As a horse owner in winter you might not consider that there is anything more you need to think about when juggling muddy horses, mucking out, hay nets, multiple feeds, dirty rugs and limited daylight, all in the most challenging weather of the year. But did you know that the risk of some kinds of colic increases during those coldest months of the year? Yes, that means in between dodging rain and frost, riding in the mud, brushing off mud, drying rugs and staying warm, you need to be aware of winter colic! Luckily Haygain, creators of the transformative hay steamers, are here to help you understand the risk factors for winter colic. As well as sharing the steps you can take to prevent it occurring.

Colic is the leading cause of early death in domesticated horses. And whilst some types of colic can occur and reoccur for no clear reason, there is one common trigger that is exacerbated by two winter stable management issues. Let’s take a look at what they are, why they matter and what you can do to manage them.

  1. Turning their noses up at cold water

When the temperature outside drops, so does the temperature of the water most horses have available to drink. Studies have shown that horses are less inclined to drink when the water they are offered is very cold or close to freezing. Owners of veterans or horses with poor teeth may notice that their charges are very reluctant to drink cold water. Indicating sensitive teeth and the cold temperature is causing them pain. Horses can tolerate being really quite dehydrated before their athletic performance is affected. But the unseen impact could be much more dangerous.

The hindgut of a horse acts as a large reservoir, holding water which the horse can draw on if it struggles to find water. However, the reduction in water in the hindgut can impede effective digestion of food as it moves through the gut and this makes impaction colic more likely.

  1. Suddenly switching to dried forage

If your horse has been living out for most of the day and you switch to a winter turnout regime when winter arrives, their opportunity to graze fresh grass is likely to be significantly reduced. This will be exacerbated by the slowdown in grass growth during the winter. The shortfall will likely be made up with dried forage. However, and as the name suggests, dried forage contains less water than grass, so your horse may be at risk of slight dehydration while their body adapts. This will heighten their risk of suffering from an impaction in just the same way as dehydration from drinking less. In addition, they may produce less saliva. And those horses who tend to eat their allotted portion of hay very quickly could form balls of dry matter in their digestive tract. Leading to a higher risk of colic or choke.

How to keep winter colic at bay

Dehydration is at the heart of winter colic. So it’s key that you ensure they have access to plenty of fresh water at all times. As well as trying to stop it from becoming very cold when the temperatures drop. That might mean adding some hot water from a kettle to buckets at evening stables. Or driving tepid water to horses kept out at grass. It has also been observed that some horses prefer flavoured water. So it could be worth adding apple juice to a bucket if they are being really fussy.

You can also add water to any feeds that you offer horses in winter, from chopped forage and sugar beet (extra water in that case, of course!) to cubes, mix and nuts. Most horses will still happily eat their feed when it’s mixed with water. Again, try not to dump very cold water in feeds meant for horses with potentially poor or old teeth. As with any alterations you decide to make to your horse’s stable management or feeding regime, try to implement changes gradually so that their body has time to adjust.

Steaming hay will add extra fluids into your horse’s feeding regime, another sneaky way to get some extra hydration in. Soaking the hay will have the same effect but there are multiple negative side effects to soaking hay. For example, it can increase the levels of harmful bacteria found in the hay. Which in turn can put your horse at risk of respiratory issues. Steaming adds in that all-important moisture whilst removing 99% of respirable particles and improving its palatability. Read more about the amazing benefits of using a Haygain Hay Steamer here.