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Tips for Managing Horses in Winter to Avoid Colic

Beautiful brown horse standing behind wooden fence during winter snowfall (iStock)
Horse enjoying his time outdoors during the winter

Dr. Tanja Bihr would like to remind our clients that with colder days ahead, we are starting to see more horse colic. The cold weather is causing horses not to be thirsty. They are eating mainly dry feed and hay, which contain very little moisture, and are not drinking even half of the 30-40 L of water a horse should be drinking daily.

This time of year, we also see reduced gut motility and immune function in our equine friends, as the sheer stress of such cold temperatures is wreaking havoc on their systems. Impaction and constipation colic are among many different types of colic that we see, but these two tend to be the most commonly seen this time of year.

Dr. Bihr would like clients to be aware of some things that can be done to help with colic prevention:

Transition Them Gradually

As pastures dwindle in the fall and the horse must switch to a different diet, be careful with the transition. 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. 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.

Keep Them Drinking

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 1 – 2 tablespoons 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. Beet pulp is ideal because it can hold four times its weight in water.

Keep Them Active

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.

Pre- and Pro-biotics are always helpful to maintain proper hindgut health, and dental health is of course also important to ensure proper chewing and digestion of feed materials.

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