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Colic - does management have a part to play?

Colic and Laminitis have been wreaking havoc on the equine world for some time now.

We know that Laminitis is linked to the gut and therefore is directly caused or triggered by an inappropriate diet and management. As we specialise in the rehabilitation of EMS and Laminitis, it’s only natural that the majority of the horses we deal with are metabolic. However, reoccurring episodes of Colic or Ulcers isn’t something many horse owners attribute to an inappropriate environment like they may do for Laminitis.

Biologically, there is no difference that separates the wild horse from the domesticated horse. Despite the common misconception, the fundamental needs, requirements and natural behaviours of the wild horse is still present within our domesticated horses and the suitability of how they’re kept and managed does not change purely based on our ability to domesticate them.

Horses are adapted to and therefore thrive in semi-arid environments. In the wild, resources are scarce and of low nutritional value, so daily movement (20+ miles) is required to fulfil their foraging needs. From this information alone, we know a few things:

1) Horses, domesticated or wild, are designed to move continually throughout the day

2) The diet of our horses should be low in sugar, potassium and nitrogen (nutritionally low value) as well as high in fibre

3) Our horses should have constant access to forage so at no point is the stomach completely empty

The grass readily available in the UK is too rich to be suitable for our horses, which most owners are aware of and battle by strip grazing and muzzling. Something that isn’t considered is the high level of water in our grass and just how drastically it lacks in fibre. If we compare our grass and the forage they’re designed to digest, it’s easy to see why problems often arise.

Moving on to management, it’s the accepted norm in this industry to keep horses in small paddocks and stables. Not only are we feeding the wrong type of forage, we’re also hindering their movement. When at Christmas we humans eat too many brussels sprouts and become bloated and full, some movement and a walk normally does the trick to get things moving. Movement is used to aid in the digestion of food and it is no different for our four legged friends. If a horse isn’t moving, their digestion becomes sluggish and again, it’s easy to see why Colic is such a common issue.

Ulcers are sadly another commonly experienced problem which we can also largely attribute to a lack of fibre and the stress of being kept in a non-species specific way – typically isolated, on restricted turnout, unnecessarily rugged and on a diet of various bagged feed, restricted hay and UK grass.

I’m not saying all episodes of colic or ulcers are necessarily caused by a lack of fibre and movement but I do think they wouldn't be so widely experienced if we prioritised the natural needs of our horses.

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