Understanding Horse Colic
Understanding colic and knowing how diet management can help prevent it is fundamental for your horse’s health. Furthermore, today’s surgical advances have made it a viable option for some, with improved recovery rates compared to 10 years ago. However, it’s still the nightmare of every horse owner as it remains the leading medical cause of death in horses. Colic is loosely defined as abdominal pain and may range from mild to life-threatening. It can fall into a variety of categories, depending on the specific underlying cause.
Understanding Horse Colic – 4 Common Types
Impaction – caused by a blockage in the intestine
Spasmodic – Characterised by increased intestinal contractions
Tympanic (gaseous) – A build-up of gas in the intestine
Sand – Inflammation or blockage of the intestine resulting from ingested sand
Understanding colic symptoms – what are they?
- Kicking or biting at the stomach
- Lying down or rolling repeatedly
- Uncomfortable, reluctance to eat
- Reduced or no passing of droppings
- Lack of gut noises
- Excessive gut noises/gurgling.
IMPORTANT: If you suspect that your horse has colic, contact your vet straight away.
Understanding colic risk factors
1. Meal Size
Larger meals move more quickly through the digestive system meaning the horse is less able to fully utilise the feed. This increases the risk of starch and sugars over-spilling into the hindgut. For this reason, you should limit your horse’s meal size to 0.4kg per 100kg bodyweight.
2. Dietary Changes
When it comes to understanding colic, dietary change is the strongest and most consistently reported risk factor. These can be changes in batch or type of forage or concentrate. Management changes, eg stabling and turnout time. Quantity and frequency of feeding – all can be associated with an increased risk.
The risk is significantly higher two weeks after a change in forage and/or concentrate feed. And with multiple changes in either throughout the year, it increases the risk further.
Adapting to a new concentrate or forage feed, is now thought to take a minimum of three weeks. Particularly if there’s a significant difference in the protein, starch and/or sugar level. As such, it’s recommended you make feed changes slowly over 2 – 4 weeks to reduce the challenge to the gut.
3. High Levels of Cereals or High Starch Feeds
Feeding your horse more than 5kg of concentrates per day has been associated with a greater than 6 times increase in colic risk. This includes diets containing more than 2.7kg of oats. Unfortunately, horses on high starch or cereal diets are often further compromised by having less than ideal forage intake. Additionally, they may have restricted turnout time and undergo higher levels of exercise.
Cooking cereals by micronisation or extrusion gelatinises the starch content. This is said to improve utilisation in the foregut which reduces the risk of undigested starch entering the hindgut.
It’s generally found that a recent change in forage is more harmful than a recent change in grain or concentrate. This is probably because forage represents the largest part of the diet. There’s also, unsurprisingly, an increased risk associated with forage of poorer nutritional and hygienic quality, along with limited grazing.
5. Hydration Levels
Dehydration is one of the most common causes of colic for horses that are travelling and working hard. Dehydration compromises the bacterial population, normal gut function and motility, which emphasises the importance of electrolyte supplementation in working horses.
Understanding horse colic risk periods
Changes in management tend to occur simultaneously with the seasons, typically autumn and spring. This is when the risk of colic may be increased. A change in forage (grass/hay/haylage) can increase the risk most significantly, Therefore it’s important that you’re aware of practices that can help reduce this:
Typically a time of transition from hay/haylage to grass, which represents a major change in moisture and fibre levels. The fibre content in spring grass is much lower than in hay or haylage. This makes it a major change for the horse’s digestive system to cope with.
- Introduce to spring pasture slowly and/or increase turnout time gradually.
- Continue to offer hay/haylage in the paddock. Alternatively, bring the horse in for a few hours with access to hay/haylage to boost fibre intake levels.
Similarly to spring, the main consideration is a change in moisture content, as well as a change in nutrient levels.
- Again, the main defence is to make the forage changeover gradual. Where possible, it should ideally be over 3 – 4 weeks.
- Damping hay will ease the transition from grass, with its high moisture content, to hay with low moisture content. With haylage – this may be less of a concern as the moisture content is higher than that of hay.
- The grass will always provide significantly more nutrients than hay/haylage. So you need to be aware of this and make changes over a long period of time.
General Feeding Recommendations
- If you’re feeding cereals, only use cooked cereals. Preferably micronised or extruded to make their starch content more digestible. Oats are the exception as they’re generally fed “raw” and they’re easily chewed. Their simpler starch structure is also more easily digested than other cereals.
- Make any dietary changes slowly over 2 – 4 weeks
- Feed plenty of fibre
- Fibre helps maintain a healthy microbial population
- Pushes out any excess gas which sits in the gut
- Increases pH of hindgut compared to starch
- Retains water which will reduce incidence of dehydration
- Keep meal sizes small
- Where possible, keep starch and sugar levels low
- Feed digestive enhancers eg those found in Fibregenix balancers, during high-risk periods
Feeding Recommendations – Tympanic (gaseous) Colic
- Hay is preferable over haylage products which, like grass, ferments more quickly in the hindgut producing more gas.
- Take care with access to spring or rich pasture.
- Avoid long spells of inactivity and keep your horse moving to encourage gut motility. Exercise and turnout on poorer grazing, so he has to move about to “search” for grass.
- Where possible, provide ad-lib forage. Keeping the fibre moving through the gut helps to remove gas.
- For good-doers, divide the hay into small rations throughout the day to keep forage passing through. Small-holed nets will extend eating time and keep the horse moving/foraging.
- Avoid feeds that ferment more quickly and therefore produce more gas in the gut. Feed meadow hay – not too soft and green but also not too stalky and fibrous – instead of haylage.
Feeding Recommendations – Impaction Colic
- With any sort of impaction colic, dental health is always an essential consideration. This can’t always be helped, particularly with the older horse. So make sure that any fibre sources you feed your golden oldie are easy to manage.
- Another contributing factor can be a lack of water intake/moisture in the diet. Monitor this by using buckets in preference to automatic feeders. This can be of particular concern during the winter when horses tend to drink less.
- Plenty of water and physical movement (e.g. turnout and/or exercise) helps to promote gut motility, keeping things moving.
- If feeding hay, ensure it’s soft and digestible. Haylage can be an option as it’s typically more digestible. Grass is the most suitable forage as it’s the most digestible of all.
Understanding horse colic and feeding after colic surgery
If major resections have occurred, the subsequent diet should take account of the remainder of the gut. Therefore the feeding regime depends on the type of surgery performed. If less than 50% of the small intestine is removed, usually no special requirements are necessary. However, the site of the surgery in the hindgut and amount of gut removed influences the choice of diet.
For hindgut resection:
- As the hindgut is primarily responsible for fibre digestion, if it’s been compromised, forage and pasture must be of good quality. So choose soft leafy earlier cut hay, which is easier to digest, rather than coarser later cut.
- If necessary, provide additional good quality fibre sources in a separate bucket as forage alternatives.
- Feed the recommended amount of an appropriate compound feed or Fibregenix balancer to provide a fully balanced diet.
- Bacteria in the hindgut are the horse’s principal producers of B vitamins. Colic and/or surgery are likely to compromise the microbial population and therefore the supply of these important vitamins. Supplementing with a probiotic and prebiotic can help restore the bacterial balance. A Fibregenix balancer is ideal as it contains superior forms of pre and probiotics. Furthermore, it’ll provide a useful B vitamin boost along with a range of key minerals and trace elements.
For small intestine resection:
- This is where starch and sugar are digested and absorbed. When this has been compromised, dietary starch and sugar levels need to be kept as low as possible to start with. This means it’s best to avoid mixes so look for feeds which contain reduced amounts of starch.
- Soaked high fibre feeds eg Speedibeet beet pulp
If the ileum is affected:
This part of the small intestine is where most of the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins takes place. Such as vitamins A, D and E. Calcium is also absorbed here and vitamin D influences the efficiency of calcium uptake. Therefore any problems in this area may have a knock-on effect on the horse’s metabolism.
- If compromised, the vet may need to inject these vitamins and dietary levels of calcium may need adjusting/increasing.
- Avoid coarse forages, even after full recovery.
