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Preventing Impaction Colic in Winter Months

Written by on November 5, 2019

While colic is certainly something that can occur year-round, the risk for impaction rises in the cold winter months. Dehydration, decreased turnout and pasture time, and altered feed all contribute to this. Fortunately, there are plenty of things that can be done to lower the risk of wintertime colic and help keep digestion on track. 

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic occurs when the gut is not functioning efficiently and feed accumulates, causing a blockage. This occurs frequently in the colon at a hairpin turn known as the pelvic flexure. As the feed sits in the colon, moisture is drawn out of it, drying out the blockage. Gas and feed can continue to build up causing distention and pain. The typical signs of colic are restlessness, dry or lack of manure, flank gazing or looking at the belly, and laying down more than usual. It can be helpful to look out for signs of dehydration as well, including pale, dry, or tacky gums, increased capillary refill time, and decreased skin elasticity. If impaction colic is suspected, the first steps to take are stopping feed intake and hydrating the horse. Diagnosis usually only requires rectal palpitation by a veterinarian. Treatment can be as simple as hydration, but also frequently includes sedatives, IV fluids, and painkillers such as flunixin meglumine and phenylbutazone, also known as Banamine and Bute. 


Aside from being useful in the treatment of impaction colic, hydration can also be a very effective preventative. In the winter, frozen water is a common issue that leads to dehydration and increases the risk of colic. Most horses require eight to twelve gallons of water per day, which can be a challenge to consume when buckets can freeze within six hours. This can be prevented with the use of insulated buckets or tank heaters, but it is important to use electrical units meant for this purpose and closely monitor them as rodents, dust, and lack of maintenance can cause electrical shock to the horse or even barm fires. It has been shown that horses prefer to drink warm water over cold, so providing heated water or filling buckets with warm water can promote drinking as well as slowing freezing. Ideally, horses should have constant access to fresh, unfrozen water, but the three hours after feeding are the most critical in preventing impaction. A small amount of salt or electrolyte powder added to the feed or water can help to prompt drinking as well. Additionally, salted water takes longer to freeze. Diluted fruit or vegetable juices or a small amount of a palatable feed may be added to the water as well to make it more appealing. It is important to always offer a bucket of plain water in addition to any salted or flavored water.

It is also possible to incorporate more hydration into the diet if there is a concern that the horse is not drinking enough. Mashes are an easy way to do this and most horses love them. Bran mash is the most common option, but any grain or feed can be used. Simply mix it with warm water to create a slurry and feed. 

Movement and Turnout

While hydration is certainly a major concern in the winter, the increased stall confinement is a risk factor as well, especially for the horses that are used to regular turnout. This can be attributed to a couple of different things. The physical act of walking around in a pasture can help to keep digestion moving. Blankets and outdoor shelters can be used to allow for turnout in cold or wet weather. If outdoor turnout is not an option, hand walking and indoor turnout can help keep the horse moving.

The equine digestive system is designed for continuous grazing, so a feeding schedule of one or two large meals per day is not ideal. This causes the gut to slow down in the time between meals and can lead to an impaction. If pasture is not available, forage can be given in several small meals throughout the day or via a slow feeder to keep the gut functioning properly. Fresh grass contains more moisture than forage, so drinking is still crucial. Many horses burn more calories in the winter, and it can be tempting to simply increase grain to supply the extra energy, however, these calorie-dense concentrated feeds can lead to gas colic as they ferment in the gut. Instead, high-quality forage should be increased as the digestion throughout the day helps to create heat. For horses that continue to drop weight even with free access to forage, it may be necessary to switch to more calorie-dense hay. With an increased intake of forage, more water is needed for digestion. 

The risk of impaction colic rises in cold winter months, but there are things that can be done to help prevent this problem. Adequate hydration is one of the most important elements in gut health, but turnout and a proper feeding schedule are crucial as well. As pastures die and the weather cools, it is necessary to adjust accordingly in order to keep horses healthy.

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