Supporting Your Horse During Seasonal Changes

During our transitional seasons, weather patterns often become erratic. One day it can be warm and sunny and the next day a blizzard can roll through your area.

This can place a tremendous amount of stress on our horses and almost always leads to changes in their behavior. One particular concern is stress leading to digestive upset. Specifically, colic cases in horses tend to rise during erratic weather and there are steps owners should take to help reduce the stress placed on their horses.

How Does Change in Seasons Affect Horses?

Our weather patterns seem to fluctuate the most during spring and fall. These transitional periods can be stressful for horses for many reasons. Pastures can either be devoid of quality forage or can be too lush for grazing. Parasites seem to thrive during these periods. Additionally, training may be more frequent and intense among many other factors. The point being, there are many stresses that our horses experience during these times of year that can contribute to the risk of colic.

What is Colic in Horses?

Colic is defined as any type of abdominal pain. It is a particular concern for owners as it is the number one leading cause of death in horses under the age of 20. We have previously published articles on colic that are well worth a review. In our Is My Horse Colicing article, we discuss the signs and symptoms of colic and what owners should do. Briefly, some signs of colic include:

  • Biting or nipping at their side. Tufts of hair can be seen raised on each side.
  • Excessive sweat, especially during periods of cool weather.
  • Pawing at the ground, general restlessness.
  • Straining to defecate or absence of manure in a stall or paddock.
  • Isolating themselves from other horses or animals.
  • Elevated heart rate. Normal resting heart rate is 32 to 36 beats per minute.
  • Elevated respiration rate. Normal resting rate is 8 to 12 breaths per minute.
  • Elevated body temperature. Normal resting body temperature is 99 to 101.5°F (37.5 to 38.6°C).
  • Lack of gut sounds. As the horse digests its food and with aid of a stethoscope, you should hear gurgling and other gut sounds. During colic, these are typically absent.

In our What Causes My Horse to Colic article, we discuss the causes and types of colic horses may suffer from. We know stress is a major cause of colic, as well as dehydration, poor dental health, overfeeding concentrates (feeds), intestinal parasites and many others. The most reported types of colic include:

  • Large colon impaction (21%)
  • Large colon displacement (17%)
  • Spasmodic colic (12%)
  • Large colon volvulus (7%)
  • Lipoma (7%)

Impaction colic is particularly concerning as this type of colic is seen most during erratic weather changes. This is when feed in the digestive tract becomes “impacted” and cannot pass through the digestive tract. This can be caused by multiple factors.

How Cold Weather Impact Horses?

Heading into the cold winter months, horses will become less active to conserve energy. They may not be ridden or exercised as much. Yet, exercise for the horse is important as it increases gut motility of digesta. Thus, the less active the horse is, the less gut motility there is, increasing the risk of impaction colic. While it may be difficult during inclement weather, owners should give horses as much turn out time as possible or exercise them as often as possible.

With colder weather, horses tend to not drink as much. Their water may not be available to them because it is either frozen over or the water temperature is too low (< 45°F). This is also a concern during periods of hot weather where a horse becomes dehydrated. Water is not only critical to a horse’s overall wellbeing, but is also important for gut motility of digesta. Thus, less water available to the digestive tract increases the risk of impaction colic. Owners need to always monitor their horse’s water intake, with most horses requiring 10 to 12 gallons of water a day, at minimum.

Cold weather stress is another contributing factor for colic in the winter months. In our Winterizing: Nutritional Tips article, we discuss how best to help your horse adjust to the winter. Briefly, a horse’s Lower Critical Temperature (LCT) is the temperature at which a horse will begin to expend extra energy to maintain their internal body temperature. For example, a horse with a dry winter coat has an LCT of 18°F. However, for a horse accustomed to moderate temperatures (i.e., 60°F), the time period it takes them to become used to lower ambient temperatures (i.e., 32°F) takes about 21 days. Thus, during this time period, horses need to be monitored and supported to keep warm, ensure they stay hydrated and are eating.

In summary, erratic changes in weather can increase your horse’s risk of colic, specifically impaction colic. To help support your horse during these times of year, you should always ensure your horse is:

  • Receiving adequate high-quality forage
  • Receiving nutritional support in the form of a quality feed or ration balancer
  • Drinking 10 to 12 gallons of water per day, at minimum
  • Receiving adequate exercise or turn out time
  • Supported in their transition to the winter months (staying warm and sheltered)

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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