March 29, 2021
The dreaded colic can strike at any time. Colic is the general term for "belly pain" and not an actual diagnosis. Episodes of colic can range from mild to life-threatening, and all cases should involve your veterinarian's help.
Here's how to lower your horse's risk of colic.
Know what's normal
Knowing your horse's "normals" will help you spot those times when something is off. This goes beyond basic vital signs of temperature, pulse, and respiratory rates - memorize your horse's body and his habits too.
Your horse's vital signs give you insight into how they are feeling long before they shows you. A horse's pulse and respiratory rates will increase during stress and pain. Sometimes, a horse's body temperature will increase as well.
At rest, your horse's body temp should be between 99º F and 101.5º F.
A horse's pulse, at rest, should be between 28 and 44 beats per minute.
Respiratory rates are usually 10 to 24 in-and-out breaths per minute.
Start to learn your horse's other normals - his inputs and outputs. How much does your horse eat daily, and at what times? What are their drinking habits? For their outputs, what is a typical pile of manure? How often do they pass manure and urinate? Where are their favorite spots?
Changes to manure or eating habits indicate intestinal distress and may end up in a colic situation. Keep your eyes peeled!
If you notice something different about your horse's vital signs or typical behaviors, collect more information before jumping to any conclusions. A higher than normal pulse rate might mean your horse just jumped around a bit, a change in manure habits might tell you he ate a little bit earlier than normal. Pair what you see with how he's acting, and go from there. Your vet is also a phone call away to double-check any concerns and guide you to keep monitoring your horse.
Make changes slowly for all types of food
Horses do best when they are allowed two weeks to adjust to a new diet. Over those days, incrementally decrease the previous food as you increase the new food. A slow transition applies to all types of foods - forage, bagged feeds, grains, fortified feeds, and even supplements.
Deliveries of hay may vary in cut, quality, weed content, and even origin. Save enough bales of hay when the new batch is delivered to ease the transition. This goes double for switching types of hay.
The same practice holds true for pasture. Spring pastures can bloom in a week! Horses need longer to adjust from the sparse and paltry winter grass to the new lush grass because of the rich sugar content that forms when the new grass grows in. A grazing muzzle and limited turnout times allow your horse to acclimate to pastures safely. This may also apply when switching paddocks around the farm if the grasses vary.
How your horse eats impacts his gut health and colic risk
Grazing animals benefit from lots of chewing throughout the day. Mimic that natural behavior with hay nets and slow feeders. Feeding forage from a slow feeder also reduces the likelihood of sand ingestion, which can create colic.
As mentioned before, use a grazing muzzle to slow down the grass intake in the pasture, as well as the volume of grass and sugars that your horse eats. The bonus of using a grazing muzzle is that horses can stay out and move around for much longer—instead of losing their beloved turnout time.
Break up your horse's concentrated feeds, grains, or fortified feeds and supplements throughout the day. The more small meals you can feed them, the better. It's also advantageous to give your horse any concentrated meals after he's eaten hay for an hour or so. The forage will physically slow down those concentrated meals.
Supplements can support your horse's digestive health
Prebiotics and probiotics support the microbes in your horse's gut that aid digestion. Probiotics are live organisms, and prebiotics are "food" for your horse's microbe population. Keeping those microbes happy will undoubtedly keep your horse's digestive tract happy.
Hindgut buffers inhibit drastic changes to your horse's hindgut pH when those microbes are fermenting your horse's hay. That radical change in pH can lead to excessive gas, and even colic and laminitis.
Ulcer prevention supplements help prevent stomach acids from creating sores in the stomach, esophagus, and small intestine. Some ulcer prevention supplements work by creating a buffer in the stomach, neutralizing acid's burning effects.
Check out Corro's wide selection of prebiotics, probiotics, and ulcer prevention supplements below:
Water and your horse's hydration
Your horse's hydration and water intake are also markers of gut health and colic risk. You can easily track intake if you use buckets or tubs to provide water. Even automatic waterers have accessories available to measure consumption via a meter. It's trickier in herd situations, though, with many horses sharing the same water sources.
To test your horse for healthy hydration, feel the gums above his upper teeth, under the top lip. They should be slippery. Gums that are sticky or dry indicate your horse needs more water.
Soaking your horse's hay and feeds with water also helps hydrate your horse. Make quick work of this chore by dropping a filled hay net into a muck tub and fill with water. Lift the hay net after a few minutes, and you are good to go.
The skin tent test is quite easy to check hydration. Just pinch and pull a little bit of your horse's neck skin, and see how quickly it snaps back. Dehydrated horses will take longer to snap back. Using this hydration test is not as accurate, as a horse's skin loses elasticity over time.
The judicious use of electrolytes before exercise in hot weather will help your horse's desire to drink. You can also encourage your horse to drink by flavoring his water with a small splash of apple juice or a teaspoon of his feed. Offer this alongside unflavored water to find the most tempting flavors.
Keep tabs on your horse's internal parasites
Your horse's parasite load is also a colic risk factor. It was once standard to rotate dewormer brands, but best practices now include a fecal egg count test twice a year, in the spring and fall. This tells you roughly how many ascarids your horse is carrying around. Many horses don't need dewormers!
For other internal parasites, your vet can help you map out a plan for your horse. Freezing weather often plays a role in the timing of deworming practices too.
The final key to a healthy gut and a lowered risk of colic is movement. This includes freedom to graze and play with friends, roll around in the dirt, and going for rides with you. Motion is lotion for joints, the brain, and the digestive tract!
Make any change to your horse's lifestyle slowly when it comes to changing schedules and routines. This includes ramping up your horse's fitness levels, as well as slowing things down a bit.
Take care when your horse is stressed
If your horse is in known stressful situations, like horse shows, stall rest, new barns, and intense training situations, he needs a bit of support.
Keep your horse's schedule and feeding patterns as regular as possible. At shows and clinics, bring your hay from home instead of having the showground provide it. If you cannot give your horse their typical turnout, replace that with hand walks and hand grazing.
For planned excursions and stressful situations, some horses benefit from additional supplements. Look for products containing magnesium for calming or broad-spectrum digestive support. Start these before your horse needs them.
Keep your focus on your horse's normal behaviors, feeding them slowly and more naturally, and keeping up with hydration and movement. These steps can help prevent your horse from colic. As always, if you suspect your horse may be colicing or notice that something is off, alert your vet immediately.