4 Common Scenarios That Increase Your Horse’s Risk of Colic
Colic. It is a dreaded word in the equine community. This general term used to describe abdominal pain is the #1 killer of horses of all ages. It is also the main reason for an emergency veterinary call, note the researchers of one study (Bowden et al., 2017). With the rapid decline it can cause and its life-threatening consequences, colic is not something veterinarians take lightly.
In this article, we’ve teamed up with two colic researchers to help you identify and manage four situations that increase your horse’s risk of colic. Sarah Freeman, BVetMed, PhD, is Professor of Veterinary Surgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham, England. His areas of interest include equine surgery and colic. Louise Southwood, BVSc, Dipl. ACVS, ACVECC, PhD, is Professor of Large Animal Emergency and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Kennett Square. His expertise lies in equine colic, gut microbiome and critical care. Let’s dive into it.
Scenario 1: Management changes
For a long time, we had little scientific knowledge about the reasons for colic in horses. It was not until 2019 that Freeman and his team published the first-ever systematic review quantifying risk factors for colic in adult horses – a massive undertaking that involved reviewing 52 publications and identifying 22 main risk factors for colic (see table below).
For many seasoned horse owners, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the most common risk factor identified by Freeman’s team is change in management. Whether it’s their diet, their guarding or the layout of the stables, the digestive tract of horses seems to react badly to change.
“We need to keep everything as cohesive as possible and in a natural environment,” says Freeman. “Five or six days of relatively intense exercise followed by one or two days of complete rest in a stall is a significant variation from the routine. We can reduce this change by offering free participation on days when the horses are not exercised. and providing similar amounts of pasture access on exercise days versus rest days.
In another study, Freeman and his team looked at the physical and social impact of moving horses to pasture in a stable. She says they found that changes in living conditions were accompanied by:
- Reduced intestinal motility.
- Less and drier faeces.
- Reduced water consumption.
- Reduced movement.
- Lack of social interaction.
“These results revealed the magnitude of the impact common management changes can have on equine health, especially digestive health,” she notes.
When it comes to the lesser-known and unexpected risk factors for colic identified in her study, Freeman takes the data with a grain of salt. In some of the studies reviewed, for example, researchers found correlations between a whole grain diet and an increased risk of colic, while others found the opposite: a decreased risk of colic.
“Risk factors associated with management changes are often difficult to interpret, as multiple factors are involved,” Freeman explains. For example, she’s not convinced that exercising a horse more than once a week is really a significant risk factor for colic. “We only have data from one study, so the evidence is relatively weak. We need more studies showing similar results before making assumptions.
What prevails in all areas is the value of keeping things consistent and natural. Of course, some changes are inevitable. Life happens, horses are sold, move to new barns and have to adapt. When change is needed, the key is to use transition periods to gradually introduce new elements, mixing them with old ones whenever possible. This is especially important when introducing a new feed.