Tips for Managing Horses in Winter to Avoid Colic

Tips for Managing Horses in Winter to Avoid Colic

As pastures dwindle in the fall and the horse must switch to a different diet, two major factors are at play. One is the fact there is a different diet. The other is change in moisture level of the diet.

Photo: Megan Arszman

By Eleanor Kellon, VMD, staff veterinary specialist for Uckele Health & Nutrition

Colic can strike at any time and has many known--and some not-so-well-understood--risk factors. The fall and winter seasons themselves are known risk factors and there are several things you can do to decrease your horse's likelihood of developing colic. As pastures dwindle in the fall and the horse must switch to a different diet, two major factors are at play. One is the fact there is a different diet. The other is change in moisture level of the diet.

Most owners know they should transition slowly when adding or changing grains and other concentrates. However, it is important to realize that a change in forage, including hay types, should also be made gradually. This is because the protein, sugar, and starch components of hay are digested in the small intestine and--while digestive enzymes there can successfully adjust to changes--it doesn't happen overnight.

Additionally, hays contain a variety of fiber types and complex plant carbohydrate compounds that can only be fermented in the large intestine. The bacteria and yeasts in the large intestine work together to efficiently ferment. For example, some species will ferment starch, sugars, and fructans into lactate while others will use that lactate as their fuel, preventing acidosis that could harm the fiber fermenting organisms. The population of organisms in the large intestine will mirror the food that is presented to them but efficient adaptation takes time. Allow at least 5 to 7 days to make a complete change.

If that sounds complex, it is. The moral of the story is to avoid rapid changes in diet, including substituting hay for grass and changing hay types. Disruptions in organisms that occur with rapid changes can cause gas, possible displacement of the colon, diarrhea from incomplete fermentation, and even changes in how well the intestine contracts and moves food along.

Inadequate water consumption is the leading cause of impaction and another risk factor for winter colic. An average size horse needs to consume about 10 gallons of water daily even in very cold weather because for much of their journey through the bowel, intestinal contents have a high moisture level, much like soup. In addition to what the horse drinks, fluids are actively secreted along the intestinal tract, then reabsorbed in the terminal portions of the colon. The fluid keeps things moving freely and allows for good mixing, which assists in absorption and fermentation.

But how can you keep them drinking in cold weather? The horse is most likely to drink while, or shortly after, eating hay, so hay and water should be placed close together. Warm water is consumed more readily. At the very least, water should never be allowed to freeze over. To encourage drinking, add at least one ounce of salt to the feed daily, or dissolve and spray on the hay for picky horses. Intake can be increased by adding warm water to pellets, hay cubes, and even sweet feeds. Adding some wheat bran improves appeal. Beet pulp is ideal because it can hold four times its weight in water.

The final colic risk factor, especially in winter, is inactivity. Avoid reducing turnout by stalling the horse unless weather is really severe. When conditions are so bad the horse is barely moving, ensuring adequate water intake goes a long way toward preventing impaction colic.

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