. Similarly to excessive levels of starch reaching the hind gut, a sudden change to the ration can result in rapid fermentation, a more acidic environment in the gut, as well as compromised fibre digestion. This can increase the risk of having a colicky horse.

Many horse owners will know that a change in their horse’s bucket feed requires a gradual change, but relatively speaking, this makes up just a small part of their diet. Under most circumstances, grazing and forage form the largest part of the horse’s diet, and so any changes in these will need to be managed gradually as well.

Managing colic risk with dietary change

  • Any changes to your horse’s diet should be made gradually over a period of 7-10 days, including changes to grazing and forage. Introduce increasing amounts of the new feedd, whilst reducing the old feedd in a stepwise fashion, e.g. 0.5kg increase every 3 days.
  • If your horse lives out during the summer but is stabled over winter, start to bring your horse in for short periods with access to small amounts of forage. Gradually increase the amount of time in the stable and forage offered so that when your horse has to be stabled, they are already adapted to forage.
  • If your horse lives in during the winter but is turned out come spring, this is a little trickier to manage as less grazing time doesn’t always equate to a smaller intake. Consider the use of a grazing muzzle combined with limited turnout, but increasing amounts of time at grass, to gradually allow your horse’s digestive system time to adapt.
  • Try to stick to a similar time of feeding every day to manage the risk of colic in horses.
  • If your horse is away from home, take your own feed and forage with you if possible.
  • During times of dietary change or travel to competition, consider the use of a digestive supplement. Look for products with prebiotics and probiotics or live yeast to support the friendly fibre-fermenting bacteria in your horse’s gut.

Would you know how to REACT if your horse had colic?

The British Horse Society and the University of Nottingham have created a REACT now to beat colic campaign. They provide lots of useful information including how to identify the signs of colic in horses and what to do in case of an emergency.  This along with our feed advice should help to reduce the risk of colic.

For more information, visit REACT Now to Beat Colic, or contact the team at Dengie for further assistance if you have any questions.