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The spring grass may be a welcome sight after months of winter mud but its high nutritional content can put a strain on your horse’s digestive system – and too much too fast could overload his body and lead to a potentially dangerous bout of gassy colic. Painful, damaging, and even fatal in some cases, the good news is that this type of colic is easily avoided, provided you understand the dangers and take steps to protect your horse’s gut.
Here Petplan vet of the year Gil Riley has all the advice you need to keep your horse’s digestive system on an even keel – and how to cope should the worst ever happen.
Beware sudden changes in diet
Remember those 10 golden rules of feeding we all learned in the Pony Club? Number one was ‘make any changes to your horse’s diet gradually’.
“The main cause of gassy colic is an overly rapid change in diet, most commonly the horse being put into a new paddock full of lush grass,” explains Gil.
“This is because gassy colic centres on the fact that the horse’s digestive system isn’t just about enzymes breaking down food, it’s about billions and billions of microbes in the large intestine, which help break down the plant fibre, or cellulose, found in grass. Cellulose is an extremely difficult structure to break down. Our guts wouldn’t be able to manage it, yet horses have to cope using a similar gastrointestinal set up to ours,” explains Gil.
“Whereas cattle, sheep and goats have a four-chambered stomach that mashes grass down and liquidates it as the animals regurgitate food repeatedly and ruminate, horses have a small stomach, small intestine, large intestine and back passage, and have to improvise to break down grass. Not being able to ruminate and vomit, they instead have developed a large intestine that’s basically a huge fermenting vat, packed with billions of microbes, and this in turn produces lots of gas.
“In a healthy horse, the delicate microbial population in the gut will be in balance, depending on what he’s regularly eating (ie, a diet of mainly hay or haylage) and how this food needs to be broken down. If the diet is suddenly changed, for instance your horse switches from being stabled and eating hay to being out and eating rich grass, the microbes can be caught out of step with the result that the food isn’t broken down properly. This can lead to an excess of gas production, which can quickly accumulate, causing problems.”
The horse has abut 30 metres of intestine and there are many sharp turns and hairpin bends to enable it to sit within the abdomen. If gas builds up in one area it struggles to pass through the loops of intestine, getting trapped and causing intense pain.
“Gassy colic is extremely painful and your horse will show typical colic signs – refusal to eat, obvious pain, kicking or biting at his flanks, etc,” says Gil.
“This pain is due to excess gas in the gut stretching and pressing on the gut wall, causing the pain and pressure receptors in the bowel wall to be activated. The symptoms can be dramatic, and mimic those found in spasmodic or impaction colic, so it’s your vet’s job to quickly ascertain which type it is.”
If emergency strikes
As with all types of colic, gassy colic is a veterinary emergency, so call your vet immediately and keep your horse – and yourself – safe until he or she arrives.
“If your horse is comfortable to walk, it seems reasonable to surmise that the movement of walking will help to massage the gut and also help the passage of the trapped wind,” says Gil. “It also gives the owner something to do and makes them feel useful as they wait for the vet to arrive.
There's now thought to be no truthto the old wives’ tale that a colicky horse shouldn’t roll. This will have no impact on the bowel moving one way or the other, so if your horse is very keen to roll, let him.
For me, the biggest danger is him getting cast in the stable, or injuring people near him, especially if they try to stop him rolling. So take him somewhere with a soft surface, such as a manège orfield, until the vet arrives, and let him roll if he really wants to.”
When help arrives
- The vet will first carry out an immediate clinical examiniation to ascertain whether there's any damage to the bowel
- He'll then check your horses pule as a racing pulse can be indicative of the colic progressing and causing damage to, or twist in, the bowel under the strain
- The next step is to give the horse pain relief - if he responds well, there's a good chance the colic is due to trapped gas, which will be processed in time which would lead to a full recovery.
- If he doesn't respond to pain relief, a twisted or displaced bowel is likely and this is far more dangerous.
- After pain relief is administered, your horse may be sedated for a full rectal examiniation, as the vet feels for damage in the bowel
- This may be followed by a peritoneal tap, where a needle is inserted into the horse's belly after a patch is shaved and scrubbed up. Your vet will draw off fluid, which should be pale yellow and free flowing like water. If it's in any way blood-tinged, murky looking or, in the worst-case senario contains food material, this shows there's inflammation in the gut wall or, in severe cases, a gut rapture, which is fatal.
