prevent winter horse colic

Prevent Winter Horse Colic with Tips from Nutrena

The following article was written by Jim Ward, DVM, who is employed by Cargill (manufacturer of Nutrena equine feeds) as an Equine Management Consultant. We asked him for a brief refresher on horse colic tips to get us through the fall and winter months. As always, consult your veterinarian if your horse has specific signs or symptoms of illness.

What is colic?

Colic is defined as abdominal pain. It could be associated with any organ in the abdominal cavity. Generally it refers to pain originating from the digestive tract. Colic is one of the most common causes of emergency treatment in horses. It also is the leading disease cause of death in horses.

What causes colic?

Causes are many and are classified according to the contributory cause, disease present and the location in the gastrointestinal tract where the problem occurs. Examples include:

  • ileus from an intestinal spasm
  • gas colic resulting from nonstructural carbohydrates (starch and sugars) overloading the small intestine
  • obstructive colic, which may be an impaction of the small or large intestine
  • enteritis or colitis, which is inflammation of the small or large intestine
  • displacement
  • strangulation
  • gastric or intestinal ulcers

What are contributory factors?

Starch overload

Starch overload is: the feeding of cereal grains with high levels of starch that exceed the capacity of the small intestine’s ability to enzymatically break down starch and sugars. Undigested starch and sugars that reach the cecum (the part of the intestines immediately after the small intestine) create acidosis, which results in gas production, death of fibrolytic bacteria, rapid multiplication of pathogenic bacteria, destruction of the intestinal mucosa and the absorption of toxins.

Gas production can contribute to displacement of the colon and strangulation. The amount of feed presented to the horse, the starch level in the feed, the source of the starch, the processing of the feed and the rate of intake are factors that can contribute. There are individual differences among horses, but starch levels should not exceed 0.2% of body weight per meal.


This occurs within the lumen of the intestine and may be associated with poor quality hay, lack of water consumption, large meal size, poor dental function and feeding high levels of starch. It is recommended not to exceed 0.5% of body weight per meal on the concentrate fed.

Lack of forage

Forage should be available free choice, preferably, but should be fed at 1.5 – 2% of body weight per day.


Lack of access to pasture can be a contributory factor. Grass contains more than 70% moisture, and the grazing process allows for exercise and trickle consumption.

Change of diet

Changing hay or feed should be done gradually to allow the microflora to adapt. Sudden, abrupt changes in feed or hay can be contributory factors.

Feeding management practices

If possible, feed individually. Competitive group feeding can cause horses to ingest too much, too rapidly. If horses are fed in groups, use feeders that are spread out.

Avoid moldy feed and hay

Feed and hay should be stored properly and should be examined for the presence of mold.

Inadequate water consumption

Fresh, clean water should be readily available.

Provide free choice salt

Preferably in loose form.

Additional Things to Avoid

Alfalfa hay with blister beetles, black walnut shavings as bedding, and sand ingestion where sandy soils occur.