For all of their size and strength, horses are delicate creatures. Their sensitive gastrointestinal systems make them prone to colic. While colic has many causes, some are preventable. Feeding a horse grain too soon after vigorous exercise is one that's easy to avoid. Don't take any shortcuts in your horse's cooling-out routine.
Most horses don't require grain. They'll do fine on hay and pasture. However, equines involved in regular, active work need their glycogen supplies replenished. Grains provide glycogen through starch content. Common grains for horse feed include oats and barley; high-energy corn serves especially hard-working animals. Avoid feeding your horse a grain meal for at least an hour after exercise. That's only a problem if the exercise takes place shortly before the horse's normal morning or evening feeding. For example, if he's exercised and cooled out by 1 p.m. and gets his grain around 5 p.m., when to grain him isn't an issue. If you're not finished riding until 5 p.m. and he's not cooled out until 5:30 p.m., then 6 p.m. is the earliest you could feed grain but waiting until 6:30 p.m. is a better choice. That doesn't mean he can't eat hay or grass.
If your horse is in training for whatever discipline you compete in, you probably have an exercise regimen already established or are in the processing of doing so. No matter what activities you participate in with your horse, it's a matter of building up the exercise level gradually from low to moderate to heavy work. You and your horse might indulge in some "weekend warrior" event that overtaxes your animal. The Equine Chronicle advises allowing your horse to nibble fresh grass, if available, or hay as a second choice. Your horse should have water. You can wet down the hay for added moisture consumption. After he's cooled out and consumed a large amount of grass or hay, you can offer a small grain meal. Wait until the next morning when he is back to normal before giving him his full grain ration.
Cooling Out Your Horse
Properly cooling out your horse after exercise should be part of your routine. Start while you're still riding. If your horse engages in strenuous exercise, walk him under saddle for the last 10 to 15 minutes of your ride. If it's warm out and your horse is sweaty, sponge him with water from a bucket you filled before starting out, perhaps with a splash of liniment in it. You can also hose him off with cool water. Use a sweat scraper to remove excess water. Begin hand-walking him and offer him water to drink. When he's breathing normally and his skin feels cool, you can turn him out or put him in a stall. While he can have access to hay and water, wait at least an hour before feeding grain.
If your horse does show signs of colic, call your vet immediately. It's always a red-alert situation. Symptoms include lack of appetite -- he doesn't want that grain, even after sufficient time post-exercise has passed -- biting or looking at his sides or kicking at his stomach, constant rolling, restlessness and obvious pain. Don't give your horse any pain medication before your vet arrives unless the vet advises you otherwise, because medication can mask symptoms. If you're lucky, your vet administers medication and performs other basic procedures onsite, such as nasogastric tubing, and your horse recovers. If your horse doesn't show signs of recovery within a few hours or if the condition worsens, he'll require treatment, which could include surgery, at an equine veterinary hospital.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.