Q: I live in New England, and late last fall my mare colicked. Since then I have heard a number of people say that it is quite common for the time of year and that it is the weather. Is that true, and if so, is there anything I can do to avoid the same thing happening this year?
A: Colic can be a very frightening event to go through with your horse, and it’s true that (at least anecdotally) colic is more common during certain times of year. Fall is one of those times, and certainly weather is variable in the fall. We can’t control the weather. However, it’s not the weather causing the colic. Rather, weather causes changes in management and behavior that lead to increased impaction risk. If we understand this, then we can do things to try and reduce the risk.
Risk Factor No. 1: Forage Changes
For horses on pasture, the quality of the grass declines in the fall, and often we move horses from pasture to a more hay-based diet. Grass is of course far higher in moisture than hay, so by moving to a hay-based diet water intake is reduced. If this change in forage occurs quickly, the horse might not have time to adapt and change drinking habits to accommodate for the reduced moisture in the diet. This can lead to increased impaction risk. As with all dietary changes, moving from pasture to hay needs to occur gradually. If you feed your horses any supplemental concentrate feed, consider adding water to this feed to help increase water intake at least during the transition to drier forage.
Risk Factor No. 2: Reduced Mobility
Horses are often brought in to stalls as the weather gets colder. On pasture horses are free to maintain a level of movement that’s not possible in a stalled environment. Movement is important for gut motility, so again this management change may increase the risk of impaction.
Sometimes when the weather is cold we might not be so keen to ride, or riding might not even be an option if you don’t have an indoor arena, so movement is further restricted. But, remember that even when the weather is less than favorable and your log fire or central heating are calling your name, your horse needs to move! In the winter if our horses are stall bound, we need to get them moving even on their days off from riding. Consider longing, walking under saddle, or hand-walking. All will help stimulate movement in the gastrointestinal tract.
Risk Factor No. 3: Hydration Challenges
Daytime temperatures can still be quite mild in the fall, and yet nights start to get chilly. Keeping up on hydration can be challenging this time of year, especially if water freezes at night. Certainly, dehydrated horses are more at risk of impactions.
Researchers have shown that horses prefer slightly tepid water, so when temperatures drop water consumption can go way down. It’s important to monitor water intake. Learn how to detect dehydration and check your horse at least daily. Also check that water sources haven’t frozen. Make sure your barn has a plan for dealing with iced water troughs and buckets. This could range from smashing ice frequently during the day or using bucket heaters. Caution: Be careful when using bucket heaters to ensure they don’t cause electric shock to your horse when he drinks. This would be terrible inadvertent punishment of a desired behavior!
In areas where ice is minimal, something as simple as a floating tennis ball in the trough can be enough to stop it from freezing over.
Make sure your horse is consuming enough salt, especially during periods of seasonal transition. Sodium helps stimulate thirst and a desire to drink. A horse that has consumed enough sodium might be more determined to find water. A 1,100-pound horse needs 10 grams of sodium a day when at rest. This amount is provided by 1 ounce of table salt, which is about 2 tablespoons. So feeding 1 tablespoon of table salt per 500 pounds of body weight is a good rule of thumb.
My preference is to feed salt directly each day to the horse rather than relying on a salt block. However, I always provide a salt block, too, so if the horse wants more salt it is available. If relying solely on a block for the daily sodium intake maintenance, a 1,100-pound horse needs to consume a 2-pound block each month.
Sometimes, no matter what we do, colic can occur. The key is to be aware of the common causes and to then take action. With thoughtful management, you can help reduce the risk of your horse colicking again.