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What should be considered when feeding after colic, which feeding helps preventively?

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Most colic is caused by digestive disorders, and this is where feeding has a major impact.

Of course, colic can in principle affect any horse. In particular, no one can foresee a change in the position of parts of the intestine, for example if a loop of the small intestine slips over the kidney-spleen ligament. However, we very often have to do with colic, which can be traced back to constipation, gassing, sand deposits, parasite infestation or inflammation of the mucous membranes. And here you can do a lot both preventively and after having overcome colic to avoid recurrence.

During colic, it is essential to avoid any food supply.

The horse is only allowed to get feed again when the vet gives it the go-ahead, the best thing to do is to start with hay. It ensures that the horses chew thoroughly and thus buffer their stomach, which has been acidic from the long break in eating.

In addition, it is transported through the digestive tract at optimal speed, so that the peristalsis can return to normal more quickly. And it provides all the important nutrients the horse needs in an optimally digestible form. For old horses with dental problems or those with severe gastric ulcers who find it difficult to eat hay, you can also offer soaked, lukewarm haycobs after having overcome colic.

In the meantime, experts advise against general mash feeding after colic or for prevention, for example when the weather is about to change. It represents an abrupt change in feed, and studies show that such rapid changes in feeding can increase the risk of colic. In addition, mash is mainly digested in the small intestine and provides a high level of easily digestible nutrients, which can overload the body at the moment.

Especially in horses with a tendency to laminitis, feeding classic mash, which consists exclusively of wheat bran, pinch oats, linseed and salt, can in the worst case trigger laminitis (due to the grain it contains).

Commercial mashes often don't have much in common with classic mash. In many cases it is more mueslis that should be infused with water.

From molasses and essential oils to structured chopped ingredients are used that should absolutely not be fed, especially after colic. Grain-free mashes are often enriched with pieces of vegetables (e.g. carrots) or fruit waste (e.g. apple pomace), which can acidify the intestines and thus further irritate the often already inflamed mucous membranes. Therefore, the gift of mash should be avoided if possible.

Soaked haycobs, on the other hand, are “pre-chewed hay”, so they do not represent a break in feeding management. Soaked with plenty of water, they also provide sufficient fluid (especially after constipation colic). You can mix in two to three tablespoons of swollen flax seeds (pour hot water over normal brown flax seeds, leave to soak for 15 minutes, mix in). Flax seeds provide high quality mucilage which has a calming effect on the gastrointestinal mucous membranes. Added as whole flaxseed (not crushed) they are also not so easily digestible, so that the body is not overloaded with protein and fat. After constipation colic, you can mix in a tablespoon of salt (normal household salt, without added fluorine or iodine) to bring the salt / water balance back to normal. As soon as possible, normal hay should be offered for free again so that the horse can normalize its eating behavior and thus regenerate the consequences of colic more quickly.

The most important thing in colic is and remains prophylaxis (prevention, protection) Sand colic occurs when there is excessive intake of sand / earth. If a horse picks up a couple of stalks of hay from the run, it does not immediately develop sand colic, it is about larger quantities. These are mainly taken up when the horses do not have hay available all the time. When they are hungry, they also collect dirty hay straws or start directly to eat the floor of the run. The same applies to eroded pastures: when there is no more food available there, many horses start to uproot and eat the plants and their roots.

This not only destroys the valuable sward of the pasture, but also introduces an excessive amount of sand into the digestive tract. This is then usually deposited in the area of the right dorsal colon below the right kidney and at some point causes sand colic, which unfortunately in many cases can only be remedied by an operation if the horse survives this colic at all.

It is therefore essential that horses have constant access to roughage, namely hay of perfect quality.

Haylage is not suitable for horse fodder as it acidifies the large intestine. Straw is not an adequate substitute for hay, as excessive consumption can lead to constipation colic ("straw colic"). If you have unpaved sand outlets or sandy soils under the sward of the pasture, it also makes sense to take a cure with flea seeds (husks) twice a year. You can remove sand from the digestive tract and thus prevent deposits. But not to the extent that a horse that has been eating sand on the run for six months from being so hungry is then completely fit again. If there is a risk of sand colic, constant access to proper hay from a hay rack or hay box, possibly with a hay net, is essential. Constipation colic can have different reasons. Movement always plays an important role here because it supports the peristaltic wave of the digestive tract. A horse that is kept on a paddock trail with a lot of incentive to move and that moves more or less 24 hours a day tends to have a lower risk of constipation colic than one that is in the box or on a mud run for most of the day, especially in winter stands around without food. Feed is a great motivator for horses, so even on normal paddocks you can encourage the horses to move a little more by hanging up several hay nets than if they parked by the hay rack all day.

