Tips for Preventing Colic

by Dave L. Biehl, DVM |

The number one killer of horses is colic. It can occur any time but most often happens during summer months. Colic is not a disease, but rather a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. Colic can range from mild to severe, but it should never be ignored.

Many of the conditions that cause colic can become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. Only by quickly and accurately recognizing colic – and seeking qualified veterinary help – can the chance for recovery be maximized. Most of the colics I see in the summer, the underlying cause is quite often gastric ulcers – from medications, stress from traveling or excessive hot weather. Horses are cold-weather animals and tolerate cold much better than heat.

While horses seem predisposed to colic due to the anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. Although not every case is avoidable, the following guidelines can maximize the horse’s health and reduce the risk of colic:

1. Establish a daily routine – include feeding and exercise schedules – and stick to it.

2. Feed a high quality diet comprised primarily of roughage.

3. Avoid feeding excessive grain and energy-dense supplements. At least half the horse’s energy should be supplied through hay or forage. A better guide is that twice as much energy should be supplied from a roughage source than from concentrates.

4. Divide daily concentrate rations into two or more smaller feedings rather than one large one to avoid overloading the horse’s digestive tract. Hay is best fed free-choice.

5. Set up a regular parasite control program with the help of your equine practitioner.

6. Provide exercise and/or turnout on a daily basis. Change the intensity and duration of an exercise regimen gradually. In the summer, early mornings are the best time for riding or turn out.

7. Provide fresh, clean water at all times. The only exception is when the horse is excessively hot, and then it should be given small sips of luke-warm water until it has recovered. Letting your horse drink all the cold water it wants after a long ride or when it is extremely hot can lead to colic but also Laminitis or Founder.

8. Avoid putting feed on the ground, especially in sandy soils. If this is unavoidable treat your horse once a month with a sand removal supplement (usually feed daily for 7 days).

9. Check hay, bedding, pasture, and environment for potentially toxic substances, such as blister beetles, noxious weeds, and other ingestible foreign matter.

10. Reduce stress. Horses experiencing changes in environment or workloads are at high risk of intestinal dysfunction. Pay special attention to horses when transporting them or changing their surroundings, such as at shows.

11. Provide shade in the hottest part of the day and a fan if available. Good fly control will also reduce the heat stimulated by stopping flies all day.

Virtually any horse is susceptible to colic. Age, sex, and breed differences in susceptibility seem to be relatively minor. The type of colic seen appears to relate to geographic or regional differences, probably due to environmental factors such as sandy soil or climatic stress. Importantly, what this tells us is that, with conscientious care and management, we have the potential to reduce and control colic — the number one killer of horses.


Dr. Biehl has been an Equine Practioner in Nebraska for 35 years and continues in Equine practice as an Equine Healthcare Consultant for Heartland Veterinary Supply and Pharmacy. Visit them here to find out more: