Veterinary practices often report a rise in Colic cases during sudden spells of cold weather and as a result you might have heard the term ‘Winter Colic’ used on social media, or by other horse owners. Whilst Winter Colic isn’t a condition you’d find in a veterinary textbook it is accepted that colic cases do occur during spells of cold weather.
There are many potential causes of colic, including parasite burden, poor dentition and crib biting behaviour but a straightforward causal relationship is isn’t always possible to prove. Colic is often attributed to management changes, such as changing your horse’s feed suddenly, a switch from hay to haylage or sudden box rest. Unfortunately with a sudden snowfall or icy weather it can be hard to make gradual changes to your horse’s routine. Often horses who are turned out for all, or part of the day are confined to their stables, their forage intake changes to a drier hay based diet, they move less and may drink less water. All of which can have an effect on the digestive system, slowing down transit time and often resulting in impaction colic.
The good news is that there are lots of practical steps that owners can take to help prevent winter colic, here are five ideas to try.
1. Keep your horse drinking
As horse owners we tend to worry about how much water our horses drink in the hot weather, but in fact we need to monitor their intake in the cold weather as well. Dehydration can be linked to impaction colic, and sufficient water intake is essential for a healthy functioning digestive system. Horses don’t generally like drinking cold water, and frozen troughs and drinkers mean that your horse might have reduced access to water. Older horses or those with poor dentition may have sensitive teeth, so drinking cold water may feel uncomfortable for them.
If your stable has an automatic water drinker it might be helpful to turn this off and provide your horse with buckets of water so that you can monitor how much your horse is actually drinking. It can be harder to keep a close eye on this when your horse is turned out in the field in a herd of other horses, but there’s lots you can do to keep your horse drinking.
Adding a kettle of hot water to buckets and troughs will warm the water up slightly, which will make it more appealing to your horse. You could also try giving your horse a ‘soup’ of very sloppy water based feed such as a fibre mash or sugarbeet. Most horses will readily drink this down, particularly if you include a few pieces of carrot or apple at the bottom. This can be a handy way to keep your horse drinking if you are staying away at a show or riding camp as well.
2. Extend the chew time
Your horse is designed to be eating forage for at least 16 hours a day, and this encourages normal peristalsis which keeps everything moving along the digestive system. Employing methods to lengthen the time that your horse is chewing it’s hay is ideal to ensure that your horse has a feed source later into the evening, it won’t do your horse’s waistline any harm and will prevent hay being wasted. You can try using a specially designed small hole haynet, adding an extra haynet in a different part of the stable (although not double the quantity), or splitting the hay ration into more servings. You can find more suggestions about slowing your horse down in this article here.
If your horse is turned out and used to eating grass for much of the day soaking the hay will help him adjust to the change in diet, and is another useful way to aid hydration.
Owners often worry about their horse being too cold when the temperature falls, so it’s worth remembering that your horse’s cecum is also like a huge radiator, with heat being given off as fermentation, necessary to break down hay, occurs. So extending the chew time of the hay will also be keeping your horse warm as well.
3. Keep your horse moving
It can be a challenge in snowy or icy weather to give your horse sufficient exercise, but keeping your horse moving will also keep the digestive tract moving. Whilst safety is an essential factor you might be able to clear a track to use in your school, use a horse walker, or be able to cover a lunge pen or part of the arena at night to allow you to exercise your horse.
4. Know normal
Every owner is the expert on their own horse, and the best thing you can do to keep your horse healthy is to know ‘normal’. If you haven’t already it is so useful to monitor their temperature, pulse and respiration rates (this is best done over a few days and take an average reading) so that you have a baseline to compare to. If your horse is suddenly stabled be extra vigilant, and monitor how much your horse drinks and eats, and the number of poos they produce. Noticing a change in these ‘normal’ signs can help you spot a potential problem early, and if you are at all concerned have a chat with your vet.
5. Know the signs
We tend to associate colic with a horse violently rolling, thrashing around the stable or pawing the ground. In fact there are many signs of colic, and your horse could appear dull or depressed, slightly ‘off colour’, or they might be box walking. What is important as owners is to be aware of any changes, and then look out for other signs and clues. Think of colic signs as a jigsaw puzzle, and if you suspect one sign or symptom chatting to your vet immediately would be a sensible step. You can read more about the early signs of colic here in this article.
Whilst it is ideal to make gradual changes to your horse’s management, sometimes it is not possible. So if we have a sudden cold snap do bear these tips in mind.