If the ileum is unaffected:
Feed oil as a concentrated source of calories to help keep meal sizes small.
NOTE: For any resections try to provide small concentrate meals and keep feeds as digestible as possible.
Horse Gut Health supplements with Fibregenix
Compared to a few years ago there’s now a plethora of horse gut health supplements on the market. In fact, hindgut health is currently one of the hottest topics around. Most gut health supplements are in the form of yeast probiotics and prebiotics. Some are even live bacterial probiotics. But are they really useful or just another unnecessary expensive supplement? Can they do more harm than good?
Well, actually there are plenty of instances when gut health supplements are extremely valuable for a horse’s health. Good health always starts with a healthy gut. But how do you know which ones are really good and which are just a waste of money?
At Fibregenix HQ, in consultation with world-leading nutritional scientists, we’ve sourced the very best available on the market. As far as ‘functional ingredients’ go, our hindgut and foregut digestive aids are unbeatable. After all, your horse is precious to you, so why not give him the benefit of the very best?
WHAT ARE PROBIOTIC YEASTS?
The idea behind adding a probiotic yeast to a horse’s diet is to help improve fibre digestibility. However, it’s the specific strain of yeast culture and the level included that differentiates one from another. Live probiotic yeasts contain a thick cell wall. This allows them to travel through the horse’s digestive tract to the large intestine. Then they’re utilized and subsequently excreted, requiring daily supplementation to ensure replenishment in the large intestine. The key role they play in horse’s hindgut health is to help promote the production of bacteria which digest cellulose. Or in layman’s terms – improving fibre digestion.
GOOD, BETTER, BEST…
Some probiotics are good, some are better, and the best are very, very good. The effectiveness of a yeast probiotic is only as good as how many yeast cells make it to the intestine intact and alive. The very best will have a special coating protecting it through the manufacturing process and transit through to the hindgut. Fibregenix contains Actisaf® which has the best data set for horses compared to all others. It’s recognised in over 100 countries worldwide as the benchmark for live probiotic yeast. Each micro-spherule contains over 40 million live yeast organisms. It’s highly resistant to the various steps involved in the feed manufacture.
Horses have evolved as monogastric hindgut fermenters That is, they ferment the fibre they eat at the end of the digestive system – the caecum and colon. They’ve evolved to consume small, fibre-rich meals on a continual basis. This is in direct contrast to the high starch diet of today’s modern horse which is difficult to digest.
Horse’s Hindgut Health – The Consequences of feeding a large starch meal
If a horse is fed small starch-rich meals, it’s unlikely that there will be any consequences. But if large quantities of starch are fed in any one meal, this gets pushed through the gut with increasing speed. Without having been broken down sufficiently by saliva or gastric juices, starch then reaches the caecum. It’s then fermented by bacteria producing lactic acid rather than beneficial volatile fatty acids produced from the fermentation of fibre.
When lactic acid is produced, the PH levels in the hindgut drop. Known as a state of hindgut acidosis, it results in many potential health issues. The low PH effectively kills off good bacteria that would normally digest fibre. This can lead to complications such as colic, caecal and colonic ulcers and laminitis. Studies looking at the effects of Actisaf Yeast found supplementation with the live yeast could double fibre digestibility. Most importantly, it also aids in reducing lactic acid accumulation (See figure 1 right). This helps maintain a more stable gut PH keeping it within the normal range (around 7). Therefore, this improves both the horse’s hindgut health and overall welfare of the horse.
MOS PREBIOTIC – WHAT IS IT?
MOS is short for mannan oligosaccharides. There are many different MOS prebiotic products. Some are just crude cell wall preparations made from yeast leftover from yeast extract (the inside of the yeast). Another example is ground, dried brewer’s yeast. These basic yeasts have little or no data to support their use. Furthermore, they’re classified as feed ingredients, not additives, with no licensing required.
The MOS products in Fibregenix are among the most effective and reliable. Significantly, they’re licenced and manufactured specifically for the feed industry and tested for their bacterial binding capacity.
HOW DO THESE HORSE GUT HEALTH SUPPLEMENTS WORK?
