If there is one health issue that every horse owner has experienced, its colic. Whether a very mild case that just needed a little TLC to surgery and even death, colic is a common word in the horse world. If I could point a finger at the number one cause for colic episodes it would be gut health. That may seem really obvious when you put it into words, but in reality it isn’t. “My horse coliced because it has gut health issues” is not something you will hear very often. It is blamed on not enough water, or bad hay or some other trivial issue but not on the long term health of the digestive tract.
Years ago I owned a mare named Senti. I met Senti at a boarding stable and I remember one cold winter day, she had a colic episode. The vet was called out and she was given a warm water enima, which both hydrated her and got her through the colic. I used that procedure on my horse Gideon several times during “colic episodes”. I later found out that in his case, the colic was triggered by a PSSM episode, but I digress. I couple of years later I purchased Senti to be a lesson horse, and regrettably found out she was a chronic colicer so I was given a very up close and personal experience in dealing with colicing horses. Senti was part of the reason I became so involved in herbal use, to help address her digestive (and hormonal) issues.
Senti coliced several times the first year, though I was fortunate enough to deal with it myself as they were fairly mild episodes. I was giving her wet hay as a rule after the second episode and Tummy B Calm came into being because of her. I began to notice issues like being cold backed (very stiff in the back muscles when ridden) and she would buck at a canter. Her attitude was very grumpy and she was very spooky. Part of this was high estrogen levels….she was constantly in heat! And when you touched her belly she was very reactive. It wasn’t until year three that I noticed a pattern. Senti was colicing when the temperature dropped under 40 degrees!
When I first purchased Senti, I was in a boarding stable that was entirely self care. The first two colics I noticed very early on because of how little water she had drunk out of her buckets and just seeming a “little off”. By the third colic, a much more severe case and a call to the vet, I had moved her to a boarding stable that had automatic waterers and was partial care, which means I was not there first thing in the morning to notice symptoms. If I remember right, I also had a case of the flu myself at that time. So being notified by the barn that something wasn’t right, I drug myself out of bed and called the vet right away rather than attempting to deal with it myself. It ended up being a good thing as the vet had to tube her and dose her with mineral oil. That was the end of the automatic waterers! Part of monitoring Senti’s potential colic episodes was being able to monitor how much water she drank. Since you can’t monitor water usage with auto waterers, I put buckets back in her stall and went back to watching how much she was drinking.
I began pondering the situation. I had taken Senti off wet hay by this time, since we had had no issues for several months, though her mash was still wet down. Her digestive tract was much improved, along with the hormones being more balanced and generally a much healthier horse. I was discussing it with my husband when it dawned on me a comment he had made sometime in the past… that cold water hurt his stomach. He in general does not like cold drinks. If my husband was a horse, he would have been labeled a “colicer” due to lifelong digestive issues. So once again I began wetting down Senti’s hay, and added warm water buckets to her stall morning and evening and that was the last of the colicing episodes. By year 4 she was drinking cold water, and we no longer had to wet down her hay but it was four years of trials and errors and figuring out how to avoid colic with her and give her digestive tract time to heal. Most horses don’t need this long of time to heal, but it was trial and error with Senti, all those years ago.
So here is what I learned with Senti, and with other horses that have come into my hands.
ASSUME that a horse that is new to you has digestive issues whether mild or extreme. I have personally owned 15 horses and every single one of them had digestive issues to some degree. I actually cannot name a single horse where I would say they had zero digestive issues. That may seem shocking to many people and I know someone reading this is going to say “my horse doesn’t have digestive issues” but when you closely examine those horses, I bet I can find there is something there that is unknown. It may be a super easy fix or a long term issue, but with the foods most people are feeding that are available on today’s market, digestive issues is the number one issue I see. We all know the term “no hoof no horse”, but most hoof issues trace back to feeding issues so to me its “no gut, no horse”.
The number one issue with horse owners I address first is ignorance. Trust me, I was one of those owners at one time. You walk into a feed store, and you ask the person at the counter who may have never owned a horse what to feed your horse, and they will sell you what?? The item that makes them the most money. Most of the feed store people you speak to have never owned a horse, and as someone who worked in a lot of pet stores in my early days, I can tell you, the product I used most was what I got the biggest discount on. That is going to be true of feed store workers as well. An incredibly small amount of my clients over the years have actually looked at the ingredients in a feed bag. They may read the label, but it doesn’t generally go any farther than that. And let me tell you, most of what goes into a feed bag is “throw away” items. They are used because they are cheap, and “meet the nutritional needs of a horse”…and by that I mean the bare nutritional needs, not because the feed company is really concerned about quality. The feed company has to 1) meet BASIC nutritional standards (not “quality” standards per say) and 2) they have to get the horse to eat it. The only way to combat this and feed your horse to health is by reading the feed label and actually researching where the ingredients come from, and just how they impact the health of your horse.
