Feeding A Horse During Post-Colic Recovery

Colic is a broad term that simply means that a horse is experiencing abdominal pain. There are a number of different underlying issues in the digestive tract that can cause a horse to experience colic pain. If you believe your horse is experiencing symptoms of colic, treat it as a veterinary emergency.

How to Feed a Horse After a Colic Episode

The severity and underlying cause of a colic episode will dictate the type of diet modifications required. In the case of a mild episode that resolves quickly, with limited medical intervention, horses will often resume their normal diet in as little as 12 to 24 hours. We do recommend evaluating the overall diet and feeding management strategies discussed later in this article to minimize risk of reoccurrence.

Horses that require more intensive veterinary intervention to resolve a colic episode will also require more intensive nutritional management afterwards. This period will be monitored and guided by your veterinary team and will often occur in a clinic or veterinary hospital setting. Horses undergoing medical management to resolve colic will have all feed removed for the duration of time required to resolve an underlying issue that is not deemed to require surgery, such as a mild impaction or an inflammatory condition of the GI tract, like enteritis or colitis. The horse will be closely monitored, and their hydration status may be supplemented with I.V. fluids. As the horse’s condition improves, a slow refeeding program will be followed to ensure the gastrointestinal (G.I.) tract responds favorably. The exact refeeding plan for each horse will vary depending on the exact nature of their condition and how they respond, but would generally start with single handfuls of hay or a complete (senior) feed fed every 4 hours and then slowly increased until the horse is on free choice hay. Horses that require colic surgery are also managed with a similar refeeding strategy post-surgery. In both cases, the horse isn’t released back to the owners’ care until they are stable on free choice hay.  

The specifics of each case will vary, but generally once your horse is back home, they will continue on free choice hay for several days, or even up to a week or two, and then be reintroduced to horse feed slowly. The first critical adjustment to their diet comes in transitioning from the hay provided at the clinic or hospital to hay at home. In choosing a hay to feed, try to source hay that is similar to what was being fed at the clinic with a focus on it being clean from mold and weeds and not overly mature. Avoid hay that is stemmy, as hay that is soft to the touch will be more easily digested. We recommend supplying additional probiotics, such as Equi-Ferm XL®, to help stabilize the gut microbiome during this change. Before feed is reintroduced to the diet, it is a good time to evaluate whether the horse feed that was previously being fed will be the best fit to support the needs of the horse going forward.

In rare cases, such as a diagnosis of Right Dorsal Colitis, complete removal of long stem forage is recommended to let the GI tract rest. These horses are fed similarly to how we feed an aged horse without teeth that can no longer consume hay. The diet consists of a high-fiber concentrate, like Kalm ‘N EZ® or Senior Sport™ and may also include soaked hay pellets.

Long-Term Feeding Strategies After Colic

After the immediate issues of a colic episode have been addressed, it is time to decide if any adjustments to the diet should be made going forward. A good nutrition program is key for all horses, but an extra critical look at the program of the colic-prone horse is important.

A good nutrition program will provide:

  • Access to pasture or hay fed at an amount that the horse doesn’t spend long periods of time with an empty stomach (read more about how often to feed your horses here)
  • Hay that is free from dust, mold, weeds or trash
  • A slow transition when introducing a new feed or forage (read more about safely transitioning diets here)
  • Split feed into multiple small meals
  • Select the appropriate feed for your horse’s needs

The last bullet point suggests that you need to select an appropriate feed. So, how do you know what feed is best for your horse? That is something our team is always happy to help with. Please reach out at any time for a personalized feeding plan for your horse!

Broadly speaking, feeds that are high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC; sugar + starch) should be avoided. These include straight grains, such as corn, oats and barley, traditional sweet feed blends, as well as some pelleted feeds. High NSC intake increases risk of stomach ulcers, hindgut upset and colic. Instead, look for feeds that are lower NSC (generally less than 20%, but even lower may be warranted for some horses) that are high in sources of digestible fiber, like Kalm ‘N EZ®, Senior Sport or Seniority Pellet. Digestible fiber sources include soy hulls, dehydrated alfalfa and beet pulp. These ingredients will help support the hindgut.

Added prebiotics and probiotics support the health of the entire digestive tract and provide benefits to the hindgut. Every Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition product contains Equi-Ferm XL®, which has shown, through research, to positively influence the microbial population of the hindgut during stress. Equi-Ferm XL® and Advance Paste® can be used as additional support for horses with digestive challenges.

Horses that are particularly prone to colic benefit from a very consistent diet. Fixed formula feeds ensure that the site of digestion and nutrient supply remain the same. Also, keep in mind that changes in hay should be managed carefully.

More Tips for Feeding a Horse After Colic

Horses who have undergone a refeeding program due to colic will lose weight during the time that access to feed is restricted. The weight loss can range from minimal to more significant. For the horse who needs to gain weight post-colic, you should provide as much free-choice access to good quality forage as possible. Additional feed can be added once appropriate, and should consist of a high fat, high fiber feed, like Senior Sport or Resolve®. Utilizing a high fat feed allows us to keep the meal sizes small, while maximizing the number of calories a horse consumes per meal.

Additionally, while it is important for the horse to gain weight to achieve a healthy body condition score, expect this process to take some time. Pushing too much feed, too quickly, post-colic will increase the risk of reoccurrence.

A final consideration that is rarely mentioned is the importance of movement to stimulate gut motility. Horses evolved to eat multiple small meals throughout the day, and they often had to travel long distances to find food. While 24/7 turnout isn’t realistic for every horse owner, consider ways to increase your horse’s opportunity for daily movement. Dry lot turnout, stall runs, walkers and hand-walking are all possible options when true turnout isn’t accessible. This can be a particularly useful addition to the management of horses that have experienced repeat impaction or gas colic episodes.

If your horse has recently experienced colic and you need help choosing the best feeding plan, please contact us for a personalized feeding program.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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