Colic is a painful digestive disturbance for the horse, where excessive gasses may build up, blockages may occur, or worse, the intestines may become entrapped within themselves. In many cases, colic may occur as a result of changes in nutritional management, particularly over the winter months.

Warm the water

Reduced water intake can result in too little water throughout the digestive tract, thereby increasing the risk for impaction colic. When the weather gets cold, so does the water in the barn or outside in the paddocks. Horses do not do well with frigid water (or snow or ice) and may decrease their water intake as the temperature drops. Warming the water (to 7-18°C) with a heated water trough or bucket will keep the water more palatable for horses. Water intake can also be increased through the provision of additional salt, or by mixing water with feeds already in the diet.

Protect the hay

In the late fall and into winter, pasture quality and availability decreases, causing an increased dependency on dried forages such as hay. When winter hay is introduced, it should be done so slowly to allow for the microbial population within the horse’s digestive tract to adapt to the different carbohydrate fractions found in hay compared to pasture.

Hay quality should also be a consideration, particularly when fed outside. Round bales tend to be lower in quality than smaller square bales, so owners and managers should ask for hay analyses prior to purchase to ensure the quality is good. The use of a round bale feeder is recommended to decrease waste, and research has shown that the net-type designs tend to be more efficient in terms of lower investment costs and reduced waste. Covered huts, while more expensive, offer the benefit of reduced spoilage due to the elements.

Feed more fibre

As horses move from lush pasture to hay and colder temperatures, owners and managers often feed increased amounts of grain over the winter months. High grain intake is associated with an increased risk of colic, and may also not be the most efficient way to get additional calories into a horse in the winter. Increasing the amount of fibre offered to horses via good quality hay, hay cubes, or beet pulp, can provide additional calories. The heat of fermentation (produced when the digestive microbes ferment the fibre) can provide additional warmth to your horse in the winter months – and at a lower risk of colic.

Keep him moving

Many horses transition from an active show season all summer into fewer training sessions or even full breaks over the winter. Similarly, some horses may move from overnight or all-day turnout to only a few hours during the day. These alterations to your horse’s normal daily routine can result in stress and digestive upsets.

Maximizing forage availability during the day is helpful to give your horse something on which to focus. This can be facilitated with a slow feeder or hay net, rather than letting him finish all of his hay rapidly and have nothing to do or eat for several hours. Also, maintaining some kind of exercise program, even hand-walks or winter trail rides, will help keep your horse happier and will keep things moving through the digestive tract.

General tips

  • Monitor water intake. If in a stall, monitor how much your horse drinks daily (ideally 5-10 gallons for a 450-500 kg horse); address a sudden decrease before it becomes a problem.
  • Feed high-quality forages to provide ample calories and fibre to help keep your horse warm and his digestive tract healthy.
  • Try to maintain a routine for your horse that maximizes the amount of time he spends foraging.
  • Incorporate some kind of exercise program, even a very light one.