It is absolutely imperative to take a close look at what your horse is getting fed! Foods are so full of chemicals…for getting rid of weeds, to get max growth, and these chemicals are ending up in not only the horse feeds, but human foods as well. There is a cost to using those chemicals and most of it has to do with damaging the digestive tract. I would love it if we could go all natural and all organic but it just isn’t available in the horse world…certainly not at a cost most horse owners can afford! When you can, get organic! When you cant, go with simple diet bases like grass pellets, and add whole foods on top of it. It is far better to build a diet from scratch than just grab a shiny bag and expect it to do the job with little thought. A healthy diet isn’t easy for people, and they aren’t easy for horses either! A healthy diet with as few chemicals as possible is going to lead to a healthier digestive tract and reduce chances of colicing.
No diet is perfect, as we do not live in a perfect world. Detoxing is very important to flushing out the garbage we cant control. Chemicals and heavy metals build up in the body and increase the chances of something going wrong…like ulcers and colic. A gentle regimen of detoxing herbs should be used for a month at least twice a year to help keep the body running smoothly.
It is unfathomable how many veterinarians out there tell their customers to feed “hay only” diets to their horses!
Imagine this, you go to your doctor and they tell you to eat a “spinach only” diet. You would think that is crazy, right? But you decide to trust them, because they are a doctor. At first you are feeling pretty good, if bored by the single ingredient diet. You might even have more energy for a while and lose some weight. But before too long you are feeling starved, deprived, and if it is kept up for too long your body will start breaking down, become malnourished and diseased and you will die…all because your very healthy spinach does not meet all your nutritional needs. It is the same with a “hay only” diet. Your horse will eventually become ill and die of malnutrition. Putting overweight or Cushings horses on a hay only diet is exactly the opposite of what needs done. They need loads of nutrients without adding an overload of calories. So what does this have to do with colicing? A fat horse can be very nutritionally starved and will not only gorge itself trying to get enough nutrients, but will eat non food items such as dirt and wood panels and tree bark and whatever else it can find to fill that empty hole in their belly that comes from lacking nutrients. Feeding variety and dense nutrients (such as in kelp and diatomaceous earth and mineral salt) as well as a variety of foods (bagged and fresh) will help fill those needs and make it far less likely for a horse to colic from eating non food items or gorging on hay. An overweight or "Cushings Syndrome" horse does not need less nutrients but more!...but that is for another article.
Bad teeth and colic go hand in hand. If a horse cannot properly chew their hay, predigestion cannot happen and chances of impaction is increased. This is why so many old horses die of colic. Owners do not think to match their hay to what an old horse is able to handle. Worn teeth need soft, short, and fine hay with many aged horses needing to change to completely wet bucket feed and no hay. I have had several 30ish year old horses that were on wet feed only that did very well. Fortunately, my current crew of old folks are still able to eat soft short hay. If your horse colics and there is no known reason, check the teeth!
If the digestive tract isn’t healed, your chances of colic remains. Food cannot be properly digested when there are ulcers and inflammation present. At least 50 percent of my customers that have horses with digestive issues weren’t aware of those issues until after speaking to me. In many of those instances it was due to the bagged feed that was being fed that was causing digestive irritation. Healing the gut was simple and quick…a change of feed and a month or two on digestive herbs made a world of difference! I have also had owners that told me there horses had digestive issues for years, and expected to only have to give some digestive herbs for a month or so and expect miracles. I’m sorry but if your horse’s digestive tract was messed up for years, expect at least a full year for healing…IF you also change the base diet and focus on a healing, nutritional meal plan.
Water is life! No water is a sure way to colic! If your horse is on a automatic watering system, provide at least one separate bucket of water for backup. I cant count the number of times a horse pooed in its water and spent the day with nothing to drink at boarding stables I have stayed at. Having a back up water source just makes sense, especially if your horse is unsupervised for many hours a day (which is very common in many boarding stables or with owners that work) If your horse is a chronic colicer or doesn’t drink enough water, wetting down hay in a slow feed hay bag is a life saver!
This article was written because our 30 year old mini, Amber, had a small bout of gas colic last week. It didn’t initially present as “colic” as she was just laying down and not wanting to eat dinner. For an old horse, that can be just about anything! As it was 7pm on a Saturday, I texted both our vet, and vet assistant for some advice and thankfully the vet assistant, Lisa, was available to chat with. As there was no “outside the box” symptoms I went with dosing Amber with a double dose of Tummy B Calm and No More Pain Plus (dosed through a syringe). After about 20 minutes of slowly walking around the yard, and releasing a large gas bubble, she was starting to act like her old self. Still not sure what happened but was probably just a weed she ate…she is still doing just fine and I am so thankful she is around for another day!
Life is not perfect, and even following all the above suggestions is not going to 100% guarantee that a horse doesn’t colic, but it can severely reduce the odds of it happening. As in Amber’s case, I am very thankful that herbs do what they do, because horses give us enough reason to call on the vet…don’t they? =)