How to prevent gassy colic
1. Make any changes in your horse's diet gradually. If your horse is going out into a new, lush field, for example, he should be turned out for a maximum of an hour a day at first, then gradually build this up over five or six days as your horse gets used to the new grass. If you’re making changes to his hard feed, the old feed should be gradually reduced as the new feed is slowly introduced over a period of days. The same goes for any changes in his hay or haylage
2. Always feed your horse at roughly the same time every day – if your horse is fed later than usual he may gorge his food due to hunger
Read more articles like this...
Keep your horse happy and healthy with these tips for top digestive health:
- Feed plenty of fibre
Fibrous foods should form the mainstay of your horse’s diet, so make sure he’s getting plenty of grass and hay.
- Feed little and often
Horses are better equipped to digest small meals, rather than the convenient but artificial pattern of two main meals a day, and introduce any new feedstuffs gradually to allow his system to adjust.
- Keep him hydrated
Always ensure he’s got fresh drinking water available, and if your horse does hard work (for example eventing or an endurance event) it’s important to add electrolytes to his water to avoid dehydration and replenish lost salts.
- Feed for his needs
Make sure you’re not over-feeding your horse – unless he’s in hard work (for example, in training for eventing) this means he only needs a small amount of hard feed.
- Keep things simple
The majority of pleasure horses don’t need much at all, and if he doesn’t need hard feed a low-calorie balancer is all he’ll need to provide the right vitamins and minerals.
Forage is a vital part of your horse's diet but the big problem with hay and haylage quality is that it can appear to the layman’s eye to be a good, healthy bale – but under analysis prove deficient in certain nutrients.
Hay quality varies every year from area to area and field to field. So how can we tell whether our forage is good quality? The answer is to follow independent equine nutritionist Dr Annette Longland’s common sense guidelines:
1. Make sure your hay has been harvested at the right stage for the needs of your horse. As a rough guide, there needs to be a high leaf to stem ratio for horses requiring higher energy and protein hays; and a higher stem to leaf ratio for those with lower nutritional requirements, for example laminitics and horses in light work.
2. Your hay should be greenish in colour – not brown and certainly never dark brown.
3. It should feel dry – and increased warmth you can feel when put your hand inside a stack of bales may be indicative of it being baled too wet. If this heating is extreme, the hay may catch fire. However, it shouldn’t be over-dry (which is rare in the UK) so that much of the leaf has shattered, crumbled and been lost.
4. The hay should be stored correctly, i.e. in an airy barn with good ventilation. If possible, leave all doors open and leave ‘airways’ between stacks of bales so any new hay continues to lose water to the atmosphere, and this moisture doesn’t end up as condensation on other bales, allowing mould to grow.
5. Your hay should have a good smell and not smell ‘musty’.
6. It should be visibly clean and free from dust and mould.
7. It should be free of poisonous weeds, for example ragwort, and also free of mud/rodent/insect and general contamination with rubbish (you would be amazed at what some people have found in baled hay, including a crushed plastic baby’s bottle and batteries).
8. It should have the right ‘feel’. Softer meadow hays may be better for horses with poor teeth.
9. Have your hay analysed in a laboratory – a number of the larger feed companies offer this service for around £15 (search online for contact details) – as until you’ve done this it’s hard to make a judgement call as to whether you need to balance any deficiencies. Feeding high levels of supplementary protein to animals fed high-protein hay is a terrible waste and will only end up on the muck heap! Only if the hay is analysed can the diet be properly balanced with concentrate feeds and feed balancers.
Top tip: If your horse has laminitis...
If your horse is overweight or prone to laminitis, his hay analysis should include a water-soluble carbohydrate (or WSC) value, or a non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) value. It’s recommended these animals have forages containing less than 10% WSC or 12% NSC.
Hay making explained
We’ve been making hay in the UK for around 6,000 years, so surely we should be good at it by now and able to produce perfect hay at all times? Sadly the answer’s no, as successful hay making relies on the forage being dried so it contains no more than 20% moisture before being baled or stored. Thus good hay production depends on good weather – a rare commodity for some areas of the UK!
Hay in the UK is predominantly grass hay, and one of two types – meadow and seed:
Meadow hay consists of many species of grass, legumes (such as clover and alfalfa), herbs and flowers from older, established pastures
Seed hay consists of either a single species or a limited number of species that have been specifically sown for hay production, often from rotationally cropped pastures less than five years old.
In the UK, the most nutritious hay is normally cut in June, just before flowering. This is because grasses and legumes form the basis of UK hays, and when these plants start to grow in spring they produce mostly leaves, with little stem, and these leaves contain high levels of highly digestible protein and carbohydrates.
