Steering clear of colic: 5 tips for keeping your horse healthy and happy

  • Colic can cause trouble at any time, but concerns are heightened in the dreary winter months due to changes in available forage, decreased water consumption and reduced exercise.

To put it very simply, when a horse colics, it is suffering from abdominal pain. Yet, any horse owner will tell you that there are few things that incite more worry. That’s because an equine tummy ache can spell real trouble if not attended to both swiftly and correctly.


Like humans, dogs, pigs and many other species, horses are monogastrics. They only have one simple, single-chambered stomach. However, rather unlike several of their monogastric counterparts, horses are non-emetic, meaning they lack the ability to vomit. Their digestive systems are designed as a one-way street, so when they overeat, have excess gas or consume something harmful, they have no way to rid themselves of the discomfort other than through defecation or, in extreme cases, surgical intervention. This interesting EQUUS article from equine veterinarian Dr. Joe Bertone explores potential anatomical reasons and other speculations as to why horses lack the ability to eject ingested toxins.


Equine colic concerns are heightened in the dreary winter months due to changes in available forage, decreased water consumption and reduced exercise. But, of course, colic can strike any horse, at any time of the year. Prevention is truly the best course of action when it comes to this all-too-common equine ailment. So, what can you do to prevent colic in your barn?


1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Though horses are typically more comfortable in colder temperatures, they are very sensitive to the temperature of their drinking water. If it’s too cold, they won’t drink much. To ensure adequate consumption of at least 10–12 gallons for a mature 1,000-pound horse, 45–65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. If necessary, use a trough heater or de-icer to maintain optimal drinking water temperatures.


2. Take it outside

It’s commonly known that horses kept in stalls are more likely to colic than horses kept on pasture. The ability to freely walk around and continuously graze keeps the gut moving, which helps to keep colic at bay. This doesn’t mean you have to keep your horse turned out at all hours, but make sure to provide plenty of turnout time for your four-legged friend.


3. Feed the need

Remember that horses are large herbivores meant to continuously consume ample quantities of grass and/or hay. With pasture grass dying and becoming less readily available in the colder months, hay can take over as the total forage portion of the horse’s diet. These drier meals can often equate to less moisture in the horse’s gut. Plus, the wait between meals can seriously slow down digestion. Rather than throwing the usual few flakes a couple of times a day, consider investing in a slow feeder that will give your horse round-the-clock access to quality grass hay.


4. Let that pony run

Only if it’s properly warmed up, in shape and on good footing, of course. Just like humans, horses should not stop exercising in the wintertime. Physical movement helps to maintain gut motility. Some days, it really is too cold to safely ride your horse and, in that case, hand-walking should help to keep the gut —  and both you and your horse — sufficiently active.


5. Keep an eye on “number two”

You read that right. And, no, I’m not referring to the second point on this list, though it’s also a great tip. Monitor your horse’s manure to gather an idea of how frequently they pass it as well as the volume and consistency of their stool. Small, hard droppings or a reduced number can be a warning sign of the dreaded five-letter word referenced throughout this article.


Follow these simple guidelines to help you and your horse(s) stay on track for happy, healthy and hopefully warmer days ahead.