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Cut out the Bellyache: how to avoid the pain and high cost of colic

The complexity of the equine digestive system makes colic a common issue, but consistent stable management can help to prevent this painful problem

Horses, despite their size, are quite senstitive creatures, particularly when it comes to their digestive systems. As herbivores, they have stomachs that are designed for the consumption of plants.

Horses differ from other herbivores as their digestive system is classed as monogastric.

They have a large intestine, small intestine and a stomach, and all of the fat, protein and vitamins are digested in the small intestines and stomach.

The large intestine serves the purpose of a giant vat, where all the bacteria produce enzymes that break down the plant fibre.

Due to the complexity of the horse's digestion system, colic is very common.

The term colic is actually defined as some form of abdominal discomfort, and there are many different causes of colic in horses. The symptoms range from mildly uncomfortable up to extreme cases that can result in the horse dying.

With a price tag of €4,000-5,000, colic surgery is sometimes the only option to save a horse but it requires owners to have deep pockets.

However veterinary surgeon Warren Schofield from Troytown Veterinary Hospital in Kildare says the majority (75pc) of horses that undergo colic surgery return to a full working life, be that a competition or stud career.

"Unfortunately, in the early stages, it is very difficult to determine whether the case of colic is mild, or severe," he says. "Therefore, every case of colic must be dealt with in the same way, and treated as it is a severe case.

Common Colic

The most common form of colic in horses is due to the gut becoming inflamed.

"It is essential that you fully understand the symptoms of colic. If you are able to treat it effectively as soon as it becomes noticeable you will save yourself a huge vet's bill," says Mr Schofield.

"You should be aware of what your horse is eating, and try to ensure that they digest everything correctly. Often colic occurs due to the horse's gut becoming blocked with compacted food."

The vet warns that a change of routine, diet or stressful situations may bring on colic, as can worm infestation. Sand colic is very common in areas where the horses need to graze in sandy regions, and consume a larger than normal amount of sand.

The sand will build up in the intestines, and become compacted. Over-eating can also be a huge contributing factor to colic, and you should ensure that your horse does not eat too much lush grass or hay.

The symptoms of colic are different for every horse, and sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose the problem.


You should be aware if your horse becomes restless, and does not want to feed. They may also pace up and down their box, and not want to have their stomach touched.

They may be suffering from bellyache and will keep turning their head to their flanks and stomach.

Your horse may stretch and try to nip at his sides, have an increased pulse and sweat uncontrollably.

"In severe cases your horse will be in extreme pain, and will be frantically trying to get comfortable," explains the Troytown vet. "He may lie down, and get up in very quick succession trying to get rid of the pain they are feeling. Your horse may be very agitated, and can even do things that are out of character such as bite and kick."

You have to understand that they are in a huge amount of discomfort, and do not know how to deal with it.

However often horses with colic will be somewhere in the middle of mild bellyache and frantic behaviour.

If you are concerned about your horse's behaviour, or you feel that you cannot deal with the symptoms of colic, you should seek professional help. Often the colic can be treated with natural remedies, and these should solve the problem.


However, if something goes wrong, and your horse begins to deteriorate, having a vet there will often save your horse.

The best form of treatment for colic is prevention, and it can be reduced greatly by simple, but effective stable management.

Your horse should have a constant supply of clean water and avoid feeding on sand.

Stick to regular feeding times and make any diet changes very gradually. Regular worming teeth checks will also help to avoid colic episodes.

Regular exercise, and enough grazing time will also help to prevent colic. Mr Schofield warns against stabling horses for long periods of time.

"Your horse should be turned out for a large proportion of the day, and being cooped up in a stable is unhealthy for them."

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