MOS Prebiotics mimic sites on the gut wall that pathogenic (bad) bacteria bind to. Once bound to the MOS, these bacteria are rendered useless and flushed out of the gut. MOS Prebiotics also provide a double benefit to a horse’s hindgut health by stimulating the immune system to provide support against infections. Prebiotics aren’t always necessary if your horse has a healthy gut environment. But if your horse has undergone a stressful situation, or is recovering from illness, he‘ll benefit from a prebiotic. Additionally, this will also benefit a competition horse on hard feed that’s training, travelling and competing.
FOS PREBIOTIC – WHAT IS IT?
FOS stands for fructooligosaccharide. The specific FOS found in Fibregenix is a unique prebiotic comprising of solely short-chained fructooligosaccharide. It provides an energy source for the beneficial bacteria already living in the horse’s hindgut. In turn, this creates a healthier digestive tract, unsuitable for the growth of potentially pathogenic bacteria.
HOW CAN THIS HORSE GUT HEALTH SUPPLEMENT BENEFIT MY HORSE?
Scientific support has proven that this specific FOS may:
Positively modify the gut microflora
Enhance digestive health
Reduce the risk of digestive upsets
Reduce putrefactive compound production
Strengthen the immune system
Improve insulin sensitivity in the obese horse.
Including both MOS and FOS prebiotics as part of Fibregenix’s horse gut health supplement provides a synergistic effect supporting overall gut health.
NUCLEOTIDES – WHAT ARE THEY?
Nucleotides are highly innovative when it comes to horse gut health supplements.They’re the building blocks for RNA and DNA. All feed contains a level of nucleotides. However in ingredients used for horse feeds they’re at low levels, with very low availability (around 5-10%). They’re also hard to digest due to their protein coating.
Very few companies are giving horse owners the added benefits from feeding Purified Nucleotides to their horses. Fibregenix is the first major feed balancer supplement company in Australia to include them. Prime Original, Platinum Pro and Lami Low-Cal contains purified nucleotide as part of the horse gut health supplement pack. This specific blend of purified nucleotides has a 95% availability rate to balance the limited levels available in the current diet.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BENEFITS OF WHAT ADDITIONAL NUCLEOTIDES IN YOUR HORSE’S DIET CAN DO CLICK HERE.
Reviewed and updated February 2020
Feeding a horse with ulcers
If your vet confirms your horse has ulcers by gastroscopy (scoping) he MUST be medically treated. Feeding a horse with ulcers needs careful consideration however, as ulcers can be caused by many factors. One of the most important factors is nutrition and ongoing nutritional management. It’s vital to get this right if you want to avoid reoccurrence.
Feeding Ulcer Prone Horses – What are the different types?
Squamous type ulcers
Most commonly diagnosed in Thoroughbreds. They affect the top, white-coloured third of the stomach and reflect increased acid exposure of the tissue. These ulcers form quickly and are consistently associated with changes in appetite, slowed eating and poor performance. Inconsistent changes in behaviour and/or attitude can also occur.
Squamous ulcers can occur with daytime forage deprivation, lack of access to water, high-starch diets, pelleted feeds, straw feeding. Additionally, intense exercise, travel, a change in housing and lack of daily horse to horse contact can have an impact.
Treatment with an equine formulation of the acid suppressant drug Omeprazole is consistently very effective, with most lesions healing within 14-28 days.
Complete healing occurs in up to 80% of squamous cases. Gastroscopy should ideally be repeated, but if the horse has responded well then this can be skipped and the horse put onto maintenance treatment for two to three months. Simply stopping all treatment at this point is associated with a high ulcer recurrence rate (approximately 80% within 6 weeks).
They affect the pink bottom two-thirds of the stomach, in particular the final part. they’re more commonly seen in Warmbloods. Ulcers here form slowly and reflect failure of the mucus coat that protects glandular tissue from acid. It is likely that several different causes – physical, toxic, bacterial or physiological – contribute to this failure. The clinical signs are more variable and may or may not include appetite change and/or weight loss. Some horses may start to resent the girth being tightened but this isn’t specific.
