The nutrition experts at Kentucky Equine Research offer us these tips to help us avoid problems with impaction in our horses as winter sets in.
Winter, with its icy water sources and lowered equine activity levels, is one of the riskiest times for horses that tend to develop intestinal impaction. Fresh grass has been replaced in the diet by dry hay; horses tend to drink less when offered very cold water; and with a break in regular training and exercise, they may not sweat enough to feel thirsty. These are all contributing factors to impaction colic because they are all conducive to slower movement of ingested material through the digestive tract.
Regular intake of suitable forage, adequate chewing and moistening of this forage with saliva, and proper hydration status are important in preventing impaction. Exercise also encourages movement of ingested material. Horse owners need to be sure they are carrying out management steps to help their horses avoid problems.
Horses should always have access to a source of clean water that is not too cold. Tank or bucket heaters can be used to keep water at a temperature that is well above freezing. The water doesn’t need to be hot or even warm; a temperature in the mid-forties to mid-fifties Fahrenheit is fine. If heaters are not used, owners need to change the water in the horse’s buckets often enough to be sure the water is at an inviting temperature. If the horses aren’t drinking plenty of water every day, don’t ignore this situation; figure out the problem and correct it.
Offering the right kind of hay is important. Hay should be clean, sweet-smelling, and free of mold. It should not contain a large percentage of tough, stemmy vegetation and weeds. Hay can be chopped or steamed to make it somewhat easier to chew and digest. Hay cubes or pellets, fed either dry or soaked, are other alternatives. If horses are not eating the hay that is provided, it is possible that it is moldy or dusty or unappealing for some other reason. It is vitally important that horses consume plenty of forage, so finding something that they are willing to eat is a priority.
Horses should be on a suitable deworming schedule before going into the winter months. Heavy loads of parasites can cause damage to the walls of the intestines, possibly restricting the flow of ingested material. Having the horse’s teeth examined and any problems corrected before cold weather arrives is another way to be sure that all ingested feed and hay can be thoroughly chewed and moistened.
Some horses are pastured during spring, summer and fall, then are confined to barns for the winter months. This may be necessary for very young, very old, or ill horses, but for most equines, standing in a stall for hours every day increases the risk of impaction. Owners should try to keep horses moving as much as possible during the winter, either by riding or driving them regularly or by turning out for at least a few hours each day. Pasture turnout is ideal, but even a period of free exercise in an indoor arena will help to encourage movement of material through the digestive tract.
Owners need to monitor not just the amount of water that the horse is drinking, but the moisture content of the manure the horse is passing. Very dry manure may be a sign that the horse is becoming dehydrated. Wetting the hay and adding water to the grain ration will help to get a bit more liquid into the horse, but the owner should also check to be sure clean, fresh, not-too-cold water is always available.
A horse that has an intestinal impaction is often less interested in eating. He may seem depressed and show little interest in moving around or interacting with people or other horses. He will probably begin to display common colic signs such as pawing, nipping or kicking at his belly, and wanting to lie down or roll. Impaction colic can be treated by a veterinarian, and waiting to see if the horse will feel better on his own is a bad idea. While some colic cases do resolve without treatment, impaction colic usually needs to be dealt with promptly. The veterinarian can decide whether the horse needs to be treated with fluids, intestinal lubricants, pain medications, or even surgery in some cases.
Obviously, it is better to avoid impaction than to allow it to develop. To minimize this problem, owners should make water available; monitor water intake and manure production; keep to a schedule of deworming and dental care for their horses; offer clean hay that is free of coarse material; and provide as much exercise as possible through the winter months.