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The most common winter health hazard for horses  


supplied by Stephen Ashdown's Free Online Vet Advice


Just what is equine colic?

Equine colic, or horse colic, is abdominal pain i.e. pain in the ‘gut’.

Symptoms of colic

The symptoms of serious colic – you should call your vet immediately – are:

groaning or rolling, shallow breathing, sweating and swelling of the abdomen. Mild colic symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, fewer droppings and stomach ache, the horse showing the latter symptom by pawing the ground with anxiety, kicking its belly or examining its flanks.

Why is colic so common? Why are horses predisposed to colic?

A horse’s intestine is long and can become tangled easily.

The digestive process involves the production of gas through fermentation, and gas can fill loops in the intestine which if then tangled causes a blockage.

Unlike humans the horse can’t vomit to rid itself of unsuitable material.

As a grazing animal a horse is used to a gentle, regular feeding pattern throughout the year, getting fat when suitable pasture is abundant, getting thin when it isn’t.

As a quick moving animal with lots of stamina a horse can travel long distances to find the necessary diet variety it needs to thrive.

Causes of colic

Irregular exercise and feeding pattern

Lack of water

Sudden diet change

Too much intense exercise

Low grazing

Too much feed concentrate or unsoaked sugar beet


Sandy soil causing constipation/blockages

Previous abdominal surgery

Too much water and /or food after exercise

Gas build up from eating grass cuttings

Lifestyle and Colic Risk

There is an increased risk of colic if you have a full time job, a hectic social round, a DIY stable environment and don’t have sufficient hired help to maintain a high level of care, especially during the winter.

There is also increased risk of colic if the grazing is overcrowded or available less than 8 hours a day, horse droppings rarely removed and lack of sufficient grazing compensated by various forms of feed concentrate; or If exercise is also limited during the week and concentrated on week-ends .

What to do if you think it is serious colic

Whilst waiting for your vet to arrive – or give initial advice over the phone – here are some tips:

q      Keep your horse stabled with lots of bedding, and keep calm!

q      Should the horse be lying down remove anything which might harm it if were to roll.

q      If the horse does try to roll violently try moving it to a field without fences and ditches.

q      Don’t offer food.

q      Don’t give colic drenches – they might go down the wrong way.


Prevention of colic

q      Fresh Water – make sure there is plenty available, and that it is not liable to freeze. You may have to invest in a trough heater or arrange to break the ice regularly. Remember, winter roughages generally contain less than 20% moisture whereas summer and spring grass contains 75% or more. Without sufficient liquid the food being processed  becomes dry and prohibits easy bowel movement i.e. peristaltic action. Don’t, however, give a horse anything but small amounts of warm water after it gets overheated.

q      Routine – have a regular exercise and feeding schedule.

q      Feed your horse mainly roughage and only a little grain or energy-rich supplement and divide the daily feed in to two or more rations. Twice as much energy should come from the hay or forage than from supplements.

q      Don’t put hay or other feedstuffs on the ground, especially where the soil is sandy; and check regularly for twine, plastic bags and other human detritus which might be ingested by your horse.

q      Worming – have a regular programme.

q      Keep stress to a minimum by eliminating the need for transportation or shows.

q      Proneness to constipation. In consultation with you vet, use Psyllium Husks regularly in the feed.


Stephen Ashdown answers over 100 Frequently Asked Questions
on www.freevetadvice.co.uk and provides a free helpline

Other horse related pages on Hints and Things

Horse Lameness

Mud Fever

Skin condition in Horses

Herbs for Horses

Horse Breed/Horse Mating

Skin Condition in Horses

Stress in Horses

Horse Flies and Biting Insects

Management and Prevention of Sweet Itch

Moody Mares




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