During this very wet winter, many of our horses are stabled longer than usual, which puts them at an increased risk of colic. Colic is, unfortunately, still relatively common in horses and ponies, despite better knowledge of good feeding and deworming practices. About one in every 14 horses will have at least one bout of colic in their lives, and a small percentage of them will need surgery if they are to survive. Colic describes any abdominal pain, and can vary widely from a small amount due to trapped gas, to a painful twisted intestine that will cause death if the horse is not operated on.

All cases of colic should involve the vet because early treatment has a big impact on survival rates. If a horse does need surgery, they need to be referred and operated on as quickly as possible. For those who don’t, drugs can help relieve the pain and help treat the cause of the colic. Some severe colics where the horse is in a lot of pain are simple gaseous or impaction cases that might be treated without surgery, yet a seemingly milder case might be the very early stages of a twisted gut, which will be fatal if the horse does not have surgery.

Psyllium husks promote gut health.
Psyllium husks promote gut health.

Feeding to minimise the risk of colic is all about offering a natural, high fibre diet and feeding appropriate forage in order to reduce reliance on concentrate feed. Ideally offer forage ad lib (free choice) so the horse does not have periods of fasting, and allow free access to clean, fresh water for horses on preserved forages, e.g. hay and haylage. If concentrate feed is required, choose a high digestible fibre type that is not too high in grain, especially for a stabled horse. Change forage and other feeds gradually to give the digestive tract time to adapt, and lengthen this time for a horse prone to colic.

Stabling increases the risk of colic compared to pasture living.
Stabling increases the risk of colic compared to pasture living.

During very cold weather some horses drink less water, which puts them at risk of impacted colic. Monitor your horse’s hydration status carefully, by pinching the skin on the neck or shoulder and timing how long it takes to return flat. Immediate is normal, 3 seconds is a mildly dehydrated horse and any longer is a more seriously dehydrated horse. The skin pinch test is not perfectly accurate, and you need to know the normal for your horse when you know they are fully hydrated, and compare the pinch to this. Add a kettle of boiling water to your horse’s water bucket to encourage them to drink if their intake drops when their water is very cold.

Supplements can help to keep the digestive tract healthy in colic- or digestive-upset- prone horses. Probiotics and psyllium husks are useful additions to the diet and can both be fed together, mixed with the normal feed.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.