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How to Prevent Colic in Horses

With any health issue, prevention is far better than cure and colic is no exception. You can never eliminate the risk of your horse suffering from this condition. But there are things that you can do to improve your chances of avoiding an episode.

What is Colic?

Colic is a general term for severe pain in the abdomen caused by wind or obstruction in the intestines. Put simply, it is a bad tummy ache. The causes of colic vary from the relatively innocuous to the life threatening. Your vet’s challenge will always be to ascertain how serious your horse’s condition is and what treatments are most appropriate.

The Risk Factors for Colic

Unfortunately, stabling and competing increase the risk of colic in horses. The risks are further increased by poor husbandry. This includes the provision of mouldy feed and meals which are too large. It is important that horses receive good dental care as bad teeth prevent horses from properly chewing their food. A high worm burden could also lead to a case of colic.

Sudden changes in diet are risk factors for colic and are best avoided. High starch, low forage diets are troublesome and an inadequate water supply could result in problems. As with humans, stress can cause or exacerbate health issues and this the case with colic. The stress of travelling, competing and any changes in a horse’s routine will increase the chances of a bout of colic. Long periods of confinement do not help and neither does crib biting.

How to Protect Your Horse

Always select feeds for your horse which are high in fibre and low in starch. If your horse needs more energy in their diet, provide this in the form of oils. Only feed your horse in accordance with their general condition as it is important that your horse does not gain or carry excessive weight.

Try to source feeds which feature controlled levels of starch. Starch should constitute a maximum of 20% of the feed. Keep meal sizes small (less than 2kg). Feed your horse from buckets or mangers as this will reduce their ingestion of sand and other potential harmful materials. Always give your horse free access to forage.

You should introduce new feeds gradually. Start by mixing a small proportion of new feed with your horse’s existing variety and then increase this proportion over a period of several days.

Ensure that your and do everything you can to reduce stress during travel or any changes at the stables.

Always provide a good supply of clean, fresh water for your horse to drink. If your horse is on box rest, then seek veterinary advice regarding the level of exercise that the horse could tolerate as confinement may be problematic. Even a few gentle strolls can make a difference providing they would not exacerbate other health issues.

How to Prevent Colic in Older Horses

Veteran horses are prone to colic and other digestive issues and so their diet may need to be modified to meet their needs. Here we'll take a look at the different elements in the equine diet and other things to consider as your horse goes into their more senior years.

The Importance of Fibre

Fibre should be the foundation of any equine diet but it can be difficult for veteran horses to consume enough fibre. This is because their teeth may be worn or missing, reducing their ability to chew long-stem fibre like hay. Unmolassed short 'chops' are an excellent option for them as, when soaked, this fibre feed is easy to eat. The feed can be soaked in warm water in the winter to provide a warming treat for your horse. You can also buy hay alternatives such as

Provide Protein

Most older horses benefit from a higher level of protein in their diet. This is important for the repair and maintenance of the body’s tissues. Look for feeds containing soya bean and/or linseed meal and grass. Both are great sources of protein. But be careful because, if your horse has been diagnosed with a liver of kidney condition, they will need a low protein diet.

Vitamins and Minerals

A balanced diet is essential for a veteran horse and so the right amount of vitamins and minerals must feature. A formulated bagged feed is an easy way to provide essential nutrients and should be fed to your horse in the amounts recommended by the manufacturer.

Monitor and Meet Energy Requirements

An older horse may require extra energy from its diet in order to maintain weight and retain sufficient energy for exercise and work. Most veteran feeds are high in calories to address this issue. But your horse may prove to be a good doer and will then require a lower calorie feed. You should monitor their weight regularly and make the appropriate adjustments. Careful monitoring is particularly crucial in the winter when rugs and a longer coat can obscure weight loss.


Always provide access to clean water. Dehydration impacts performance and puts your horse at greater risk of colic. If your horse is reluctant to drink enough, look for ways to add water to their diet such as soaking feeds and try adding flavour in the shape of fruit juice to encourage them to drink more.

Fussy Eaters

Your horse may be or may become a fussy eater. You might have to flavour their food to keep them eating sufficient calories. This can be done with herbs like mint and fenugreek which horses often enjoy. Sometimes simply soaking feed in warm water can make it more appealing.

Prebiotics and Probiotics

Older horses can suffer from reduced digestive function making it harder for them to absorb the nutrients they need. Pre- and probiotics can help to restore function by improving the number of good bacteria in the gut.

Every horse is an individual and so will have unique dietary requirements in order to remain in optimum condition. Their needs will also change across time and so you will have to monitor their condition and adjust their diet as they age.

If you require help with your horse's diet please consult your vet or equine nutritionist. Remember if a change in diet is required this should be done gradually.

