Everyone with a horse at livery dreads receiving a 6am telephone call from the yard owner. A phone call at this time generally means your horse is ill.
Colic is a common problem with horses, and is basically a general term for stomach ache. Symptoms include sweating, kicking at the stomach, stretching as if to urinate, and rolling. Veterinary advice should be sought if you think your horse has colic.
Colic has many causes, ranging from simple indigestion to a twisted, strangulated intestine. Because of this there can never be a simple vaccine or a single preventive answer. However although total eradication of colic is impossible, by identifying and reducing risk factors we can help to decrease the chance of colic occurring.
Risk factors include:
Water deprivation – likely to lead to blockages of the digestive system with semi-digested masses of food.
Sudden dietary changes
Irregular exercise routines
Intense exercise, low grazing and high levels of hard food
Stress, such as being transported
Large quantities of food and water immediately after exercise
Previous abdominal surgery
Sandy soils, particularly if closely grazed
Unfortunately our horses are often kept in such a way that includes some of the above risk factors. For example, a horse with a hard-working owner at a DIY stable probably has limited help. Economic and practical pressures mean the fields may be over-crowded, and droppings rarely removed. Some regimes often limit grazing to less than eight hours a day and large concentrate meals are fed in an attempt to compensate for this. Week day exercise is not always possible and is often prolonged at weekends. During winter the water may be frozen at the beginning of the day and if nobody notices, the horse may have insufficient access to a drink. All of this is vastly removed from the horse’s natural and ideal lifestyle.
Horses are herbivores, designed to be trickle feeders ie grazing, moving, grazing again, before moving to new pastures. The horse’s mouth is equipped with sensitive, flexible lips, which are used in conjunction with shaped incisors that tear grass or similar forage from the ground. The cheek molars pulverise the grassy stalks. The result is packed into a bolus (or round mass). that is swallowed down into the oesophagus and made more digestible in the acid stomach. This is then passed through the small intestine where freed nutritional components are absorbed. At the junction of the small intestine and colon lies the caecum where the plant cell walls and broken down and turned into fat. Waste products finally pass into the colon and are turned into stools.
By addressing some of the risk factors, such as ensuring your horse has access to fresh water establishing regular management routines, feeding good quality forage (avoiding cheaper, mouldy hay) and if possible providing ad-lib hay for stabled horses you can help to reduce chances of colic occurring. Feed from a net rather than the ground to help prevent the ingestion of bedding. Ration access to lush spring grass carefully, worm horses regularly and clear droppings from pasture every few days. In addition, have your horse’s teeth checked regularly and avoid over grazing and sandy pastures.
Author: Andrea McHugh