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Top 5 Tips for Helping Lower Your Horse’s Colic Risk

Colic is a potentially deadly and unfortunately common condition that affects horses of all ages, breeds, and disciplines. In fact, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) estimates 900,000 horses will colic each year in the U.S. alone. But with the right care and management, you can help ensure your horse has everything he needs to maintain a happy and healthy hindgut. We’ve outlined a few of the most common proven† risk factors for colic below, along with tips on how you can help reduce your horse’s risk.

1. Make any changes to your horse’s hay or grain as gradually as you can
Changing your horse’s grain (type or amount) increases his risk of colic up to 5 times, while changes in hay increase the risk of colic a startling 10 times! Change hay and/or grain as gradually as possible, ideally blending the old and new types for 7-10 days, to help ease the stress on your horse’s hindgut.

2. Maximize your horse’s turnout time
Lack of turnout is unnatural for your horse, and increased stall time can increase your horse’s chances of digestive upset. Because your horse was designed to move around up to 20 hours per day, give him as much turnout as possible.

3. Keep your horse on a deworming program targeted to his individual needs
Failure to receive appropriate deworming doubles your horse’s risk of developing colic. A sound parasite control program includes fecal egg counts, strategic use of dewormers, as well as conscientious manure and herd management. You can learn more about targeted deworming strategies here.

4. Make any changes to your horse’s exercise schedule as slowly as possible
Changing your horse’s exercise routine (whether increasing or decreasing workload) has been linked to digestive upset. Keep your horse’s turnout and exercise schedule as consistent as possible, and try to make any changes gradually. When weather limits your horse’s turnout time, try hand-walking, lunging, or riding if possible.

5. Enroll your horse in ColiCare
ColiCare is a free veterinarian-directed wellness program that provides up to $7,500 in colic surgery reimbursement. It brings together our best hindgut supplements with annual wellness care from your veterinarian to help lower your horse’s risk of digestive upset. Get started today at

†Cohen ND, Factors predisposing to colic, 8th Congress on Equine Medicine and Surgery, 2003 White NA, Equine Colic II: Causes and risks for colic, 52nd Annual Convention of AAEP, 2006.

Posted in Health & Nutrition

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6 comments on “Top 5 Tips for Helping Lower Your Horse’s Colic Risk
  1. Claudia says:

    Would the veterinarians please indicate the specific reasons why “changes in hay increase the risk of colic a startling 10 times”, twice that for changes to grain? Thank you!

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thank you for your question, Claudia. People are often surprised to hear that hay changes put horses at a higher risk for colic than grain changes!

      Keep in mind that the “good bugs” that are found in the horse’s hindgut help to digest fiber (hay and other forage). Unfortunately, they are not very adept at dealing with changes so when a new hay delivery comes along, particularly if it is an abrupt change from one delivery to the next, those good bugs may struggle to adjust to digesting this new fiber source and that’s when digestive issues may occur. That’s also why it’s often recommended to make hay changes, even just from one shipment to the next, gradually over the course of a few days or even a week if possible. The thought is that this gives the good bugs time to acclimate to the new fiber source over time.

      Grain on the other hand includes very little fiber and therefore may not impact the good bugs as significantly every time there is a diet change.

      In addition, horses are designed to digest forage/fiber as their primary feed source and can easily be eating 20 lbs+ of hay a day. While the amount of grain provided can vary greatly from horse to horse, changes in hay generally impact a much larger percentage of the average horse’s diet when compared to grain.

      We hope this information helps!

      – SmartPaker Carolyn

  2. Pam says:

    I would also like more information on the proven information of keeping hay or 24/7 turnout possible. How do you find hay that is so low in sugar that a horse can have it 24/7. We grow our own and I do everything possible to keep sugar down and it has always been > 12% but <20%. The pasture is the same. Thoughts

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      That’s a great question, Pam! We agree that it can often be tricky to keep hay or pasture in front of your horse continuously, particularly if sugars and starches or overall calories are a concern. However, there are some management practices that may help extend the amount of time your horse has forage in front of them for as long as possible if free-choice (ad lib) hay feeding is not the best option:

      Remember that the average horse should receive at least 1% but preferably 2% of their bodyweight in hay a day, that’s 10-20 lbs for a 1,000lb horse.

      To help that amount last as long as possible, using a slow feed hay bag or small hole hay net may be useful.

      When it’s not possible to keep hay in front of a horse at all times, feeding small, frequent hay meals throughout the day can help keep roughage in their bellies for a larger portion of the day, particularly when combined with a hay bag or net.

      If you are worried about the NSC% in your horse’s hay, you may consider soaking it in water before feeding to remove some of the sugar. The general rule of thumb is 30 minutes for warm water, and 60 for cold.

      Grass turnout can also be difficult if you have an easy keeper and there will certainly be horses who have, or are prone to metabolic conditions that may do better without any grass turnout. If you only have grass turnout, a grazing muzzle might be worth considering. However, a dry lot may be ideal for some of these horses to help keep them moving around and out of their stall without providing them with the added calories, sugars, and starches from fresh pasture. You can put hay bags out in their turnout to keep them munching. Providing multiple, smaller bags spread throughout a turnout may help keep them moving around when compared to one larger bag.

      – SmartPaker Carolyn

  3. Flea-n-Me says:

    What are your thoughts, pros and cons on Chaffhaye added to the diet or even as a complete forage replacement?

    Claims are that it is low in starch and has many nutritional benefits including hindgut flora.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Flea-n-Me,

      Chaff in general is dried forage that has been cut into small pieces. It is most often recommended for senior horses who cannot chew, horses with respiratory issues (as it’s often lower in dust), and horses where it is important to have particular levels of nutrients. As Chaff is normally packaged and labeled, the amount of certain nutrients like sugar and potassium remain consistent which is great if you have a horse where you need to keep track of their NSC% (sugars+starches) or other nutrients (for example, potassium for a horse with HYPP).

      This type of forage is not always the most convenient or price-conscious to feed as a complete replacement for hay, so we most often see it fed as a replacement for a portion of the hay in a horse’s diet. For Chaffhaye specifically, it is made of alfalfa which can be a great addition to your horse’s diet, however it is generally not recommended to feed 100% alfalfa forage as you do have to be careful of the calcium to phosphorus ratio that this forage provides, higher calories, and association with enteroliths. We’d recommend working closely with your veterinarian, an equine nutritionist, or checking out a resource like to help determine if Chaffhaye may be a good choice for your horse, and how much they’d suggest providing.

      – SmartPaker Carolyn

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