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Symptoms and prevention tips for winter colic

Colic has many different types, causes and outcomes, and is the leading cause of premature equine death. It’s not always preventable, however, you can protect your horse from certain situations that predispose them to colic, such as cold weather.

What is winter colic?

Winter colic, a common condition associated with the colder months, is an impaction-colic. The horse’s intestine gets blocked with feedstuff and other material, usually from a lack of fresh water and moisture-rich fresh grass. This can be due to the horse being stabled more during the winter, and having less access to water.

Dehydration impedes gut movement, which can result in a blockage. Feed and gas build up behind the blockage, and cause distention of the horse’s intestine and associated pain. Impactions can occur anywhere throughout the intestine, however, the pelvic flexure portion of the large intestine is one of the more common sites due to the decreased diameter at this point.

Symptoms of winter colic:

  • Frequently looking at their side.
  • Biting/kicking their flank or belly.
  • Lying down and/or rolling.
  • Little or no passing of manure, fecal balls smaller than usual, and/or passing dry or mucus (slime)-covered manure.
  • Poor eating behaviour (eats less grain/hay) & a change in drinking behaviour.
  • Changes in vital signs – heart rate of over 45 to 50 beats per minute, tacky gums and a long capillary refill time.
  • If you notice any or some of these symptoms, call us for advice.

Diagnosing, treating and avoiding winter colic

Thankfully, winter colic is typically easy to diagnose, mostly during rectal palpations. Treatment normally includes painkillers, possibly a sedative, along with hydration to get things moving again. If the impaction is more severe, your horse may need to be hospitalised so that intravenous fluids can be administered.

Most horses tend to recover quickly from winter colic, but of course, it’s much better for the horse if this condition can be avoided. Garston Vets’ equine vets have this advice:

  • Provide your horse with fresh, clean water 24/7. Add some to bucket feed.
  • Introduce a scheduled daily feeding routine. If weather conditions force a change in the routine & stable usage, look for signs of colic vigilantly.
  • Feed plenty of clean, long-stemmed forage. Soak/steam hay prior to feeding.
  • Turn your horse out as much as possible.
  • Regularly check stables & fields and remove any ingestible foreign objects.

Call us on the number above if you’re concerned about your horse’s health this winter.


What is a healthy body score for your horse?

Penn Equine Vets want to emphasise the importance of knowing your horse’s body score so you can take the best care of their health and welfare.

Obesity in horses is common and puts them at risk of health issues like Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), laminitis, and arthritis. Horses tend to carry fat unevenly across their bodies (neck, shoulders, middle & quarters) even though they may have protruding ribs. Fat feels spongy whereas muscle feels firm, and crest fat is especially dangerous as it hardens after a while and can rock from side to side when walking.

You can measure a horse’s fat using a universal 5-point body scoring chart. Race horses may differ slightly, but in general a healthy fat covering is a score of 2.5 – 3 out of 5 for most horses, unless your vet advises you otherwise.

Download our horse body guide and use it alongside the descriptions below to understand where your horse scores on the chart. Be objective and honest.

Download our horse body guide

Horse body score chart descriptions:

0) Emaciated – No fatty tissue can be felt, skin is tight over the bones. The shape of individual bones are visible. The backbone and pelvis are very prominent. They have a marked ewe-neck, very sunken rump, deep cavity under the tail and a large gap between the thighs.

1) Very Thin – Barely any fatty tissue, shapes of bones are visible. They have a narrow ewe-neck and ribs are easily visible. The backbone, croup and tail head are prominent. Plus, a sunken rump, under-tail cavity, and a gap between the thighs.

2) Very Lean – A very thin layer of fat under the skin can be felt. They have a narrow neck with sharply defined muscles. The backbone is covered but still protrudes. The withers, shoulders and neck are accentuated, and the ribs are just visible. The hip bones are easily visible but rounded, and the rump slopes from the backbone to the point of hips, only rounded if very fit.

3) Healthy Weight – There is a thin layer of fat under the skin. Muscles on the neck are less defined. The shoulders and neck blend smoothly into the body. The back is flat or forms a slight ridge. The ribs are not visible but can be easily felt. The rump is beginning to appear rounded and the hip bones are just visible.

4) Fat – Muscles are hard to determine. Spongy fat is developing on the crest and behind the shoulders. The ribs and pelvis are difficult to feel and the rump is well-rounded (appears apple shaped from behind). There is spongy fat around the tail head and a gutter along the back.

5) Obese – The horse has a blocky, bloated appearance and the muscles aren’t visible. The crest is pronounced with hard fat. Pads of fat can be felt instead of rib bones. There is a deep gutter along the back and rump, and lumps of fat around the tail head. The rump is a bulging apple shape and inner thighs are pressing together.

If you think your horse’s weight is concerning or need some help determining this, request an equine visit from one of our vets who will be able to help you, and devise a plan to get your horse on the road to a better weight and health.

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Winter weight management

Has your pony waddled in from the summer paddock looking a little too well? Or is he looking great having gained some condition after a few months of good grazing?

Either way, feeding your horse to lose or maintain body weight through the winter can be challenging. Horses living in the wild experience a natural fluctuation in body weight. They spend the summer gaining body fat on good grazing so during the shortage of grass in the winter, they have plenty of fat stores to burn to survive. However, many domesticated horses avoid this natural fluctuation in weight. They easily gain weight on good pasture during the summer, but we stop them using up these fat stores in the winter by giving them additional food, keeping them warm with rugs and shelter, and often reduce the amount of exercise they do because riding becomes impractical with the short days.

In the other extreme, some horses appear to lose their condition during Winter despite all of our domesticated habits and efforts. It is well known that some breed types, such as natives, hold onto body condition extremely well and other more hot blooded breeds seem to drop weight very easily. What is more, some horses have underlying dental or health conditions that mean they require more calories or more readily available calories once the energy content in the grass declines and grass growth rate reduces.

It is always a good idea to monitor your horse’s weight using a weight tape. If your horse is overweight, trying to achieve weight loss in the summer is a real challenge especially if they are grazing. Using the winter months to take control of your horses’ weight by restricting their food intake and increasing their energy output by wearing fewer rugs and exercising as much as possible to get them leaner by the spring, means they have less risk of becoming obese and developing diseases such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and laminitis during the summer.

Our vets can advise you on a weight loss plan to ensure your horse loses weight at a healthy rate. For horses that easily drop condition without good grazing, winter can be a struggle to keep them looking well. This could be due to their breed, but it is always important in these cases to ensure there are no underlying diseases preventing them getting the maximum nutrition from the food you are giving. Having a chat to one of our vets about their worming history, as well as a general clinical and dental examination to rule out any underlying condition is strongly advised for any horse prone to winter weight loss.

Feeding unrestricted hay or haylage rations as the grazing starts to reduce, alongside supplementing with hard feed high in fats and oil, with increased rugging and stabling in bad weather can make a real difference to these horses.

If you have any queries about how much your horse should weigh or have concerns about them being over or under weight, please contact one of our equine vets for some advice.


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