As the plant matures it goes from this young leafy growth in spring, to an increasingly tall plant prior to flowering with a good protein and digestible energy content, through to a very stemmy plant that has flowered, produced and dispersed seed in late summer. With increasing amounts of stem the protein content declines and the fibre content increases.
So the more leaf you have in your hay, the more digestible it is, and the more stem you have the less digestible it is.
More about our expert
Dr Annette Longland is an independent equine nutritionist who runs Equine and Livestock Nutrition Services. She’s an expert on pasture, grazing and forage.
From rodent proofing your bins, to storing your feed and organising your utensils, it’s important to keep your feed room in order. So don your sweeping brush and rope in a friend or two, to make sure that your feed room is in tip top condition and free from pesky pests.
Store your sacks sensibly
Most horse feedstuffs will go mouldy or stale if the sack or container is left open to air and dampness, which is why feed manufacturers generally recommend that their products are stored in airtight containers.
To help keep your horse’s feed at its best keep it in an area that’s dry and out of direct sunlight, this will prevent both spoilage from damp and the deterioration of vitamins and oils, i.e. the feed’s nutritional value.
Tough plastic or metal feed bins will also help keep out pests, while stacking unopened bags of feed on pallets will help keep damp and moisture out.
Keep him safe
Another very important reason to store feed securely is to prevent your horse from gorging himself if he makes a great escape into the feed room when you’re not looking. The consequences of him helping himself to his feed can be fatal, particularly if he eats a large amount of dried sugar beet.
Put paid to pests
Feed should be stored in containers to prevent vermin such as rats and mice getting into it. Rats and mice don’t just eat your feed, but can also spread disease and infections to your horse, from their coats and urine so always keep your feed storage area swept clean and tidy to ensure it’s less attractive to mice and rats.
Also consider placing mice and rat traps in your feed room or keeping a stable cat to keep the vermin population down.
Seal any supplements
Take care to tightly reseal any tubs of feed supplements to retain their freshness. Consider tipping them into a metal container so that rats and mice can’t get to them.
Have a tidy up
With your feed safely stored, it’s time to move on to some quick tips to a tidier feed room.
Keep your tools, such as brooms and pitchforks handy and out from under your feet by hanging them on a wall-mounted tool holder.
If you have hay in your feed room, store your bales on wooden pallets to prevent them from getting mouldy from sitting on damp ground. If your feed-storage area is next to a dirt road or has dust issues, keep your hay supply covered.
Thoroughly clean your buckets, scoops and mixing spoons regularly in order to remove any mouldy old feed.
Make sure you check the expiry, sell by, or best before date of your feed before feeding it.
● Protein is required for growth and repair of tissues and muscle development.
● Quality of protein is as important as quantity.
● Most straight cereals and hays are deficient in good quality protein.
● Fibre is essential for your horse. It can be derived from forages or the seed coats of cereals.
● Ground fibre (as in pellets) will pass through your horse’s gut quickly while a length of fibre requires more chewing.
● The fibre declared on bags is known as crude fibre and gives no indication of where in the gut it’s digested or how digestible it is.
● Oil is a useful energy source, described as slow-releasing energy.
● There are often high levels of oil in performance feeds.
● Ash is an inorganic material (i.e. anything which isn’t protein, oil or carbohydrate).
● It’s usually an indication of how high the mineral inclusion is.
● High levels of ash in hay analysis suggest soil contamination.
● Vitamin A plays a role in eyesight and also the formation and protection of epithelial tissues and mucous membrane.
● It also helps the immune system.
● Vitamin D is required for the maintenance of calcium and phosphate homeostasis
● It affects bone formation.
● Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which helps to maintain packed cell volume in blood.
● It’s also used in cell membranes.
● Copper is needed for bone growth, haemoglobin formation, and anaemia when there’s a deficiency.
Oatfeed, wheatfeed, nutritionally improved straw, wholegrains, grass, alfalfa, sugar beet
Oats, wheat, barley, maize, oil, molasses
Soya, grass, alfalfa, peas, linseed
Read more about feeding
Even though the days are shorter, your horse will still enjoy his turnout time, so understand, protect and get the best from your grazing with these winter grass facts
Is frosty grass dangerous?
For a healthy horse, there’s no need to stop him grazing on frosty grass and there’s no evidence it causes colic or other health problems. However, if it’s a sunny day, frosty grass can contain high levels of fructans (soluble carbohydrates produced by photosynthesis) and therefore could be a risk for horses and ponies prone to laminitis.
