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Preventing Colic with Good Feeding Management


by Dr. Martin Adams, Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Horses are natural grazers and are not designed to live in stalls or consume large amounts of grains or concentrate feeds. In fact, pastured horses rarely suffer from feed-related causes of colic. However, today's horses are specialized athletes that require good nutritional management for maximum performance potential. Horse owners and managers should strive to balance the nutritional needs of today's horse with the natural functioning of the equine gastrointestinal tract.

When considering the nutritional needs of horses and good feeding management, one should keep colic management in mind. Of course, the best way to deal with colic is through prevention. The following feeding management strategies can help reduce the incidence of colic.

  • Feed horses as individuals with needs based on age, weight, activity and body condition. Divide the amount of grain into two or three equal daily feedings and provide it at the same times each day.
  • Prevent the horse from bolting or eating feed too rapidly. Slow feed consumption using one or more of the following methods: place the feed container at ground level, provide a salt brick in the feed container, use a wide shallow feed container, or mix some chopped forage into the feed.
  • Provide the horse with an environment that is as natural as possible, with daily grazing or turnout. Research studies have shown that horses with regular exercise or activity have a lower incidence of colic than continuously stalled horses.
  • Since the horse's stomach has a limited capacity due to its small size, limit grain to no more than 0.5% of the horse's body weight per feeding (a maximum of 5 pounds for a 1,000 pound horse). If you must feed more than 1% of the horse's body weight in grain daily (more than 10 pounds per day for a 1,000 pound horse), then divide your horse's ration into three equal daily feedings.
  • Weigh your feed or know the weight of the feed in the container that you use. A 2-quart feed scoop can hold less than 2 pounds or almost 4 pounds of a grain or concentrate feed, depending upon the bulk density. As the overfeeding of grain is a major cause of colic, knowing the exact amount will prevent overfeeding when the product is fed at the proper rate.
  • Provide adequate hay or pasture. Feed a minimum of 1% of the horse's body weight daily (10 pounds for a 1,000 pound horse). At least two acres per horse should provide sufficient forage but there is only seasonal availability.
  • Never allow horses to consume moldy feed or hay. Horses are especially susceptible to equine leukoencephalomalacia (ELEM), also called moldy corn disease. Moldy hay can contain high levels of aflatoxins. These fungal toxins can cause symptoms ranging from digestive upset to severe liver and brain damage that can lead to death.
  • Store all feeds in areas that are inaccessible to horses. In addition, if cattle feeds are present, extra caution should be used to prevent horses from consuming feeds labeled "for ruminants only". These feeds could result in poisoning due to the inclusion of feed additives such as monensin, lasolocid or urea.
  • Slowly increase the amount of feed and gradually change rations so the microbial population in the horse's large intestine can adapt. Never increase the feeding rate by more than one pound per day. When switching to a new feed, gradually replace the old feed with the new feed (25%, 50%, 75%) over a 7 to 10 day until the new feed is fed alone. Use a similar method with a different cutting or new type of hay, especially when switching between a legume hay (alfalfa, clover, etc.) and a grass hay (timothy, orchardgrass, bermudagrass, etc.) When first starting horses on pasture, allow horses to graze for only a few hours and feed hay before turning them out.
  • Growing, breeding and performance horses require more energy than good quality forage alone can provide. If your horse requires a large amount of calories and must be fed 10 pounds or more of grain daily, consider adding supplemental fat to the diet or using a fat-added feed (greater than 3% fat). Because fat is a more concentrated source of calories, adding fat or using a fat-added feed allows less grain and more forage to be fed. Feeding one pound of stabilized rice bran will replace 2 pounds of grain in a horse's daily ration.
  • Provide adequate amounts of major and trace minerals. Adequate salt consumption is necessary for regulation of body water balance and thirst response to dehydration, which will lessen the risk of impaction colic.

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