Colic. It’s a grim word with dire meaning for horse owners. It kills backyard ponies and million-dollar race horses alike. The early signs can be subtle, easily missed. And by the time the signs are unmistakable, sometimes it’s too late.

Erin Venable, MS, PhD, assistant professor of equine science at Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale and an equine nutrition authority, isn’t the first researcher to want to find a cure. But she is one of a small number with access to one of the best research tools available: cannulated horses, eight of them.

A cannulated horse is one that’s undergone a cecal cannulation procedure. That means the horse has a surgical portal through which researchers can access the section of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract called the cecum, which is the anterior portion of the large intestine, or the hindgut, which is where a horse does most of its digesting. The cecal cannulation makes it possible for researchers to sample intestinal contents in order to study nutritional or digestive physiology.

Venable came to SIU after nine years as a nutritionist at Purina Animal Nutrition. She found that horse owners, regardless of their educational backgrounds and despite the wide range of horse care philosophies, were anxious to learn more about how to care for their horses. As she strove to answer difficult questions, Venable said she was continually frustrated by the limits of what is known about horses.

Colic is the leading cause of death in adult horses (after old age), according to a 1998 study by the USDA. At that time, the colic cost horse owners an estimated $115 million a year. Anot