Feeding Forage and Avoiding Colic

Feeding Forage and Avoiding Colic

The term colic essentially means abdominal pain, there are four main types: Impaction, Spasmodic, Tympanitic (gas) and Sand colic, episodes of which can range from very mild to life threatening. For the purpose of this article we will be focussing on how feeding forage can affect the risk for all types of colic.

Make no sudden changes

Most risk factors for colic are centred around management and feeding practices. Dietary change tends to be the most commonly reported risk factor which would include changes in batch or type of forage (or concentrate) and management changes, such as time spent stabled vs in the field.

It’s important to note the risk of colic is significantly higher two weeks after a change in forage (or concentrate feed), with multiple changes throughout the year, increasing the risk further.

This emphasises the need to make any dietary changes S L O W L Y to allow the hind gut microflora to adapt. Introduce changes over at least 14 days and think of feeding the bugs of the digestive tract rather than the horse!!   

Feed plenty of fibre

Horses evolved as trickle feeders so their digestive tract relies on a steady flow of fibre. Along with fresh, clean water, fibre is a fundamental part of every horse’s diet. Grass and conserved forages such as hay and haylage contribute the largest proportion of fibre to the daily diet and is required at a minimum of 1.5 % live weight to keep the horse physically and mentally healthy and the digestive system working properly. Fibre helps maintain a healthy microbial population and pushes out any excess gas which sits in the gut helping prevent tympanitic colic. Fibre also retains water which will reduce incidence of dehydration, a risk factor of impaction colic.

Feed good quality, clean forage

Consistently feeding plenty of clean, palatable forage can play a pivotal role in helping to prevent colic. Poor quality hay tends to be less digestible which can predispose to impaction colic. The hygienic quality is also important. While it is recognized poor hygienic quality forage adversely affects the health of the respiratory tract in horses, research by Kaya et al showed horses fed poor hygienic quality hay are significantly more susceptible to colic than those fed clean hay. Results from Hudson et al suggest that feeding hay from round bales increase the risk of colic in horses which may be because round bale hay is generally of poorer quality.

Steaming hay will improve the hygienic quality

Purifying forage using high temperature steaming from the inside out will improve the hygienic quality of hay and haylage by killing mould and bacteria. It’s important to note the advantages of steaming are only seen when the process is done properly using the spiked technology as seen in the Haygain hay steamers. Award-winning research first presented at the European Equine Health and Nutrition Congress and then included in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science demonstrated that steaming in a bin by pouring a kettle of boiling water over the hay, or indeed using a wall-paper stripper to produce steam, does not significantly reduce bacteria or mould in the hay but in fact acts as an incubator and increases the bacteria content of the hay, thus reducing the hygienic quality.

Furthermore, these processes only reduce respirable particles by 30-40%, compared to up to 99% when steamed in a Haygain. In addition, steaming re-hydrates the hay, increasing the moisture content which will help avoid dehydration. Find out more about colic and dehydration here.Some vets find steamed hay useful for post-colic cases. Stephanie Davis explains in more detail in this article on colic

Comments from vets around the world:

“For our colic surgeries that are not eating well, we have used Haygain to entice those horses to consume more roughage. The fresh aroma after the hay has been steamed appears to increase many horse's appetite post-surgery. I have first-hand experience with this product because not only do I use Haygain at my hospital, but for my own personal dressage and racehorses as well.”

Nathan Slovis, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM

CHT Director of the McGee Critical Care and Medical Center Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Lexington, Kentucky

"Haygain is used routinely on our respiratory cases to good effect. Not only is the steamed hay very palatable but the process of steaming is much simpler and more effective than soaking the hay. We are also using Haygain when reintroducing feed to some of our colic cases with good results." 

Harold C. McKenzie III, DVM

MS Diplomat ACVIM Associate Professor of Equine Medicine Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

“We have been using Haygain steamed hay on our postoperative colic cases, which is proving very useful in the recuperation and assisting in return to feeding. It is highly palatable for horses that may be slow to eat following surgery and while on extended time indoors.”

Warren Schofield MA

VetMB, CertES, MRCVS, DipECVS European Specialist Surgeon and RCVS Certificate in Equine Soft Tissue Animal Surgery Troytown equine hospital, Kildare, Ireland

“I also recommend Haygain in my practice for horses with respiratory and skin allergies, COPD, poor appetite and colic issues.”

Wren Burnley, DVM

Equine veterinarian and Grand Prix Dressage competitor

Take home messages:

Feeding plenty of good quality, clean forage with no sudden changes to the diet will help reduce the risk of colic. If you suspect your horse has colic, call your vet immediately.  


Kaya G, Sommerfeld-Stur I, Iben C. Risk factors of colic in horses in Austria. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2009 Jun;93(3):339-49.


Jason M. Hudson, Noah D. Cohen, Pete G. Gibbs, and James A.Thompson, Feeding practices associated with colic in horses Journal of the AmericanVeterinary Medical Association 2001 219:10, 1419-1425

See the Steamer range