Free online colic tool helps tackle horses’ biggest threat

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Colic surgery for a small intestinal strangulation by a lipoma (fatty mass). The surgeon is holding the lipoma.
Colic surgery for a small intestinal strangulation by a lipoma (fatty mass). The surgeon is holding the lipoma. © Dr John Burford / University of Nottingham/BHS

An online tool to help horse owners assess the risk of colic to their horses has proven a winner, with those taking part learning of the huge role management plays in avoiding problems.

The free Colic Risk Rater healthcare tool is an initiative from Canada’s Equine Guelph. It provides individual feedback to help horse owners identify risk factors and develop preventative strategies to help reduce the risk of colic.

Spring in particular is a time when many new stresses can impact the horse.  Very often this is a time when riders start to ramp up the intensity of exercise and also feed. Making changes to horses feed slowly is a common topic among horse caretakers but did you know it is even more important to change forages slowly than it is concentrates?

‘Concentrates’ are broken down by enzymes in the foregut for the horse to digest, while forages are broken down by the microbes in the hindgut and it is the microbes that feed the horse. Therefore, it is even more critical to change forages more slowly than concentrates, in the horse’s diet.

In spring, there is the introduction of grass pasture to consider. If we let the horse out on pasture when the grasses are beginning to grow, Mother Nature helps control the intake of this new, very digestible, ‘short forage, as it begins to grow very slowly. Problems arise when the manager waits until the fresh grasses are 3 to 4 inches tall before turning the horses out to eat it. Then the horse can consume too much at one time and cause a digestive upset, i.e., colic.

Keeping an eye on manure is a good idea for horse owners.
Keeping an eye on manure is a good idea for horse owners.

However, not every farm owner has an ideal ratio of one horse per 1.5 -2 acres of grazing in which case special pasture management includes rotating horses to new paddocks before the grass is eaten down below 3 inches. In these cases, introduce horses to fresh grass with gradual increases in grazing time. If stools begin to loosen, you know that grazing time was increased too much.  Back off the time spent grazing and be sure to provide the horses with extra hay when off the pastures. This allows them to chew more, which will produce more saliva thereby controlling pH levels which helps the good microbial population stay healthy and restore the ‘good’ bugs in the gut.

During the last Gut Health and Colic course, guest speaker and equine nutritionist, Don Kapper was on hand dispelling myths and discussing nutrition as it pertains to horse health and performance.

At the course the tool was used by more than 100 students, many of whom were surprised to learn that about 80% of colic episodes may be related to management and therefore can be prevented.

One of the topics Kapper discussed was manure: “This is one ‘visual’ for all horse owners to monitor and learn to manage accordingly.” Too firm (dry) stools would be an indication of dehydration, a condition that can lead to impaction colic if ignored.

Moist stools could indicate a well hydrated horse, but if it becomes too loose and is accompanied with a strong ‘acid’ aroma, it could indicate something has happened to the microbial population in the colon. One of the jobs of the colon is to absorb water and form the feces, but the microbes found there are very pH sensitive, therefore, a ‘hindgut irritant’ caused from eating too much starch or sugar; lack of adequate fermentable fiber; or extended treatment of antibiotics, could cause ‘Acid Gut Syndrome’ that could lead to ‘Acidosis’. Unfortunately, acidosis is when the pH of the colon becomes <6.0 and this is when 80% of the horses will founder.

The most common cause of ‘Acid Gut Syndrome’, during a change of season, is a change in the forage they are eating. This could be from: Transitioning from mature grass hay to immature grass pasture, or visa versa; or feeding a different ‘type’ of hay (remember it takes different microbes in their fermentation vat to breakdown the different ‘types’ of forage). To make a 100% microbial change in their fermentation vat, i.e. hindgut, takes 21 days. Therefore, to maintain a healthy gut, it is more important to change your ‘forage’ more slowly than your concentrate feed.

Colic is the number one killer of horses, other than old age. Knowing your horse and picking up on change is one important factor in colic prevention. The Colic Risk Rater health care tool also takes horse owners through management strategies such as: amount of forage fed, quality of feed and amounts fed at once, turn out time, exercise routine, hydration and parasite control.

Check out the Colic Risk Rater

 

 

 

 

 

 

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