When it comes to horses, there are two dreaded C words. The first, Colic, the second, which takes responsibility for so many cases of the first is Change. Horses, and even more specifically, their digestive tracts hate change. Whether it is for better or for worse, it reaps havoc just the same. If you are serious about minimising the colic risk to your horse then a wise first step would be to start evaluating how you can reduce the impact of “changes” on your horse.
Breaking this down; there are two types of change a horse has to deal with:
1) Owner inflicted changes: changes that we have control over (although it doesn’t always feel that way!)
2) Nature inflicted changes: changes which are completely out of hands
Owner inflicted change
There have been many research papers which have retrospectively identified risk factors for horses which have had colic. Over and above all the biggest risk factor for colic is windsucking/ crib biting behaviour (1) . Other notable risk factors are decreased time spent at pasture, increased time spent stabled, changes to the type or amount of forage fed, changes to exercise regime and transport (1,2) . With this in mind, it is not hard to see why late autumn and winter can cause a flurry of colic cases, as most of our horses are subject to at least one of these changes around this time.
Nature inflicted change
Many of the owner inflicted changes our horses are subjected to are the result of a change in the weather. Equally, for the population of horses who live out all year round, or spend a lot of time at pasture, changes to the weather can result in huge changes to their diet. Even for horses which do not have access to turnout, weather changes can dramatically influence their feeding habits. The most notable being freezing conditions influencing water supply or water temperature.
How to help minimise the risk
For all cases, there is normally something that can be done to help, even if the risk can not be eliminated.
Windsucking: This stereotypical behaviour is normally worse when a horse spends more hours in a stable. Where this is unavoidable, steps should be taken to try and minimise boredom. Providing multiple sources of fibre to the stabled horse should encourage your horse to spend more time foraging, which is good for his mental health. This can be done by offering a couple of types of hay, alongside forage replacers like chaffs and beet pulp products. (Where possible, use products which are already being fed in the diet, so your horse is not subject to a big dietary change). Another sensible option is to consider feeding Science Supplements ProKalm. A study performed supplementing horses with stereotypical behaviour with ProKalm on a daily basis found it reduced the incidence of these behaviours (*) .
Changes to forage: Most horse owners wouldn’t dare to make a sudden change to the hard feed their horse is eating, yet many will make a sudden swap from one years hay to the next. Studies have found a change to forage within the previous two weeks increases the risk of colic between five and ten fold, whereas a change to grazing access or a change in hard feed increases the risk three fold (2) . With this in mind, it is sensible carefully introduce a new forage source, mixing the old and new over a number of weeks (four weeks is ideal), and ensure this change is not made at the same time as any other (such as increased time spent stabled, or a change to hard feed).
Supporting the Microbiome: We are slowly developing a better understanding of the horses’ microbiome, and the types of things which can influence it. A recent study has identified that a shift in the microbiome is seen up to ten days before a horse develops colic (3) . This shift involves lower relative abundance of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes and an increase in the relative abundance of Proteobacteria. This suggests a potential risk association between changes in microbiome and colic. A shift in the microbiome can also be seen with transport (4) and a sudden dietary change from hay to grass (5). A study performed by Garber et al. (5) found that feeding Science Supplements Gut Balancer to ponies before an abrupt dietary change supported a more stable microbiome. Therefore, feeding Gut Balancer before (the study fed Gut Balancer for fourteen days before the change) and during dietary changes could help reduce shifts in the microbiome populations.
Water intake: Maintaining water intake through colder months is important to reduce the risk of impactions. For horses on automatic drinkers, it is sensible to provide a bucket of water during freezing conditions, should the water supply freeze. Some horses will reduce water intake when the water is very cold. Taking the edge off the water temperature, by adding hot water is an easy fix. Other horses may take more tempting, and offering a flavoured water buffet can be beneficial. Always offer plain water alongside options with added Ribena, apple juice or molasses. Another option is to add apples to a bucket of water, and tempt intake with a game of apple bobbing. Lastly, ensuring there is sufficient salt in the diet will help to encourage a thirst response. Science Supplements SaltSalt offers a palatable way to supplement salt for those who are picky eaters or at higher risk of stomach irritation.
A series of management changes brought about by the changing of the seasons can put horses at a greater risk of developing colic. These include greater time spent stabled, less time spent at pasture, changes to forage and hard feed. Simple steps can be taken to make these changes less severe, in an effort to reduce the risk of colic. Supporting a healthy microbiome during these changes may help to reduce undesirable shifts which could be associated with colic. Maintaining water intake during colder months help to support the health and function of the digestive system. Horses who are less keen to drink may be tempted by a selection of tasty techniques.
Our team are here to help, it you would like any more information on the products mentioned in this article, please call our nutrition advice line.
1. Hillyer MH, Taylor FG, Proudman CJ, Edwards GB, Smith JE, French NP. Case control study to identify risk factors for simple colonic obstruction and distension colic in horses. Equine Vet J. 2002 Jul;34(5):455-63.
2. Hudson JM, Cohen ND, Gibbs PG, Thompson JA. Feeding practices associated with colic in horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001 Nov 15;219(10):1419-25.
3. Weese, J.S., Holcombe, S.J., Embertson, R.M., Kurtz, K.A., Roessner, H.A., Jalali, M. and Wismer, S.E. (2015) Changes in the faecal microbiota of mares precede the development of post partum colic. Equine Vet. J. 47, 641– 649.
4. Schoster, A., Mosing, M., Jalali, M., Staempfli, H.R. and Weese, J.S. (2016) Effects of transport, fasting and anaesthesia on the faecal microbiota of healthy adult horses. Equine Vet. J. 48, 595– 602.
5. Garber A., Hastie, P., Murray, J. (2019) The effect of yeast supplementation on equine fecal microbial population dynamics following abrupt dietary changes. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 76, 79.
* Unpublished study, available upon request.