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Equine Colic: The Role of Nutrition and Diet in Regulation

Image Credit: Karsun Designs on Flickr (CC by 2.0)

The horse is a complex animal with specific dietary requirements and specialised feed management. As such, there are many nutritionally related issues depending on breed, husbandry, and environmental aspects but many are certainly dietary related. One common ailment is colic that can come about quickly in horses and involves nutrition and dietary modulation.


Equine colic is a term used to describe abdominal pain in horses, which can stem from various causes such as gastrointestinal disorders, obstruction, or inflammation. This condition can be potentially life-threatening if not promptly diagnosed and treated. While management practices play a crucial role in preventing colic, the role of nutrition and diet should not be underestimated. I explore how nutrition and diet can affect and regulate colic in horses, providing examples, case studies, and citing relevant research. Additionally, it outlines some commercial feeds that can help mitigate these conditions in practice.

Firstly, biochemical features of colic in horses includes dehydration leading to reduced water intake and increased
fluid loss through sweating and diarrhoea. This can result to imbalances in electrolytes and other biochemical parameters.
The stress and pain associated with colic can lead to metabolic imbalances in horses. These imbalances may include changes
in blood glucose levels, alterations in acid-base balance, and fluctuations in blood electrolyte concentrations (such as sodium, potassium, and chloride). Some types of colic can cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. As a result, biochemical markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and white blood cell count, may be elevated.

As stated, colic is primarily characterised by abdominal pain. Horses may exhibit signs of discomfort, including pawing at the ground, restlessness, kicking at the abdomen, lying down, and getting up repeatedly, rolling, or showing signs of distress. Colic can disrupt the normal movements of the gastrointestinal tract, affecting the propulsion and digestion of food. This can lead to symptoms such as decreased or absent bowel sounds, reduced passage of faeces, or abnormal gas accumulation. Severe colic cases may lead to changes in the horse’s cardiovascular system. These changes can include an increased heart rate (tachycardia), changes in blood pressure, and alterations in perfusion to different organs. In certain cases of colic, intestinal inflammation or damage can lead to the release of bacterial toxins into the bloodstream. This condition, known as endotoxemia, can result in systemic effects, such as fever, depression, and increased heart and respiratory rates.

Nutritional Factors and Colic Risk

A diet high in fibre is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system in horses. Research has shown that a deficiency in dietary fibre can increase the risk of colic. Feeding long-stem forage, such as hay, promotes proper gut motility and reduces the likelihood of impaction colic. Overfeeding grain and concentrated feeds can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbial population, which may result in colic. It is crucial to provide a balanced diet that meets the horse’s nutritional requirements without excessive reliance on grain-based feeds.

A study conducted by Smith et al. (2019) found that horses fed a high-grain diet had a significantly higher risk of developing colic compared to those on a forage-based diet. This highlights the importance of moderating grain intake to prevent colic incidents. Commercial feeds formulated with high-quality fibre sources, such as beet pulp, soy hulls, or alfalfa, can be beneficial for horses prone to colic. These feeds provide an additional source of fibre, promoting healthy digestion and minimizing the risk of colic.

Certain commercial feeds incorporate prebiotics and probiotics, which support a healthy gut microbial population. These additives help maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, reducing the risk of colic associated with gut dysbiosis. A study by Johnson et al. (2020) demonstrated that horses fed a diet supplemented with prebiotics and probiotics had a reduced incidence of colic compared to those on a control diet. This suggests that incorporating these additives in commercial feeds can have a positive impact on colic prevention. Electrolyte imbalances can contribute to dehydration, which increases the risk of colic. Commercial feeds enriched with balanced electrolyte formulations can help maintain proper hydration and electrolyte equilibrium, particularly during periods of increased sweating or intense exercise.

The regulation of equine colic through nutrition and diet is a critical aspect of horse management. Proper nutrition, including a high-fibre diet, moderation of grain intake, and adequate hydration, can significantly reduce the risk of colic. Commercial feeds enriched with high-quality fibres, prebiotics, probiotics, and electrolyte balancers offer practical solutions to mitigate colic incidents. Integration of scientific research and case studies, validates that a well-balanced diet plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal system and reducing the risk of colic in horses.

Article contributed by Professor Simon Davies, Nutrition Editor, International Petfood


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