In the large intestine, moisture is slowly withdrawn over the entire course of the initially liquid pulp, so that ultimately solid feces are excreted. If the peristalsis runs too slowly, it can happen that the fluid is withdrawn too early, so that the faeces thickens too much and can then no longer be transported forwards. However, as fluid continues to be withdrawn, the feces continue to solidify until constipation colic develops.

This often happens when the horses ingest too much straw, for example when they eat their straw bedding overnight. This excessive eating of straw is usually only observed when the horses do not have any hay available. Most horses like to eat some straw here and there, but usually not more than 2-3kg per day (for a full-grown horse) and that is spread over 24 hours. Increased eating of straw can be seen especially at the beginning of the pasture season, as fresh pasture grass accelerates the peristalsis and the horses set the right speed for the digestive tract by absorbing straw. But if straw is eaten out of necessity because the horse has no hay available and has stomach pain, then there is always the risk of constipation colic.

Insufficient water intake can also trigger constipation colic, especially in winter.

Grass naturally contains more moisture, so the horses have to drink less to liquefy the pulp sufficiently. In winter, when feeding hay, it is necessary that the horses can constantly take in water. If the drinking troughs are frozen, horses may not get enough water, causing constipation colic. Insufficient water intake can also lead to colic. Self-watering that runs too slowly can also contribute to the development of constipation colic or if two horses share a watering between the boxes and one horse keeps chasing the other away. In addition, healthy horses can drink ice-cold water without any problems, but not those with stomach ulcers. If you offer your horse lukewarm water and he will drink 10-20 liters away with great enthusiasm, then you can assume that otherwise he will not drink enough (cold) water. This can be remedied by offering warm water at least in the morning and in the evening or a heatable bucket so that the water is at least not freezing point cold. In the medium term, one should urgently address the topic of stomach ulcers therapeutically in order to provide lasting help to the horse.

Moldy hay, haylage and other non-species-appropriate animal feed such as soy meal, chopped structure or larger quantities of fruit and vegetables (carrots, apple pomace, demolished beet pulp, etc.) can contribute to changes in the natural colon microbiome (“intestinal flora”). Such disorders of the intestinal flora are also known as dysbioses and there are now initial research results that indicate that such dysbioses can be a cause of various forms of colic, among other things.

For example, gas-forming bacteria can multiply excessively and thereby cause bloating of the intestines and thus gas colic. Inflammation is also suspected to be involved in colic, where it comes to changes in position ("swallowed colic"). Unsuitable feed can also contribute to inflammation of the intestinal mucosa, which can lead to peristalsis disorders and consequent constipation colic. For this reason, horses should be given a species-appropriate diet with constant access to horse-friendly hay (speciesrich, late harvest and stalky, hygienically perfect). Other feeds, especially those that are filled into the trough or fed by hand, should always be examined very critically as to their suitability. Just because the feed law allows them to be fed to horses does not mean that they are healthy or suitable. Horses with circulatory colic are a special form. Even with the best, species-appropriate feeding, it is often candidates who react with colic, especially when the weather changes or in hot and humid weather. Here, due to the weak circulation, the peristalsis more or less comes to a standstill, which can then be expressed in colic symptoms. This often affects old horses or former sport horses that suffer from left-sided heart failure, but overloading the kidneys can also play a role. There are not many medical options to specifically support the heart and circulation in horses. Homeopathy offers some remedies with which you can see some very good improvements, but also some herbs or additional feed such as L-carnitine.

can contribute to an improvement and should be given to the horses prophylactically, as a cure.

Acupuncture or acupressure massage can also have a positive effect. Instead of always feeding such horses preventive mash as soon as the weather changes, you should consult a competent therapist who looks carefully at why the horse is suffering from circulatory weakness and then provides the horse with lasting support through appropriate therapy.

Unfortunately, even the best feeding cannot guarantee that a horse will never have colic. There are many other triggers for colic, from pain (e.g. in acute laminitis) to problems in other organ systems (e.g. gynecological problems in mares) to stress (e.g. due to problems in keeping).

But species-appropriate feeding with constant access to horse-friendly hay (even in the pasture season when nothing grows there!), Proper mineral feed, salt licks and sufficient water definitely reduce the risk of colic significantly compared to a non-species-appropriate diet.

Dr. Christina Fritz Sanoanimal

Feeding advise and products:

Karin Vervelde

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