Colic is probably the scariest term that horse owners hear and it is, according to equinevetireland.com the biggest cause of adult horse deaths in Ireland.
Colic simply means abdominal pain and can potentially refer to a number of different things. However when used with horses it usually refers to a severe abdominal discomfort that causes the horse to be agitated, moving about or trying to lie down, rolling or pawing the ground.
What Causes Colic?
Colic is usually caused by anything that interferes with the digestive system and then prevents movement through the colon of waste products including gas and faeces.
There are a number of different types including;
- blockages in the colon
- gas build up in the colon
- twists in the colon
Colic can sometimes occur for no apparent reason, but blockages in the gut can also occur for a number of reasons which may be preventable.
- sand and grit can cause blockages – a particular problem where horses are fed fodder in sand arenas
- lack of water can cause the fibre to become too dry to pass through the intestine easily
- gaps in feeding can cause the gut to become susceptible to twists or knotting
- feed that is too rich in carbohydrates can alter the pH of the gut causing ulcers and blockages
Sometimes simple movement, drinking fresh water or eating small amounts of fresh foliage can start the movement again, other times specialist veterinary support is needed and/or surgery.
For any horse owner to prevent or treat colic it is important to have an understanding of the horse’s digestive system.
Equine Digestive System
The horse’s digestive system is very sensitive and because of this it works best when it has small amounts of food passing through its intestine almost constantly (14-16 hrs a day feeding).
This is why the advice of feeding little and often is used to describe the horse’s eating schedule.
The following video produced by DebgeHorseFeeds shows clearly how the digestive system operates and where colic can occur in the intestine system.
The Importance of Fibre
The main part of any horse’s diet is fibre which helps to keep the small intestine full and prevents it becoming twisted and causing colic. From the video you can see that having access to continual amounts of fibre plays a large part in maintaining the digestive system.
Fibre also helps to move the feed and gas products caused through the fermentation process and breakdown of food, along the intestine and prevents blockages occurring.
Stable kept horses are especially susceptible to having periods with no access to fibre, and colic can become an increased risk in this group.
The aim with most colic treatments is to try and get the gut moving and relieve any blockages or allow gas to be released.
If the colic cannot be alleviated quickly then a veterinary specialist is usually required, so don’t hesitate to call your vet out and seek expert opinions the moment there is any possibility that colic is present.
The vet will test the main indicators of your horse’s health including temperature and heart rate and will also want to know when the horse last defecated and what he has eaten recently.
Some kinds of colic require immediate intervention and surgery especially if the colon or gut has become twisted and cannot righten itself.
Colic can occasionally occur for no apparent reason, but the easiest way to minimise the risks is to ensure that they have a regular routine which includes the following;
- ensure the horse always has access to fresh clean drinking water
- ensure your horse has access to good quality roughage such as hay, haylage or grass
- check dentistry to make sure food can be eaten and ground down properly
- gradually introduce changes to diet and exposure to sudden lush grass growth
In addition stable kept horses might benefit from using slow feeders such as the hay net shown in the picture, or mixing in chaff to slow down eating.
The slow feeding hay net is available on Amazon Tough-1 Slow Feed Hay Pouch – Turquoise/Brown
Equine Colic Summary
Colic is a complex problem due to the delicate nature of the horse’s digestive system, so never underestimate the importance of checking your horse regularly and being prepared to call in expert opinion.
Regular healthy eating of fibre and plenty of turnout opportunities should prevent most common types of colic occurring.
Other articles on this site that are linked to this topic and which may be useful are;
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