Colic in the horse: Part 1

By Lauren Lamb

The No. 1 killer of horses in the United States is colic. Colic is not a disease but rather a combination of clinical signs that point toward abdominal pain and dysfunction in your horse. The signs of colic can range from mild to severe. A large majority of colic signs in horses are mild and resolve without the owner even recognizing any abnormalities. Mild signs of colic, if noticed, should not be ignored, as signs can quickly escalate to a life-threatening condition. By quickly recognizing the signs of colic and seeking veterinary assistance, the chance of recovery can be maximized. The earlier therapy is initiated, the faster the horse will recover from colic, and your veterinary bill will be much lower as a result of your proactive mind set.

What is the cause of colic in horses?

The most common cause of colic in horses is excess gas accumulation in the large colon. This gas build up in the large colon will result in the colon becoming displaced, which can make the horse’s comfortable level deteriorate rapidly. Gas accumulation in the large colon is usually due to abnormal fermentation of high starch carbohydrates (sweet feed, corn and oats) in the horse’s large colon. Horses are not designed to eat these types of feeds, but due to the high energy demands we place on them and the convenience of feeding them in two or three meals per day, we have developed diets for horses that are not natural to their digestive system and predispose them to colic. Rather than high starch diets, horses should be fed diets that are high in fat, protein and fiber (Equine Senior, Ultium, Strategy, etc.). Allowing a horse to have free choice to hay can also help prevent colic.

The second most common type of colic is a large colon impaction. This type of colic is caused by feed material becoming lodged and accumulating in the large colon. This type of colic is secondary to dehydration, eating poor quality hay, ingesting excessive amounts of sand or eating a foreign piece of material (part of a hay net, rope, etc.). Younger horses are more prone to eating foreign material, compared to adults, because they are always exploring their environment with their mouth.

Other types of colic include twists of the large colon or small intestine, which is usually secondary to an excessive buildup of gas in the large colon or small intestine. These are by far the most severe and life- threatening of all types of colic seen in horses.

Learn more about colic in the latest issue of OKFR!