Nursing a horse through an episode of colic is a harrowing experience that often seems to happen in the middle of the night. Once a horse has been deemed out of danger, it’s tempting to try to “get things back to normal” by giving your horse hay and water and heading home for breakfast and a cup of coffee. A common rule of thumb after colic is to wait until the horse has successfully passed manure, at which point everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But while passing manure does signify gut motility, it’s a myth that passing manure means your horse is “cured” and ready to resume normal eating patterns.
That’s because colic is a loosely defined term that has many different meanings. How quickly your horse can return to a normal feed schedule depends on what type of colic he experienced or what the underlying cause is. More severe cases generally require a longer period of time off feed. Remembering that colic is simply the definition of any type of abdominal pain, a simple case of colic will have the fastest recovery time. High-quality hay can be introduced in small amounts every four to six hours during the first 12 to 24-hour period.
Resuming Feeding After More-Severe Types of Colic
Any colic that required surgery merits special consideration. Use these general guidelines.
- Colic affecting the small intestine, such as duodenitis-proximimal jejunitis (DPJ), small intestinal strangulation or ileal impaction: only resume feeding after a vet has confirmed a lack of net gastric reflux and that the small intestine is working properly. Start by feeding only 25 percent of the daily ration, given every 2-4 hours. Build the horse up to 75 percent of his total feed ration over a two-day period.
- Colic affecting the large colon, such as impaction colic, sand colic or colic caused by enteroliths (intestinal stones): resume feeding small amounts of good-quality forage four to six times daily, gradually increasing up to normal rations over a 1-2 day period. Be sure feed is free of sand or dirt.
- Colic caused by cecal impactions: as with other types of colic, feed should be introduced slowly and gradually, although vets often recommend low-residue feeds, such as alfalfa pellets.
The General Rules of Feeding Post-Colic
Since there are many types of colic and the treatment varies, it’s wise to remember the golden rule: Introduce food back into the horse’s diet slowly and in limited amounts, and be sure it is top-quality. Hydration is also key to recovery (and also in helping avoid colic in the first place), so be sure your horse has access to plenty of fresh, clean water.
While these guidelines might help you know what questions to ask your vet if your horse ever colics, they should not be taken in place of a veterinarian’s recommendation, as each horse — and each case of colic — is different. However, it is clear that a horse that passes manure after an episode of colic is not automatically ready to go straight back to his regular feeding schedule, making this assumption a myth.
Instead, focus on the ways you can help avoid colic, such as to feed plenty of high-quality forage on a schedule that mimics horses’ natural process of digestion. Provide plenty of fresh, clean water and set up a feeding and management system that promotes a healthy digestive system. You may also supplement to support digestive health. While most types of colic are not entirely preventable, taking steps to reduce risks is the first step toward a healthy horse.