Water key to preventing winter colic in horses

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Nothing can drain the colour from a horse owner’s face quicker than hearing the word colic. And winter is an important season to focus on colic prevention and ward off water woes that can lead to impaction in the equine gut.

The importance of access to clean, fresh water 24 hours a day, to keep everything flowing smoothly, cannot be overstated.

What you need to know about horses and H2O

Never assume horses are drinking: Just because water is available does not mean your horse is drinking enough. Horses should drink about 37 to 45 litres of water per day in order to stay healthy, and they will often drink less water when it is icy cold, particularly if there are any dental issues.

It is also a misnomer to believe all horses will break through a thin layer of ice to access their water source. A heater is the best option, not only for the fussy drinker but also to ensure troughs do not freeze over during overnight hours or on frigid days. A study from Penn State University has shown that increasing water temperature from just above freezing to 4-18° Celsius will increase the amount of water consumed by up to 40%. Make sure the heater is properly installed and check it is in good repair and operating safely. If you see horses standing by a trough but not drinking, be sure to check there is no electric current through a malfunctioning heating element.

Dehydration: This is a serious issue that increases the risk of impaction colic. Monitor the horse for any signs of dehydration. Discuss how you can do this with your veterinarian. A “skin pinch” on the shoulder of the horse is a useful tool to assess hydration by seeing if there is any delay in the skin flattening back down (this is called skin tenting). Slowed skin response may indicate a degree of dehydration.

Salt: If your horse is not drinking an adequate amount, in addition to monitoring them for dehydration, consider providing free-choice loose salt for the horse to take in what they need.

More water at feed time: You can add water to concentrate ration and/or soak the hay for 10 minutes before feeding as this will bring more water into the gut. You may also wish to discuss with your vet or equine nutritionist the use of soaked and shredded beet pulp as an addition to the diet for getting more water into the digestive system. Adding a bran mash once a week was once a popular practice, but the sudden introduction of a different feed is actually another colic risk factor. Adding water to their regular feed is recommended. Being consistent and making feed changes slowly is another one of the top 12 tips in the Colic Risk Rater tool(www.equineguelph.ca/colictool).

24/7 access to water: Horses are trickle feeders and their digestive systems operate optimally when forage is always available. This means water must be available at all times to aid in digestion and avoid blockages. In winter water needs may increase as a result of the increased hay being consumed, which is also much dryer than moisture-rich pasture. Always make sure there is lots of fresh, clean water provided 24 hours a day.

Snow is not a substitute for water! Ten inches of snow equals one inch of water. If 2 inches of snow fell, a horse would need to consume over four football fields worth to get enough water.

More recommended and required practices for watering horses are listed in Canada’s National Code of Practice for the care and Handling of Equines including checking automatic watering systems daily to ensure they are dispensing water properly, and testing water quality at least annually, unless it is from a previously tested water supply safe for human consumption.

Horse owners are urged to further their knowledge on colic prevention, starting with Equine Guelph’s free interactive Colic Risk Rater. It takes only 15 minutes and includes many tips on management practices, including the consideration of dental care, parasite control, and husbandry.

» Equine Guelph is running its online Gut Health and Colic Prevention course next month, led by Nicole Weidner of the Ontario Veterinary College. It starts on February 8 and runs to February 19. General enrolment is $C95. Register here.

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