Winter Colic Prevention

Dr. Caity Cosentino

Seasonality: Colic can happen at any time of the year, but cold weather in the winter often brings an increase in impaction colics. Horses develop a blockage of firm manure, often in the area of the colon known as the pelvic flexure. This type of colic is usually easily diagnosed by a veterinarian during a rectal palpation exam.

Causes and Prevention: Often a decrease in the amount of water consumed along with increased feed can predispose a horse to developing an impaction. Horses are also more sedentary in the winter and are less likely to be moving around, leading to a decrease in gut motility. There are a few simple steps that can be taken to decrease the chances your horse will colic this winter from an impaction:

  • Hydration – Make sure buckets and troughs stay free of ice so horses always have access to fresh water. Horses often like warm water if possible, heated/insulated buckets and heaters for troughs will encourage drinking even in frigid temperatures. Most horses will drink 8-10 gallons a day.
  • Adding salt or a balanced electrolyte to your horse’s diet daily can also increase water consumption. Adding a teaspoon of salt to their grain or electrolyte pellets/powder is a simple and inexpensive way to help your horse stay hydrated.
  • Feeding mashes all winter or on the extremely cold days also increases intake of water. Most grains can be turned into a mash with warm water or adding in a bran mash to your daily routine can be helpful.
  • Get them moving!! Turnout is important year round. Standing around all day can lead to decreased gut motility, so if it’s safe to turn out, turn them out. Don’t stop riding in the winter either, even if you just go for a short hack, it will help keep them in shape and keep their GI tracts moving.
  • Access to forage is important to keep them warm, but also to keep things moving. Long periods of time between meals can cause a slowdown in the GI tract, which can lead to impaction. Using slow feeder hay nets/bags or frequent small meals through the day is important. Increasing forage over grain is healthier and also the more efficient heating fuel for your horse.
  • Check a fecal sample in the fall to see what your horse’s worm burden is and plan to deworm them after a hard frost, with a product that also kills tapeworms.

Even if you take every precaution, there is a chance you will still have a horse that colic’s this winter, due to an impaction or some other cause. Signs of colic vary, depending on the reason and severity. Some signs include: anxiety or depression, pawing at the ground, looking at their flank, rolling or wanting to lie down, playing in the water bucket- but not drinking, lack of defecation, lack of appetite, excessive sweating, abnormally high pulse rate (over 44 beats per minute), lack of normal gut sounds, or frequent attempts to urinate/stretching out.

Actions to take: Safety is the priority for both horse and human. Some horses become so painful that they become violent in their behaviors, thrashing and throwing themselves on the ground. These horses are not safe to handle without sedatives and should be kept in an area that is safe for them to get up and down without running into objects and they should be separated from other animals. The veterinarian and owner need to be called immediately in these cases.

If the horse is mildly to moderately painful, but is still safe to handle, the following actions may be taken by caretakers:

  • Hand walk until veterinarian can arrive if horse wants to roll frequently. If horse is distressed by the walking, allow horse to stand, but try to prevent from lying down.
  • If horse is lying quietly and not rolling, they can be allowed to do so.
  • All food should be removed from stall or pen and horse should not be allowed to eat/graze.
  • It is ok for the horse to drink water if they choose to, but often they will not be interested in food or water. Never try to force a horse to drink.
  • Take horse’s vital signs if possible to inform the veterinarian. Heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature can give an indication of how serious the colic is.
  • At barn manager and veterinarian’s discretion, banamine may be administered orally, or IV if possible by someone with experience.
  • Depending on the severity of the colic, the horse may or may not need to be seen by a veterinarian; instructions will be given as to how to care for the horse.

You can never go wrong if you prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. Taking a few extra precautions as the cold weather rolls in can help you and your horses make it through the winter without any extra visits from your favorite veterinarian.


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