Treatment with Omeprazole alone is much less effective than in cases of squamous disease (25% healed after 28-35 days). Instead, a combination of Omeprazole and the mucosal protectant Sucralfate is used leading to a 68% healing rate. It’s also important to reduce the horse’s exposure to stress. Recent research has even shown that giving two days off work a week can be really helpful in reducing risk.
There’s a lot of debate as to what ‘hindgut ulcers’ actually are. The study originally performed to identify hindgut ulcers used horses from abattoirs without any clinical history. This meant the relevance of the lesions detected was unclear.
A hindgut disease more commonly understood is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In this condition large portions of the hindgut become inflamed and thickened, even shedding part of their surface layers. This causes weight loss, intermittent diarrhoea and/or recurrent colic. It rarely affects behaviour or performance.
Diagnosis of IBD is made by a combination of abdominal ultrasound and blood tests. The blood tests will identify low protein levels, absorption studies and intestinal biopsy. Treatment involves 3 months of the anti-inflammatory corticosteroid prednisolone, and is successful in 70% of cases.
Whatever treatment path you go down, keep it up for at least 2-3 months. Get your horse re-scoped to check the healing progress. I know it’s a bore and it hurts the pocket. It will hurt even more if you aren’t consistent and the ulcers never clear up!
Feeding a horse with ulcers will mean that feeding practices will have to change. Your horse should be kept away from grain/cereal hard feeds. Other sweet feeds which can be too acidic may irritate ulcers further. However, this change needn’t be the end of the world if your horse is in hard work.
Tips for feeding ulcer prone horses to help manage and reduce reoccurrence:
- Feed as much fibre/forage as possible at a minimum of 1.5% of body weight (dry matter) per day.
- Don’t leave your horse for prolonged periods without forage.
- Avoid stalky forage being the sole or predominant forage source.
- If extra energy is needed look for feeds that have restricted starch and sugar levels and added oil rather than cereals.
- Aim to feed < 1g/kg bodyweight of non-structural carbohydrate (NSC: starch plus water-soluble carbohydrate) per meal. Preferably try to spread meals across the day – multiple small meals are better than one or two large ones.
- Add chopped fibre to every meal – especially Lucerne which has been shown to help buffer gastric acid.
- Avoid very stalky, sharp chopped fibre which can increase the risk of damage to the stomach wall.
- Provide a small chopped, fibre-based meal or access to forage before exercise. This helps to reduce gastric acid splashing up onto the sensitive stomach wall.
- Turn out to pasture as much as possible.
- Provide access to water at all times.
- Avoid using electrolyte pastes.
- Provide some form of forage while travelling.
A Fibregenix balancer can play a valuable part in feeding ulcer prone horses. One major benefit is it will enable you to limit the need for large amounts of hard feed by boosting essential nutrient intake and maximizing fibre digestion.
If your horse is working hard, yes, he’ll need additional energy to help maintain his condition. You can try a high fibre, low starch pellet or beet pulp which also maintains condition as well as providing energy. A high omega 3 anti-inflammaotry essential fatty acid oil such as cold-pressed linseed is also useful. Avoid oils/fats that are high in Omega 6 which are pro-inflammatory. Eg rice bran, canola, copra.
Never underestimate the amount of work that a horse can do on a high fibre diet. Once ulcers are cleared, with ongoing preventative management it may be possible to reintroduce small quantities of grain feed supplemented alongside the Fibregenix balancer.
“My dressage horse isn’t his usual self. He’s been girthy, hates having his rugs on, fidgets when I tack him up, is fussy about having his feet picked out with his saddle on He’s started moving away when I try to get on and is reluctant to go off my leg as much as he was. All of these signs make me think he might have gastric ulcers so the vet is coming out to check him over and confirm if this is the case…”
It’s one of the most common questions we are often asked. How should I feed my hard-working competition horse if he’s been diagnosed with gastric ulcers?
Speak to/email our equine Nutrition consultant Anita for a friendly chat about an ulcer prevention strategy and a diet audit, we are here to help you: 0408920707 or email@example.com
Reviewed and Updated February 2020