Your horse never passes up a meal. In fact, at dinnertime he is always the first one at the pasture gate. Once in his stall, he never fails to position himself right at the feed tub. So when he turns up his nose at his nightly ration and begins pacing in his stall, you know right away that something's wrong. When the veterinarian arrives and examines your horse, your suspicions are quickly confirmed: It's colic. Fortunately, however, it's a mild case, and medication brings swift and lasting relief.
But after the crisis has passed, you are left with questions: What caused the colic and could it have been prevented? Is it likely to happen again? Will it be worse the next time? Colic, a blanket term describing pain in the belly, is an ever-present worry for horsekeepers. It's not as mysterious and scary as some of the mosquito-borne viruses that garner so much public attention, but colic claims innumerable equine lives each year.
Researchers and practicing veterinarians have been working to understand colic for decades. And great strides have been made in diagnosis and treatment of digestive disorders in horses. Perhaps most important for horsekeepers, however, has been the work of epidemiologists, who focus on disease occurrence and distribution. By investigating actual cases, epidemiologists can make inferences about environmental, physiological and lifestyle factors that contribute to colic. With this information, it's possible to construct a real-world assessment of risk factors and possible remedies.
So where does your horse stand? To help you find out, we've put together a short quiz based on the latest findings of colic researchers. Answer each question and tally up the points at the end. The "score" will not only provide a rough estimate of your horse's colic risk but will also indicate whether you need to make some management changes. The "best" answer to some of these questions may not be possible for your horse, but you may be surprised at how minor adjustments in your management practices can protect his health.
1. Has your horse been diagnosed with colic before?
a. Never (0 points)
b. One or two mild episodes that required no treatment (2 points)
c. At least one episode that required veterinary attention (4 points)
d. At least one episode that required surgical treatment (10 points)
No one knows exactly why, but horses who've had colic seem to be at an increased risk of a repeat episode. In fact, studies suggest that these horses may be five to six times more likely to develop colic, and certain types of digestive problems, such as large colon impactions, have a particularly high recurrence rate. Several other factors may be involved, including lack of turnout, inadequate water intake or the presence of an underlying physical problem that has not been diagnosed or treated.
How a horse's colic was resolved also is a predictor of his future health. A horse who required surgery is at a higher risk of colic than one whose condition was resolved with medication alone. The residual effects of surgery--bands of scar tissue left from incisions--can constrict the intestines or prevent the gut from moving freely.
2. Which description best fits your horse's diet?
a. Access to free-choice grazing at all times (0 points)
b. Access to hay at all times (0 points)
c. Three or fewer grain meals a day and supplemental grass and/or hay (5 points)
d. Two to three grain meals plus free-choice hay or pasture (3 points)
Extra: If hay is supplied from a round bale add 3 points to your score.
The equine digestive tract is designed for the slow, steady intake of forage. Hay and other fibrous forage is largely digested in the hindgut while the starches in grains are normally broken down in the small intestine. If a horse eats a large grain meal, however, his digestive system may be overwhelmed by the starch "spillover." When this occurs, excess undigested carbohydrates pass from the small intestine into the hindgut, where bacteria that normally ferment fiber begin to digest the starch molecules. The resulting surge of activity produces high levels of acid and alcohol that kill the resident bacteria, which causes the release of dangerous toxins. The result can be colic and, in some cases, laminitis.
The best way to avoid this potentially devastating chain of events is to offer your horse free-choice fibrous forage and feed him the lowest amount of starchy concentrated feed that he needs. (Most pleasure horses who have access to good pasture and hay need no grain at all.) Stick to clean, somewhat green, fine-stemmed grass hay, and if you must feed grain to maintain your horse's weight or to fuel performance, try breaking his ration up into four or more smaller meals fed over the course of the day and evening.