Horse Colic Prevention: Proven tips to reduce risk

According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, approximately 10% of the horse population will colic each year and 0.7% will die from colic. Based on the American Horse Council’s estimated population of 9.2 million horses in the U.S., approximately 920,000 cases of colic occur each year, and more than 64,000 horses may die due to colic-related problems. The point: colic is a common and potentially fatal condition in horses that owners should try to prevent through proven management and nutrition strategies. Let’s review what colic looks like, how it’s diagnosed and treated, then get into prevention.

"Colic" refers to abdominal pain in horses that may be caused by a number of different problems. The American Association of Equine Practitioners brochure "Colic: Understanding the digestive tract and its function" includes these signs of colic:

  • pawing
  • looking at, kicking or biting the side or abdomen
  • stretching out as if to urinate without doing so
  • repeatedly lying down and getting up
  • rolling, especially violent rolling
  • sitting in a dog-like position, or lying on the back
  • not eating or drinking
  • no bowel movements
  • absent or reduced digestive sounds
  • elevated respiration or pulse rate (but not fever)
  • depression
  • lip curling (Flehmen response)

Because your horse has a better chance of recovery the sooner treatment is started, contact your veterinarian right away if you notice any of these signs. He or she will perform a complete physical examination-- including rectal palpation and stomach tube passage-- to diagnose the cause of the pain then hopefully provide some relief. For mild colics, medical treatment may include the pain-relieving medication flunixin meglumine (Banamine), the antispasmodic Buscopan, and xylazine (Rompun) or detomidine (Dormosedan), both of which sedate and relax muscles. Oral or IV fluids may be given to rehydrate the horse, as well as mineral oil as a laxative.

If response to medical treatment is poor, vital signs are deteriorating, or your veterinarian palpates something more serious than gas such as an entrapment, displacement, or torsion, he or she may refer your horse to a hospital for colic surgery. Sometimes the only way to diagnose the cause of abdominal pain is to perform exploratory surgery.
So how can you try and prevent colic in the first place? Dr. Noah Cohen is an associate professor at Texas A & M University’s College of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery. He has organized studies of the causes of colic into four main areas (5th edition of Current Therapy in Equine Medicine):

Diet and feeding

"Changes in diet, specifically changes in the batch, type, or amount of hay and in the type or amount of concentrate, are associated with an increased risk of colic." Some horse owners have only been concerned about being careful when changing their horse’s grain. However, this finding shows that owners must also take care when switching hay, since providing different forage can increase the risk of colic by ten times (providing different grain can increase the risk of colic by five times).
"Turnout of horses onto lush pasture may predispose to colic, and changing pastures also may be associated with colic." Just like when changing hay, horse owners should take care when rotating between pastures because the type of forage may vary considerably. Consider adding a digestive supplement with probiotics, enzymes and other helpful ingredients to assist your horse during feed transitions.

Stabling and housing

"Increased time being stalled is a risk factor for impaction of the large colon." Daily turnout or exercise is good for horses on a number of levels. When it is not possible due to lameness, weather changes, or other reasons, owners should make sure other risk factors are accounted for, such as limiting grain intake, increasing water intake, and keeping lots of the same batch of hay in front of their horse.

"Lack of access to adequate fresh water is a risk factor for colic." Studies show horses with access to grass or hay but not water had a higher incidence of colic than horses which were able to eat and drink at the same time. In the winter, horses will drink more water if it is warmed, which is one strategy to encourage drinking. Another is to topdress feed with electrolytes or salt, which stimulates thirst and helps prevent dehydration.


"Both increases and decreases in activity levels may be associated with colic." However, it is difficult to blame colic on changes in activity alone because many times changes in exercise go hand-in-hand with changes in stalling and feeding. For example, a horse that becomes lame may be prescribed stall rest and a hay-only diet when he was used to daily riding, turnout on pasture, and grain. This is a time when a digestive supplement may be helpful in maintaining a healthy GI tract.

Veterinary health management

"Regular administration of an anthelmintic {deworming}, rather than infrequent purging of parasites, appears to decrease the risk of colic." It makes sense that using a daily dewormer to prevent infestation and migration of parasites would help prevent colic that is due to inflammation of the gut wall or GI blood vessels. Farms that perform regular fecal examinations have also been shown to have a reduced incidence of colic.

"In the UK, strong evidence exists that tapeworms are associated with ileal impactions and other forms of colic." Although the incidence of tapeworms in the US varies by region, deworming with products that contain praziquantal) have been proven to control this particular parasite.

Related Reading:

Colic 101
Colic Prevention: Proven Tips to Help Reduce Your Horse's Risk
Impaction Colic
Equine Colic

About Dr. Lydia Gray


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