Cold Weather and Colic

When the weather is cold and wet, it’s important to note how a horse’s lack of exercise can lead to colic.  For those of you who keep your horses in regular work, but have recently found the footing to be too slippery for riding, remember that a fit horse suddenly confined to a stall for several days will be prone to colic if you keep offering the same amount of feed.

This is especially true if the horse doesn’t have access to lots of drinking water, which is often the case when temperatures drop below freezing and the available water becomes a block of ice.  Ideally, the temperature of the horse’s water should be between 45 degrees and 65 degrees, and there should be a salt block in the stall or feed bucket that the horse can lick so that it will desire more water.  (Of course, keeping the water temperature up to 45 degrees is a challenge in many places; but just know that this is an “ideal” threshold and do the best you can to make sure there is liquid, not ice, in the horse’s bucket.)  It is very important to cut the horse’s grain intake in half and increase the amount of hay on the horse’s days off, so that it won’t be hungry, but will not be taking in so much grain that it ends up with impaction colic.

Colic is severe abdominal pain caused by spasm, obstruction, or distention. Since horses don’t vomit the way humans do to relieve stomach irritations, they can get into sudden, life-threatening problems that require surgery or can even be fatal.  Some typical signs of colic are:  lack of interest in food or water; swishing the tail or stomping a hind leg; looking at, biting, or kicking its barrel; straining unsuccessfully to pass food or to urinate; walking restlessly in circles, then lying down and rolling; and, if the colic is extremely severe, thrashing wildly on the ground.

It is important to keep a colicky horse on its feet and walking while you are waiting for the veterinarian to arrive.  This mild exercise helps food move through the body and limits activities, such as rolling, that can cause the intestines to become twisted.

Here are a few important ways to avoid colic in a horse:

1) Be sure your horse is cooled down and calm before you feed it, for an overheated or excited animal is much more likely to colic.  In general, wait 30 minutes after work before you feed your horse. If the animal had a very stressful workout, it would be smarter to wait an hour.
2) Provide lots of water throughout the day, for this helps the movement of food through the body.  However, don’t offer a lot of water to an overheated horse until it has had time to cool out.
3) Don’t change your feed often, for lots of variations in feed increase the chances of colic.
4) Make sure your horse gets regular exercise.  Horses standing in stalls for long periods of time are more likely to have a bowel blockage.
5) Give the horse as much pasture time as possible.  Too much grain and/or too little fiber (i.e., hay or pasture grass) increase the horse’s chance of colicking.
6) Feed high-quality fiber in hay or pasture grass and avoid feeding moldy hay.
7) Avoid sandy pastures where horses can ingest sand as they graze.
8) Make sure that your grain supply is well secured so that a horse cannot get into the storage area and eat all that it wants, for this is a certain path to colic.
9) Worm your horse regularly.  Parasites are generally believed to have a connection to colic.

10) Know that if your horse has ever colicked, it is very likely to do it again.  Be especially careful about all of the things listed above.