Horse colic: prevention is better than cure

Horse colic is a serious matter. The horse's digestive system works very efficiently, and is rarely upset if the right conditions are met to a reasonable degree. If they are not met however and colic occurs, it is always painful, and often extremely painful, for the horse. Interestingly, although only 10% of cases are fatal, colic is still the cause of 90% of all horse death. This shows what a very big problem it actually is.

The most common reason for fatality is when a section of the gut 'twists' or flips over. This is not wholly understood, and may be caused by impaction, or indeed it may cause impaction which freezes the gut movement. People used to think it was caused by violent behavior i.e rolling from the pain, but this is difficult to prove or disprove. In any case when the circulation to this area is compromised the gut may die, and without surgery the horse will die. Surgery is possible if action is taken quickly enough, but the chances of a full recovery are never good because complications such as infection and adhesions forming are common even if the initial operation is successful.

The fact is that it need not happen in the first place. A healthy digestive system is not susceptible to such an extreme dysfunction. In the case of horse colic, the adage 'Prevention is better than cure' has never been more true.

We have not had a serious horse colic in over fifteen years, and we would consider it unusual if we had more than a few very minor ones in a year.

We did lose a horse 25 years ago in horrific circumstances. He had been starved and died in agony from a twisted gut due to worm damage, thankfully he is the only horse we have lost to colic.

These suggestions are not particular to colic prevention, they are simply good horse management and they will help your horse stay healthier in all ways.

  • Try not to let your horse go without forage (hay, grass, haylage etc.) for longer than two hours. Even straw is better than nothing - think carefully before changing the bedding to wood shavings if your horse is supplementing his diet a lot with straw. Many people do not realize that horses left with a hay-net at night, even in the early evening, may finish it by 8, 9 or 10 o clock at night and will then go literally nine or ten hours with nothing more to eat! This really is asking for trouble. Obviously when they are outside they can always (unless they are on a patch of dirt) go and pick at something when they need to. They know when they need to eat. This is a very good reason for not keeping horses in stables for long periods.
  • Another good reason for limiting the amount of confinement to the stable is that horses are adapted to move. Movement stimulates their system, in fact the lymph system relies entirely on movement to function, which is why legs will often swell up when horses are stabled overnight. The horses feet are four pumps to recirculate blood back to the heart and they can't do this efficiently if the horse can't move. Shoes don't help either of course. Movement is the best therapy for a horse's digestive system - moving and eating, eating and moving. Look at Our Paddock Paradise for a way of creating an environment for your horse which encourages movement and social interaction.

  • Making sure the horse's digestive system is as healthy as possible is one of the most obvious solutions for avoiding horse colic. Our principle way of doing this is to do everything we can for the health of the horse's spine. This may sound strange, but if there is a spinal problem on any level (deep muscle or superficial muscle layer) then the nerves coming from the spine to the organs can be negatively affected. Different organs are supplied by nerves from different parts of the spine. Problems within the thoracic spine relate more to the lungs, and further back the lumbar and sacral spine relates more to the digestive system. The lumbothoracic junction is a vulnerable part of the spine. Compression on the nerves from there can cause the stomach to produce too much acid and set up a constant imbalance, increasing the risk of ulcers.

    It is possible to treat the organs with herbs and other powerful natural remedies which work symbiotically and don't intoxicate the liver. But if the problem originates in the spine, these remedies will not cure the problem long-term. This applies to all organ related health problems i.e. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), urinary infections and of course weakness in the digestive system which results in susceptibility to colic. There are many powerful alternative therapies which will improve or resolve spinal problems. It is important to realize if the problem is originating from a training or riding source, or a badly fitting saddle. Only rectifying this will allow the therapies to work successfully long-term.

  • As well as making the digestive system more healthy, it is a good idea to do everything possible not to weaken it. We believe that giving horses synthetic wormers damages the gut lining (link to holistic..) and upsets the gut flora. Good management programs and herbal wormers are a much better idea. Antibiotics are also bad news for the horses entire system and the gut in particular and should be used extremely carefully. There are many very powerful natural antibiotics available which work without damaging effects. Phenylbutazone (bute) is another very dangerous drug, well known for it's corrosive effects on the gut lining. Again there are many natural alternatives for pain relief. Although don't forget that it is sometimes a good idea that a horse can feel an injury. Pain is the way the body signals that it is damaged and must be protected to allow healing. Pumping a horse full of anti-inflammatory' can cause the horse to damage himself further, as well as damaging the digestive system.
  • Stress and tiredness can upset the digestive system and provoke horse colic. Always try to plan carefully any changes in routine or traveling to keep stress to a minimum. Keep the 'herd' together as much as possible, and remember less is usually worth a lot more in terms of working your horse. Muscles will not develop either if they are tired.
  • Go to our Horse Nutrition page for an in-depth look at this important subject.

    Horse colic is one of the problems that often results from not addressing the horse's lifestyle holistically.

    Go to horse health for more information about how we can the horse's general well-being.

    One of the best ways to promote a healthy spine and help keep the horse's digestive system functioning optimally is through good training, developing longitudinal stretching through engagement. For more information on this see both real dressage riding and training horses

    Relevant pages on Happy Horse training that may interest you:
    Horse Nutrition
    Horse Health main page
    Paddock Paradise
    The importance of the horse herd
    Holistic horse healing
    Holistic horse health

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