How to Reduce the Chance of Winter Colics

Frozen water tank

Impaction colics are more common at this time of year, when water buckets freeze overnight and horses are less active. A friend’s horse recently underwent colic surgery as the impaction didn’t resolve with tubing and oil.

So what can you do to reduce the chance of colic in the winter? Let’s look at the risk factors.

  1. Dehydration: Horses tend to drink less during the winter. And if your water buckets freeze overnight, that doesn’t help. Last week I visited a barn looking to rent indoor time and found their barn help chipping ice out of buckets. She told me that the horses look forward to getting turned out in the mornings when they get warm water in their paddocks. Yikes! That means those horses didn’t have water for several hours overnight (water buckets freeze in about 6-8 hours). Our horses don’t live in stalls, which some people wouldn’t like, but they have access to an 80 gallon heated water tank 24/7.  And they drink. A lot. It’s a challenge keeping that tank full enough.

    Research has shown that horses do prefer warm water when it’s cold out. One study showed that horses drank 41 percent more water when offered continuously heated water. The horses drank 38 percent more when offered buckets filled with hot water twice daily compared to ambient, near-freezing water. We are lucky enough to have hot water at the barn so I try to top off the tank with warm water.

    To get as much water into them as possible, we also soak all their meals. It started with Curly, who can choke on dry food, but they all get soupy meals now and no one complains about it (although Freedom will knock over his feed pan if it’s too watery). When it’s feasible, I also feed soaked alfalfa/timothy cubes as the horses seem to like them.

  2. The snow has started
    Our horses live outside all year ’round. The cold and snow doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it does us humans.

    Too much concentrate: When it’s cold out it’s tempting to feed your horses more, especially when they are living out and don’t have any grass to nibble on. Instead, it’s better to feed more forage. Digesting forage is what helps keep them warm. Keep in mind that alfalfa cubes and beet pulp count as long-stem forage, so feeding them soaked, does double duty. (FYI, you do not need to soak beet pulp for hours. If you buy shredded beet pulp and you add hot water, you can feed in about 10 minutes).

  3. Poor quality hay: If you’re feeding more hay, to help keep your horse warm, there is a temptation to feed less expensive hay. In general, that’s always backfired for me because my horses often waste hay they don’t like. There’s nothing worse that finding it used for bedding rather than eaten. However, stemmy hay can also contribute to impaction colic, especially if your horse doesn’t chew it well. Try beet pulp or soaked cubes if you don’t have access to good hay.
  4. Less activity: Let’s face it, most of us ride less in the winter. If your horse is at a boarding barn, it’s likely they get less turnout, too. Many barns don’t turn out when it’s icy or excessively cold. However, a 2001 study by J.M. Hudson noted “a threefold increase in the risk of colic for horses with no pasture turnout or that had a recent reduction in paddock size or time at pasture.” In fact, gut mobility decreases the most in the first five days after moving from a pasture situation to being mostly stalled. That’s the other good news about pasture board. While I can barely drag myself out of my warm house, my horses are still walking around in their fields. They don’t move as much as they do in the summer, but at least they’re moving. If you know your horse isn’t getting any turnout, make sure to get them out of their stalls every day, even if it’s just for a walk.

Of course, the other alternative is to move south for the winter. That sure has a lot of appeal right now.



3 thoughts on “How to Reduce the Chance of Winter Colics

  1. You just nailed my biggest winter worry. Raven’s had at least two impaction colics, fortunately, in both cases, we caught it early. Still, I wish he would drink more. I will remember the hot water trick. I usually take a two pound hammer and a pair of safety glasses when I head to the barn, in order to smash the ice on the outdoor water troughs. A carpenter’s hammer just doesn’t break the ice! And the safety glasses is obviously, to protect my eyes from flying shards of ice. I have to be careful, though…our Barnlord is ‘sensitive’ to anything one does around the barn, she takes anything one does as criticism of her management.
    I’ve learned to look for Raven’s usual output of manure/urine and check his stall every time I go to the barn. If there are three piles..or the equivalent strewn about, and a big wet patch of wet shavings, I know he’s okay. Anything less and it makes me worried. Thank you for this very important and relevant post.

    1. I am lucky in that our horses drink a huge amount of water. It’s hard to keep up with them. This year I’ve been trying to top off the tank with warm water after reading that it encourages drinking.

  2. By the way, whoever owns that water trough that you’ve posted a photo of should be forced to drink from it. There’s no reason that there are rotting leaves (from what, September?) to still be in the trough. That’s neglect.

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