Q: About a week ago my husband’s 11-year-old Quarter Horse gelding went down with colic. It turned out to be mild gas colic, but it was still scary. The episode reminded my husband that the same thing had happened once before. Both times our gelding was able to walk the colic off.

My question is, can we do anything different in his diet or feeding schedule that could help to prevent another attack? As mild as these episodes were, we fear the next one could be fatal. We have a few other horses, aged from their late teens to mid-20s, and we worry about their safety as well. Any advice would be appreciated. Jessica McHenry; Shillington, Pennsylvania

A: Colic is a worrisome clinical problem in horses. And as you correctly point out, although more than 90 percent of horses with colic recover uneventfully, you never know whether your next case will be in the 10 percent category. To ease your fears a little, I want you to know that survival rates for horses with serious colics are continuing to rise as the referral times are reduced and our knowledge of intensive care of colic increases.

I don’t know enough about your farm’s management practices to answer your question specifically, but I can offer general guidelines that will reduce colic risks in any horse: Maximize turnout, maximize roughage intake, minimize concentrates (sweet feed), and maintain the same routine for your horses as much as you can. These rules are not always convenient, or even possible, on small farms involved in intensive training, but it’s the best answer I can give you.

Maximizing turnout allows horses to do what they have evolved to do—graze while roaming the pasture. The limitations to this are how much pasture you have, the social interactions between horses and your riding schedule. The optimal amount of pasture is at least one acre per horse, although this can vary dramatically if you live in states with very little forage or have too much lush green grass (which can induce colic and laminitis). It’s a good idea to take social interactions into account, because some horses will fight or pick on a single horse. One way to resolve this is to have several well-fenced enclosures on your farm. You can usually find the right combination of horses to put together.

Maximizing roughage intake may be accomplished by having sufficient grass, providing hay or, most commonly, both. If no grass is available while horses are turned out, I would provide hay by breaking up several bales so they don’t fight over it and can get enough without overeating.

Coastal Bermuda hay, in particular, can be very good, but it takes time for horses to get used to it. This hay can be too high in fiber, and my guess is that horses don’t always chew it properly and will swallow it prematurely, which can cause impactions. Your extension agent can run an analysis on any kind of hay you choose, to check on the fiber levels. Also, make sure you do any kind of feed change gradually.

Minimizing concentrates is necessary because the high starch content they provide may not be absorbed adequately in the small intestine unless fed with extreme care, and once the starches reach the hindgut, they can cause digestive disruptions that lead to serious problems, including laminitis as well as colic.

That said, many horses need the extra calories from sweet feeds if they are in intense training or if they simply have trouble maintaining weight. I would work at learning to judge your horses’ body conditions, because being too fat or too thin can cause additional problems, and knowing how they ought to look can help you figure out the right amount of sweet feed to give them. Your veterinarian can help you with this, but the bottom line is that you should be able to feel but not see the ribs.

Finally, the importance of maintaining routine is often overlooked. Some owners are reluctant to turn the herd out in bad weather, but horses are generally good about dealing with harsher conditions on their own. You can also use either blankets during the winter or fly sheets during the summer. Other owners keep horses in their stalls because it’s more convenient for their own riding schedules, but I would strongly recommend putting the horse’s interests first. If you have to go and catch your horse in the evening to ride or get up early because he wants breakfast, that’s part of good horsemanship.

Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina