The Liquid of Life: Understanding the Role of Water in Colic Prevention

by Laird Laurence, DVM

Our horses enjoy some of the most advanced healthcare in history, but not every change in modern life has been beneficial for our equine companions. In fact, changes in the lifestyle of today's horses from their earlier ancestors may actually contribute to some of their most common health problems, particularly colic.

Prior to domestication, horses spent most of their days running freely in the wild, foraging on fresh grass and drinking from clear running streams and rivers. The high water content of their grass diet, combined with ample fresh water and steady exercise, helped their digestive systems work properly and most efficiently. This way of life helped prevent many of the equine health problems faced by present-day horse owners and veterinarians. The importance of water to a horse's health should not be underestimated. An adult horse's body is composed of approximately 70 percent water. Water is necessary for all physiological functions. All body tissue contains water and it's also the major component of blood. When dehydration occurs, water content in the blood decreases. If there's not enough water going to the blood, water is drawn from the digestive tract to counter the deficit. By its very nature, a horse's gastrointestinal tract needs large amounts of water to work at top efficiency and to ensure that the horse can comfortably digest its food. A 10 percent drop in hydration affects digestion while a 15 percent decrease can be fatal to an adult horse. Proper hydration is critical to a horse's well-being and why water quality and availability should never be left to chance.

Just how much water is enough? It really depends on the individual horse. In determining the appropriate amount of water intake, keep in mind the stage of life and production of the horse. A lactating mare should drink up to 25-30 gallons per day whereas a mature 15-year-old gelding that is not working should consume approximately 10-12 gallons per day.

"We do a poor job of being concerned about water quality and intake. We're so concerned about feed nutrients that we've forgotten about the water factor," Meadows explains. "To use and metabolize the hay and grain it eats, the horse must have adequate water intake. The horse is extremely sensitive to taste and odors so if water quality is poor or the horse senses an unpleasant taste or odor, it won't drink enough and will likely suffer from dehydration and impaction, which could lead to colic.

Recognizing the Signs of Colic Colic is defined as a condition (rather than a disease) of abdominal pain, most often originating from the digestive tract. Ninety percent of all colic cases are preventable and are caused by problems in the intestines of the horse. Impaction is a common cause of colic and can be directly related to poor water quality and subsequent inadequate water intake. Impaction is a physical blockage of a portion of the lumen, or inner lining of the digestive tract, caused by the presence of abnormally large amounts of material, most often parasites or ingested feed.

Every horse owner should be able to recognize the signs of colic. When you learn to recognize the signs as early as possible, proper care and treatment can be administered to the horse. Early detection and timely treatment can reduce the severity of a colic episode and may make the difference for recovery and possibly in life or death.

Colic symptoms to be alert for include (from less severe to most severe):

 * Off feed or changes in eating habits

* Reduction in manure output or changes in consistency (drier or wetter than usual)

* Stretching out and standing for long periods

* Turning the head and looking at the flank or abdomen, kicking at the abdomen

* Anxious, trembling behavior that may include sweating

* Circling, lying down, rolling, lying down and rising frequently, suddenly dropping to the ground or pawing

* Violent rolling During the first hour you suspect colic, walk the horse for 30 minutes to help relieve low-grade pain. Also remove grain and hay. During the next two hours, keep the horse up and repeat hand walking often. Don't allow the horse to roll, which can cause abrasions and cut off the blood supply to the gut. This leads to a further complication called "twisted guts" that can be potentially fatal to the horse. If symptoms do not improve within four hours of onset, call your veterinarian immediately.

How Water Aids in Colic Prevention Colic is usually preventable. By ensuring water quality and increasing water intake, you can prevent dehydration in the horse and avoid up to 90% of colic cases.

"Three simple ways to ensure water quality for your horse include: regularly testing the water source for contaminants, monitoring water intake and using a safe water source," says Meadows.

Keep tabs on the amount of water your horse is drinking and know if it's getting enough. You don't need to literally measure the amount but if you know your gelding drinks five to six gallons at night and seven to eight gallons during the day, then you should be aware of any disturbances in that pattern. If the horse begins backing off its feed or isn't drinking its fill, the water supply is the number one thing to check.

A safe water source should always begin with a clean trough or other container. Some commonly-used cleaners include copper sulfate and bleach products, however, they can leave residual tastes and odors in the water that can further deter the horse from drinking it. These chemicals are not always safe for other animals sharing the trough.

Another option is to use an all-natural water additive to keep the water clean and odor free. Such water purifiers use harmless, natural microbes and enzymes to help remove algae, organic contaminants, ammonia and nitrates from water. Make sure that the product you choose also eliminates odors since horses are particularly sensitive to them. In fact, given a choice between tap water and water treated with a natural purifier, horses generally prefer the purified water.

After you've established a safe water source, be sure to keep the water temperature regulated. The ideal water temperature for a horse's drinking water ranges from approximately 45 to 65 degrees.

During summer, hot, stagnant water is often a problem. It's essential to keep the horse's water trough out of the sun. Consider hanging a shade cloth or building a shed over it to keep the water cool and help prevent algae growth. "Provide a constant source of clear, clean water. A cool, clear creek is much better than a warm, stagnant pond, which can limit the horse's intake as well as contain high levels of bacteria, both of which can lead to increased chances of digestive disturbances possibly leading to colic," says Meadows.

To avoid fluctuations in water quality while you're traveling with your horse, it's a good idea to bring your own water from home so your horse's system won't be disrupted by unfamiliar qualities of "foreign" water. A less cumbersome solution is to take along a water purifier to eliminate any unwelcome properties in the water.

Water is a necessity most of us take for granted, but by acknowledging its importance and putting it first, you will only improve the health of your horse. By ensuring excellent water quality and by providing adequate water, you can help your horse avoid such painful and dangerous health problems such as colic in the future.

Dr. Laird Laurence is a respected veterinarian in Fredericksburg, Texas, who has been in practice since 1978. He has been named "Texas Veterinary Practitioner of the Year" and has served as a consultant to veterinary pharmaceutical companies for over 14 years. His experience treating colic led him to develop Krystal Trough(tm) All-Natural Water Purifier (, a 100% biodegradable additive with ingredients that have been "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) by the FDA, to help keep horses' drinking water clean and free of odors.

5 Tips To Prevent Colic

* Monitor water and feed habits. Most colic cases can be attributed to dehydration. Ensure your horse has a safe, clean supply of water, free from toxins, mold or other noxious substances, to aid in digestion. Give your horse fresh feed at regular intervals, rather than large amounts at single feedings, which increases the likelihood of colic.

* Provide regular exercise. Regular exercise helps the overall health of the horse, including its digestive tract. Regularly scheduled exercise programs should be implemented for all horses, especially those managed in stalls or small pens.

* Maintain parasite control. Deworming programs will decrease damage caused by parasites.

* Introduce changes gradually. Stick to a routine with your horse and make adjustments in diet, housing and conditioning as gradual as possible.

* Adopt positive practice management. Positive practice management should promote general health, clean housing areas and limited access to weeds or foreign materials.