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Recurrent Colic in Horses: Risk FactorsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · July 18, 2015

Changes in feed or hay, too much grain in one meal, dehydration, not enough pasture time, too much pasture time, moldy feed, consumption of toxic vegetation, weather changes, stress. The list is long and varied when horse owners suggest reasons why their horses developed colic, and veterinarians can cite many cases in which no particular cause is ever identified.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. recently reported on a study of horses with a history of colic. By checking with owners at four-month intervals, the scientists were able to divide the horses into two groups. One group included 177 horses that had a single colic episode, while the second group was made up of 59 horses that had more than one episode.

After comparing management strategies and individual habits of horses, the researchers found that the risk of recurrent colic was higher among horses that showed cribbing or weaving, patterns of repetitive behavior known as stereotypies. A significant trend suggested that cribbing and weaving horses whose owners fed them treats of apples and carrots had a lower rate of recurrent colic than horses performing stereotypies and not getting treats.

Other findings indicated that horses whose owners fed them probiotics tended to have more recurrent colic, and horses spending more time at pasture tended to have fewer recurrent colic episodes.

While it’s tempting to draw conclusions from this research report, the authors cautioned that an association of facts (horses getting probiotics had more colic episodes) is not the same as a cause-effect relationship (assuming that the probiotics made the horses develop colic). In fact, if a horse had previously shown a tendency toward colic and its owner attempted to regulate its digestive tract with probiotics, it is possible that probiotic treatment actually prevented an increased rate of colic bouts in a particularly susceptible animal.

Likewise, the cause of stereotypies is not completely understood, but boredom and stress may play roles. Horses that interacted with their owners on a more frequent basis might have been more entertained and relaxed than isolated horses that spent hours fretting instead of regularly eating and drinking.

Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., a veterinarian with Kentucky Equine Research, said, “Colic is one of the most frequent illnesses we see in horses, and it can be caused by a number of things. For equines with a normal metabolism, colic bouts can be minimized by providing turnout with other horses, a source of clean water, and suitable exercise based on the horse’s age and fitness.”

The use of a digestive-tract conditioner such as EquiShure or RiteTrac, products designed by Kentucky Equine Research, minimizes the risk of colic. EquiShure is a time-released hindgut buffer that acts on the cecum and colon by minimizing the effects of subclinical hindgut acidosis. 

RiteTrac, which is available in the U.S., contains a blend of ingredients to support healthy function in both the foregut and hindgut. It provides a combination of fast-acting antacids and coating agents to neutralize excessive gastric acid, protecting the stomach lining and restoring the normal gastric environment.