How to Avoid Colic in Winter

It has been suggested that eating frosty grass could give horses colic. However, there is no evidence to suggest this. Horses that are turned out in winter should have no difficulties as a result of eating frosty forage, as any frozen plant matter is rapidly warmed when in the horses’ mouths. When a horse chews grass the plant material mixes with saliva and heats up. Further warming takes place as the grass passes through the horse’s digestive tract. The grass won’t be frosty for very long! In cases where frosty grass has been suspected of causing colic in winter, it is likely that other factors associated with the season have been the real culprits.

Turnout Times

Turnout time tends to be more restricted in the winter months as there are less daylight hours, the conditions underfoot may be problematic and the weather may get stormy. This means that horses are stabled more often and therefore immobile for longer and their access to grass is reduced. The risk of colic then becomes greater.

Cold Water Blues

You are probably aware that horses don’t like to drink cold water. In addition, grass is 80% water and horses have less access to grass in the winter. Horses can easily become dehydrated and water is essential for the efficient functioning of their digestive system. Horses often suffer from colic as a result of dehydration. If there is insufficient water in a horse’s digestive tract, food matter does not move through the twists and turns as easily, hence the likelihood of blockages.

Increase Hydration

As dehydration is often the cause of colic in winter, it makes sense to ensure that your horse is taking sufficient water on board. Studies have shown that warming up their water will encourage horses to drink more. Adding a little flavour could also make the water more tempting.

You should consider adjusting your feeding regime by including feeds that have a higher moisture content. Haylage has 20% more water than hay and so represents a good option. Soaked sugar beet is also a good choice.

If you have concerns about the volume of water that your horse is drinking, use a bucket rather than an automatic drinker so you are able to monitor exactly how much they are consuming. It is clearly important that you don’t allow the water to freeze when you are not at the yard. If you are unable to continuously heat the water, try using an insulated bucket. You can also find more .

Storms and Colic

There is substantial anecdotal evidence that stormy weather causes an increase in the incidence of colic in horses. All research into this phenomenon has failed to establish a correlation between storms and colic but it is a subject which it could be worth bearing in mind. Sometimes those old wife’s tales turn out to be true!

If you turn out your horse as much as possible over the winter months and keep a close eye on their hydration you should be able to avoid a case of colic.

What to Do If Your Horse Has Colic

Nobody wants to be faced with a horse suffering from colic (severe abdominal pain). This condition can be extremely distressing but for the sake of your horse, you must keep calm and follow the right procedures. There are several different reasons for equine colic but here are some of the first things you should do.

Calling the Vet

>The first thing you should do when you suspect colic is call the vet. The quicker you act the better chance your horse has. When you summon the vet, provide accurate directions to your stables and leave your contact phone number. If your stables are particularly difficult to find, ask someone to stand by the road near a landmark which you have identified to the vet so they can flag them down and direct them to your horse.


If your horse is clearly suffering with severe pain, you should confine them to a safe area as they may try to get down and roll. An arena or a well-bedded stable are the best choice. If you put your horse in an arena, then keep it on the lunge. Remove any buckets or equipment that your horse could injure themselves on. If your horse lies down this is unlikely to make their condition worse. It is best not to enter the stable for you own safety as your horse’s movements could be unpredictable.


If your horse is in pain, then it might help to slowly walk them for a few minutes. It is important that they only walk and do not break into a trot or canter. Do not walk your horse for more than 20 minutes until they have been examined by your vet. Don’t force your horse to exercise if they are trying to go down as this will be exhausting. If your horse is exhausted, their recovery from an anaesthetic could be impeded should they require surgery.

Feed and Water

You should remove any feed, hay or water from the stable as consuming food or water may cause more harm depending on what the cause of colic is. It is best to wait for the vet to arrive and take advice before offering your horse anything. If they are in pain they are unlikely to want to drink or eat.

Being Prepared

Be prepared to transport your horse in case you need to take them to a clinic. If your horse is seriously ill, it is vital to minimise delays so have a plan in place. Check your horse box, trailer and towing vehicle to ensure that the vehicle will start and that there are no other issues including flat tyres.

If your horse is insured, then check your cover as you will have decisions to make about treatment. If your vet wishes to refer your horse to a clinic, get an estimate of costs and an assessment of the possible complications and your horse’s chances of survival. Inform your insurance company of what is happening.

Check that you have accurate directions to the clinic that you have been referred to and the telephone number. Keep the clinic updated if there are any issues on route or delays to your journey.

Your horse’s survival could hinge on your actions. Being prepared, keeping calm and ensuring that you act quickly will give your horse the best chance of recovery.Of course prevention is better than cure!


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