Horse Health Advice - What causes horse colic?

Often the original cause of colic is unknown but the most common causes include ...

Irregularities in feeding; a sudden change of diet; gastric upsets or indigestion; gas build up; too much concentrated feed; unsoaked sugar beet; eating a substance that expands when damp; intestinal accident

Also, intestinal blockage; a lack of water; stress or a stress filled environment; too much food or water before or after exercise; worms or the lack of a balanced worming program or gas build up after eating cut or mown grass.

In This Section ...
What is Horse Colic
What Causes Horse Colic
Symptoms of Horse Colic
Preventing Horse Colic
How To Treat Horse Colic

In addition the condition of grazing can play a part, especially where the grazing is low and your horse ingests sandy or dry soil as it grazes the very sparse, short grass.

This can result in sand or impact colic, essentailly a build up of soil in the intestinal tract.

The risk of colic occurring increases with high carbohydrate diets and inadequate access to fibre or roughage in the form of hay, grass, chaff or other bulk feed that ensures the digestive system operates smoothly.

Horse Digestive Colic
Stabled horses are more prone to colic than horses kept at grass.

The practice of keeping horses in stables for a large portion of the day and feeding large meals only twice a day wreaks havoc with digestive health.

Stable confinement increases the risk of colic by at least 50%.

Intestinal motility is reduced by confinement and by fasting between large meals.

With reduced intestinal motility comes the risk of impaction colic or gas distention.

Why is colic so common and why are horses predisposed to colic :

Your horses intestine is long and can tangle easily. It's digestive process involves the production of gas through fermentation, and gas can fill loops in its intestine.

  • The intestine can then become tangled and the flow of food can become blocked.
  • Your horse, unlike we humans, cannot vomit to evacuate any unsuitable or blocked material.
  • Your horse is a grazing animal and is used to a gentle, regular, feeding pattern which continues throughout the year.

Routine is all important and getting fat when suitable pasture is abundant or getting thin when grass has died off or food is in low supply are all gradual processes that your horses digestive system can cope with.

In the wild your horse would have lots of stamina and your horse would travel long distances to find the necessary food to supplement the diet variety it needs to thrive.

Domesticated horses seldom travel to the same extent as wild horses and their limited range limits the variety of foods they can find to balance their digestive systems themselves

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The Best Strategy for Minimizing the Risk of Horse Colic :

The best way to avoid the risk of colic is to offer free-choice grass and hay so your horse can graze throughout the day, and to limit the amounts of grain, while providing daily turnout and regular exercise.

Other causes of colic, such as sand ingestion, are often related to restricted access to hay.

Restriction of fiber and or boredom that induces a horse to nibble at scraps of hay and dirt increase the risk of accumulation of sand in the bowel.

The best prevention for sand colic is to feed ample hay, and when possible, use feeders, ie. large tractor tires or commercial feeders, to confine the hay and keep it from being scattered across the ground. Many commercial feeders do not prevent scattering, so sand ingestion might not be prevented entirely

It is suggested horses owners feed psyllium husk for one week of each month to move through any sand that has collected.

Obesity and parasites are also risk factors in horse colic

But a conscientious horse owner should prevent and manage these concerns with a good feeding routine and worming programme.

Your horse should be fed by weight, (see How to measure a horse), not volume since the density of hay varies from bale to bale.

Horses should be pastured on non-irrigated, dryland pasture when possible.

If the only pasture option is a rich, irrigated field then many problems can be avoided by fitting your horse with a grazing muzzle or by limiting turnout time. This will prevent the intake of rich, highly fermentable, grass that can contribute to gas or spasmodic colic episodes.

Tapeworms - horse colic
Tapeworms have been identified as the cause of as many as 22% of spasmodic colic cases.

Parasite control should be managed with regular worming programming involving varities of worming products.

Droppings should be cleaned up at least twice a week, to limit the development of other parasite larvae in areas where the horse eats. Pasture rotation limits overgrazing and assists ultraviolet (the sun) kill of the remaining infectious larvae.

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How your life-style relates to the risk of horse colic :

There is an increased risk of your horse developing colic where you have a full time job, a hectic social life and a DIY stable environment but, you don't have sufficient hired help to maintain a high level of care, especially during the winter.

Other Additional factors also increase the risk of colic -

  • If the grazing is overcrowded or available for less than 8 hours each day
  • If droppings are rarely removed (worm burden)
  • If a lack of poor grazing isn't supplemented by a balanced diet with sufficient fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals to sustain your horses workload.
  • If exercise is severely limited during the week and then increased or concentrated at week-ends.