The dreaded colic - how do I know if my horse is at risk?
So before we dig in here, if you even remotely suspect your horse is having a colic episode, call the Veterinarian pronto. Don’t wait to call the Vet, don’t give meds until you talk to your Vet (they can interfere with diagnostics), and don’t panic. If you have some handy dandy information about your horse if you suspect colic (read this gem), you and your Vet can make a plan.
If you own a horse, at some point he’s going to get himself into a pickle. It’s just what they do. Scrapes, wounds, bites, kicks, colic episodes, sprung shoes, missing chunks of tail hair… you name it. It’s impossible to predict if a horse will colic, but there are a lot of contributing factors. Your mission as a horse owner is to minimize risks and act in your horse’s best interest. But first you need to know your horse’s colic risk factors. (Of course, of course, of course a discussion with your Veterinarian about your specific horse is better than reading this equine masterpiece.)
Influencing factors for colic include:
- Previous colic episodes! If he did it once, he’s more likely to do it again. Not a guarantee, but something to be aware of.
It's not always WHAT you feed, but HOW you feed it.
- Diet. This category has many angles. First, consider what his current diet is. Is it quality hay? Quality pasture? Remember that lush thick pasture may look “better” but sometimes it’s worse for horses, especially those with metabolic issues. Does he have a balanced diet? The horse that eats only hay is missing nutrients like Vitamin E that disappear when hay dries, usually within a week. How often are you feeding your horse supplements and fortified feeds? Once a day is not as beneficial as two or three times a day. Is he nibbling on weeds through the fence? Some weeds, like buttercups, can cause major damage. Does he eat weird things, like fencing or bark? Big bites of fence or bark can lead to all sorts of colic badness. Do you switch his feeds and hay frequently and quickly? Even the same type of hay varies greatly from load to load, so just because it’s timothy doesn’t mean it’s the same every delivery.
- Overall health and fitness. The weekend warrior horse or the trail ride only on holidays horse will have a lower fitness and conditioning level, which may be a contributing factor for colic. Any horse that is left to his own devices or largely ignored may have signs of colic (and other stuff) that are overlooked. The horse that is tossed hay over the fence daily and groomed on a sporadic schedule just doesn’t have much eyes on and hands on noticing of possible issues.
- Parasite control. Fecal egg counts are good when paired with targeted worming practices. This reduces your horse’s parasite load, and therefore the chances of worms clogging up his system. Literally speaking. Of course, you also need to work with your Veterinarian to address pin worms and tape worms, which are undetectable by fecal egg counts.
Pasture is good, but sometimes not best.
- Living environments. Stall versus pasture? Lack of movement due to stall life might be a contributing factor to colic. But, paddocks with or without grass also have their own down sides, such as access to weeds, sand (easily ingested with nibbling around), crazy high sugars for rich spring grasses, and even the stresses of living alone or with other horses that bully the bottom guy. You also need to consider the water source. Is it clean? Easily frozen in winter with no other options? Hard or soft water?
- Lifestyle. This goes hand in hand with fitness and overall health. Show horses that travel all over the land log a lot of miles on rigs, in planes, in stalls. They are exposed to all sorts of stresses! Compare this to the happy fit guy that stays at home most of the year whose stress level is fairly non existent.
- Don’t forget about these other factors which may pay a part in colic. Dental care! If your horse can’t properly chew his food, who knows what will happen to those bigger pieces as they pass through your horse. Is he a picky drinker? Hydration pays a huge role in colic cases for some horses. Once thought to be just a vice, cribbing now has some documented evidence that has linked it to some large colon obstructions. Management of vices is also something to consider.
Call the Veterinarian! This is the single most effective thing you can do. Don't wait!
There’s no way, no how we can predict if a colic will happen, but making smart choices about our horse’s feed and hay are a great start. Add in a regular and fair exercise program, proper veterinary and dental care, and the best paddock and stall situation for your horse and watch him thrive. There’s no magic formula here - except to get your Vet involved, notice everything, and do your homework about your horse’s lifestyle.
And, even though you might line up all of your horse’s ducks in a tidy little row, they always like to be the exception to stuff. How do you minimize your horse’s risk for colic?