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Management, nutrition and feed regime are key in reducing colic in horses

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Once a horse has recovered from colic, many horse owners wonder what they could do differently to prevent their horse from suffering a painful recurrence. Two veterinarians addressed that question during an “After Colic – Long-term Care and Prevention” webinar. 

Nathaniel White II, DVM, is a world-renowned expert on equine colic. He is a Jean Allen Shehan professor at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, and serves as the programs director. Jay Altman, DVM, is a veterinary management consultant with Arenus and has his own company, Equine Medical Service, in Ft. Collins, Colo.

During the hour-long session, the two veterinarians worked together to answer tough questions about colic to help horse owners feel more equipped to deal with the illness.

What does colic look like?

Colic is considered abdominal pain or intestinal pain that can be caused by gas, a spasm of the intestine, impaction of food or a twisted or strangulated gut that can be fatal if not taken care of. When a horse suffers an episode of colic, it can be depressed or off-feed, paw, kick at its abdomen, point to its abdomen with its head, go down, lay down frequently or roll. 

In severe cases, the horse may sweat or appear in real agony. 

Colic is considered the number one killer of horses. About 80 percent of the horses suffering from colic are diagnosed with a simple colic, which doesn’t require surgery. 

However, horse owners typically can’t tell how severe the episode is and which horses need surgery without an examination by a veterinarian.


According to Altman, many things can cause colic, from lesions and metabolic disorders to renal diseases, cancer and an anatomical anomaly. 

“Mostly, the exact cause of colic remains a mystery,” he said. 

However, many things can trigger it, from changes in feed, feeding excess concentrate or grain, weather changes and toxins to water deprivation, pain response and sand. 

“Many times, there are other stressors we don’t even recognize,” he said.

“Management is the number one issue related to horses colicking,” Altman said. 

Some are controllable like internal parasites, feed changes, reduction or elimination of excess feed concentrate, quality of hay or forage, water availability and sand accumulation, he said.

Others are uncontrollable like stresses from trailering, introduction of strange horses, feeding changes, riding and intense exercise.

Reducing colic

“Digestive health is the key to reducing these colics,” Altman said. 

“We do see horses with perfect management get colic,” White added. “Once a horse gets colic, they are three times more likely to get it again.”

Horses are used to having a routine in their diet, and the microbes that help with digestion in the gut are sensitive to changes in feeds and excess concentrates. White said it is important to develop the appropriate diet for the horse and keep it consistent. 

“Feeding something once a month can actually cause more risk than feeding something consistently,” he said. 

White stressed that most horses do not need grain in their diet. 

“Many people think horses need grain for energy, but if they can feed their horse forage or provide pasture and make sure they have adequate nutrition as far as minerals and vitamins, many horses will do just as well on that type of diet,” he said. 

“If they are moderate to high performance horses, they may need some grain. In this case, the producer needs to know how much energy they are putting into them, and they may need to use some fat on a limited basis to provide additional energy,” he said. 

Studies have shown, the more grain horses are fed, the higher their risk for developing colic.

Alfalfa versus grass

Alfalfa can be a good choice for horses, White continued. It has high energy and protein, but it can also provide too much of these nutrients for horses that aren’t working much, he added. 

“I like to provide an alfalfa-grass mix,” he said. 

Good choices for grass hay can include Timothy, orchard grass and Bermuda grass, if the hay is of good quality. 

“I always encourage horse owners to get the hay analyzed, so they know how much they need to supplement their horse,” he said. 

Altman added he likes to purchase alfalfa and grass hay separately to really balance the horse’s diet. 

“I think they can really benefit from getting the extra energy and some protein from the alfalfa,” he said. “However, it is important to monitor how much they eat for weight management.”

Feeding times

White said, given the preference, he would keep hay in front of a horse 24 hours a day. 

“However, some horses don’t know when to walk away, so they gain weight and get too fat. Horses will do well on as much hay as they can eat as long as owners continually monitor their body condition, so they don’t get too heavy,” he said. 

“Hay can be good for the digestive tract, it can reduce gastric ulcers and reduce the period they don’t have anything in their stomach. But, some horses can overdo it, so make sure to monitor them,” White added.

“Horses have a need for roughage versus grass, which is a lot of energy and water,” he continued. “It helps keep their digestive system in balance.” 

White added, a better choice may be feeding the horses a flake in the morning and one at night. 

“I would like to see it just gone before the next feeding,” he said. “Horses are browsers, and they like hay available whenever they want it.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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