If frosty weather makes your horse a bit giddy, consider using boots to give him added protection in case he starts charging about or slips. Always check his water and break and remove any ice that’s formed – a ball floating in the trough can help stop this happening.
How can I prevent poaching?
Poached ground is land that’s become muddy and cut up – conditions which increase the likelihood of diseases such as mud fever as well as making turning out and fetching in a messy business. Protect your fields by rotating them when the ground is very wet as hooves (especially shod ones) slice easily into saturated ground and will quickly churn it up.
Land constantly pounded by hooves also suffers reduced natural drainage, leading to surface water and mud, so smaller turnout groups are a good idea. Poo pick regularly so droppings can’t add to the mud.
If your gateway gets really boggy, consider installing proper drainage
or an area of hardstanding.
Should I fertilise my field?
Using fertiliser will help you get the most from your grazing, especially if you use it year-round. Apply fertiliser between April and May, and make sure you factor in a rest period to allow it to be absorbed. If you use farmyard manure you’ll need to leave your field until there’s been enough rain to thoroughly wash it into the land, and for artificial fertilisers you may need to rest the field for up to three weeks. Agricultural merchants are a good source of advice.
It would be great to have your own personal nutritionist but unfortunately, that’s not practical. So as a helping hand, we’ve got loads of expert advice from some top equine nutritionists to help you really understand feeding. We’ll cover feeding, fat horses, skinny horses, lazy horses, competition horses and much more!
Feeding for energy but without the fizz
When feeding for energy, ensure you provide as much of the feed as possible in the form of forage. The higher the forage-to-concentrate ratio, the closer you’ll get to the horse’s natural way of feeding and the calmer he’ll be.
1 Achieve a balance
“One of the most critical aspects of feeding youngsters is to ensure they’re getting enough good quality protein, vitamins and minerals,” says Louise Jones of Dodson & Horrell. “Protein’s needed for growth,
muscle and cell development, while vitamins and minerals such as copper and calcium are important for cartilage and bone.”
A youngster’s requirements for these trace elements in the diet are far higher than an adult horse’s, so Louise recommends you choose a specialist foal or youngstock mix – and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when it comes to quantity.
2 Avoiding the f-word
The second most important factor when it comes to feeding your young horse is to avoid letting him get fat. Research has shown that overweight youngsters are at greater risk of health problems later in life, and at risk of developmental problems in the short-term, so it’s a huge issue (if you’ll excuse the pun) for owners. “I always like youngstock to be on the leaner side as their joints are still developing,” says Louise.
But while most of us reach for a weightape to monitor our horses’ waistlines, they won’t give an accurate result for very young horses, so you’ll need to go down an alternative route in order to watch your youngster’s weight and make sure you’re feeding him the correct amount of youngstock feed.
A weighbridge is ideal, though not practical for many, so ask your vet for advice or contact one of the feed manufacturers’ helplines. Experts there may well refer to the guides given in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses (available from www.amazon.co.uk) but, as a general rule, a horse who’s likely to weigh 500kg fully grown will weigh 215kg at six months of age, and 320kg by his first birthday.
3 Start as you mean to go on
It’s common for a foal’s growth rate to drop after weaning – followed by a compensatory growth spurt, which may be damaging to his young joints – so experts recommend you get your youngster used to eating from a bowl prior to weaning to help avoid this.
“A foal or youngstock mix can be introduced at around three months of age, once the quality of the mare’s milk has started to decline,” says Louise. “It’s beneficial for their immune system, too, as the feed will contain vitamin E and other health-boosting nutrients.”
4 Choose quality forage
Foals will start to pick at forage from an early age, but try to stick to the softest, best quality hay as it’s easier on a young horse’s digestive system. While haylage can be fed to youngstock, it may be too calorific for good-doers. It’s also important to ensure any haylage has been properly fermented as young horses are prone to digestive problems.
5 How to Avoid high jinks
Beware of over-feeding your youngster when the time comes to back him, as any excess energy could prove a danger to health for both of you! A high-forage diet, combined with a vitamin and mineral balancer that’s suitable for young horses, will provide ample calories for the majority
of horses and help avoid over-excitability.
“Our fibre feeds are a complete feed in a bag as they’re fully balanced,” says Anna Pyrah of The Pure Feed Company. “Ideal for horses being backed are the Pure Fibre Balance and Pure Easy feeds – both low in calories and starch.”
Over feeding your horse can lead to all sorts of behavioural issues and weight gain too. The key is to feed him according to the work he’s doing – but so many of us think he’s doing more than he actually is.Read More