Most of the country is currently being plagued by cold Arctic air. According to Weather.com, the East, South, and Midwest United States will be affected by one of the coldest Arctic air outbreaks in nearly two decades. Even more bizarre than the dangerously cold temperatures and wind chills is that my area of the country experienced temperatures near 60 degrees this morning, and those temperatures are predicted to go plunging down to the single digits by tonight. Talk about a drastic weather change.
When there are wacky changes in weather, a lot of people at my barn start saying that dreaded ‘c’ word. Colic. There is much debate about whether drastic temperature changes or weather changes make horses more at risk for colic. Some veterinarians say that temperatures changes are linked to colic, but for a different reason than we might think. Horses may be more likely to become dehydrated during drastic temperature changes because they do not drink enough water. This can be for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important things a horse owner can do for his or her horse is to ensure that her horse has access to ample water. Lack of water can cause dehydration which can lead to food matter drying out in the horse’s digestive system which can lead to impaction colic, and that is something we never, ever want to deal with as owners, barn managers, or trainers.
Although colic is not 100% preventable, there are still steps we can take to reduce the risk of colic. I’ve put together some tips that will help give peace of mind when people start spewing the dreaded ‘c’ word.
Make sure your horse has adequate access to fresh, clean drinking water. Again, hydrated horses are happy horses. There are things to watch out for in the summer and in the winter. For example, in the summer, water supplies can become dirty and foul smelling. Horses drop food into their water on a daily basis, whether it’s grain, grass, or hay. Some horses even poop in their water buckets (insert picture of my guilty looking pony here)! Dirty water can become a breeding ground for insects, especially in the hot, sticky months. Would you want to drink dirty, foul-smelling water that was infested with insects and hay from three days ago? Probably not. And neither does your horse. Make sure to scrub buckets and troughs at least once a week. Provide fresh, clean water everyday. Some barns and owners even provided their horses with water twice a day or more. The point is that a horse should never have to go thirsty. Water is an essential component not only for our lives, but for the lives of our beloved equines. In the winter, water obviously has more of a freeze potential. If the ice cover on the water is thin, horses can generally push through to get to the water (though it would still be nice if you broke it for them at regular intervals throughout the day). However, when temperatures really plunge, water can turn into very thick ice that horses cannot get through which can cause them to go thirsty. Some horses may also be super picky about drinking cold water, so you could help encourage your horse to drink by providing them with warm, not hot, water. You can also invest in a variety of different water heaters. There are heated buckets, separate heated mechanisms that float in a water trough or water bucket, insulated bucket covers, and more. If you’re lucky enough to have a heated barn, then this might not be as much of a problem for you. My barn managers have found that closing the barn doors at night keeps the inside of the barn warm enough so that the water doesn’t freeze as much as it would if the cold night air was whipping through the aisle way all night.
Exercise. This can be done in a variety of ways – whether you ride your horse, hand walk/lunge your horse, or provide your horse with ample, daily turnout. A horse that is cooped up in its stall for a long period is more at risk for colic than a horse that is in a daily exercise program and receives regular turnout.
Feed grain in smaller rations throughout the day. Another big risk factor for colic is feeding large quantities of grain at one time. A horse’s digestive system is designed for receiving small amounts of food over a long period of time rather than a large amount of food at once. If your horse is on grain, it is best to feed a small amount two or three times a day. My horses get breakfast and dinner, with free choice hay throughout the day. Additionally, if your horse does get grain, make sure it is in a feed pan or bucket, as this will keep him from digesting sand, shavings, and other things on the ground that may upset his digestive system.
Stick to a regular deworming regimen. How and when a horse should be dewormed has changed drastically throughout the past couple of years. There have been rotation schedules, determining when and what type of dewormer a horse should get at certain periods throughout the year, a set schedule where a horse gets the same dewormer at the same time each year, and most recently, fecal egg counts that test for what types of worms a horse may have, and treating for just that type. Regardless, worm infestation can put your horse at risk for colic, so make sure you and your barn have an effective parasite control program.
Dental check-ups. This one drives me CRAZY. I’ve come in contact with horses that haven’t had their teeth done in YEARS. Irregular teeth floating puts a horse much more at risk for impaction colic! Instead of spending the modest amount for teeth floating, you could have a very expensive emergency vet bill for a colic call. Get your horse’s teeth checked and floated at least once a year. If your horse is a senior, every six months might be needed, but check with your equine dentist to see what is most appropriate for your equine friend. That’s all that needs to be said on this topic. Just get your horse’s teeth checked. It’s just as important as you seeing the dentist every year. Period.
Consider a digestive supplement. My pony has been on a digestive supplement for years. It was originally to help manage his loose manure problem, but I’ve since grown in my equine knowledge and learned all of the other benefits a digestive supplement has for a horse’s digestive system. When I bought my horse a year and a half ago, I put him on a digestive supplement immediately. My supplement of choice is SmartDigest Ultra by SmartPak. If you haven’t heard of this supplement, I highly recommend you check it out. It provides key ingredients to help manage your horse’s digestive system, including probiotics, prebiotics, yeast, and other enzymes that ensure digestive health. And, even better, if you put SmartDigest Ultra in your horse’s SmartPaks, you can enroll in SmartPak’s Colicare program. Colicare provides up to $7,500 of reimbursement for colic surgery. That’s how confident SmartPak is about their digestive supplement. Of course, there are requirements for remaining eligible for the Colicare program like an annual vet visit, annual vaccinations administered by a vet, annual dental check-up, and a deworming program including a fecal egg count test and at least two annual deworming administrations (hmm… I seem to remember seeing advice to have all these things done anyway on an up-and-coming horse blog…). Regardless of what you think of digestive supplements, or supplements in general, this is definitely one worth checking out. It gives me peace of mind, and it also has helped my pony’s loose poop problem. Also, it is worth noting that SmartPak does not advertise their supplement as preventing colic – nothing can do that. It reduces the risk, which, in my opinion, is pretty damn good.
One last thing to remember is not to make any sudden changes to your horse’s diet. Changes in hay or grain can up the risk of colic by a lot. If you must make a change to your horse’s grain or hay, do it gradually and consult your veterinarian if you’re not sure what the best method of changing is.
Finally, two things I use during the winter and summer to give myself peace of mind about my horses’ hydration are Himalayan salt licks and SmartLytes. If you provide free choice salt, your horse should take advantage of it when he needs it. My pony LOVES his salt lick, and he is quite loud when he is using it. My horse, on the other hand, rarely uses his salt lick. I give both my pony and horse SmartLytes on an as needed basis (for example, when the weather is funky, when there are drastic temperature changes, or when it’s super hot or super cold).This ensures that they are drinking enough water, and it gives me that peace of mind that I am doing everything I can to keep my horse and pony happy and healthy.
Did I miss a colic risk reduction tip that you swear by? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: I have been using SmartPak products for 6+ years and was not paid by them to promote their supplements. Always make choices for your horse based on your own judgment and research, as well as consultation with your vet, farrier, and other horse care providers.