Winter Woes: 3 Common Gastric Health Concerns Your Horse May Experience This Winter

The onset of cold winter weather brings many challenges in horse ownership. We’re addressing 3 of most common winter gastric health concerns for horses and what you can do to help keep your horse healthy and your winter stress free.

Dehydration & Colic
It’s common to be concerned about dehydration in the summer, but keeping your horse hydrated when it’s cold outside can be a challenge too. When the temperatures drop, so does your horse’s desire to drink. In addition, cold weather can lead to frozen pipes, buckets, and stock tanks and as a result restricting your horse’s water source.

Dehydration can have serious consequences on your horse’s health including increased risk of colic. Dehydration means less water in the GI tract. As a result, food particles may have a harder time passing through their system and can cause impactions, most often in the large intestine.

It can be a challenge to track how much water your horse is drinking daily with automatic waterers and even stock tanks. To avoid dehydration, it is important to know the early warning signs before they become a bigger problem.

Signs of Dehydration:

  • Pinch Test: Pinch skin on a horse’s neck/shoulder, take note of how quickly it springs back. If dehydration is present, skin will stay elevated for a few seconds.
  • Eyes and Gums: Check for wrinkled eyelids along with dull/glazed eyes. Look for dark red gums and mucous membranes of the nose and mouth.
  • Behavior: Check for sluggish, lethargic, or depressed behavior. Also check for shallow panting and/or body temperature exceeding 102 degrees.

Be sure your horse always has access to fresh, clean water always, day and night. If you have automatic, heated waterers, check them regularly for free-flowing water. If possible, try to give your horse warmer water. Horses tend to drink more water in colder weather if the water is warm. You can also add 1-2 ounces of salt to feed daily or utilize an electrolyte such as MVP’s Electro-Cell II paste to help encourage water consumption.

Weight Loss
While winter often brings decreased activity for your horse, they are still burning a significant amount of calories to stay warm in colder temps. It is important to maintain your horse’s weight throughout the winter and often increase their caloric intake to meet their needs. Long winter coats or blankets can hide weight loss, so it is a good idea to periodically feel their ribs to make sure they are holding their weight.

Some horse owners will reach for the grain to increase their horse’s caloric intake, however adding large and sudden quantities of grain can increase your horse’s risk of colic. The simple act of hay digestion generates heat within the horse’s body. Horses should receive 1.5-2% of their body weight in forage. 24/7 access to clean, free-choice hay is especially crucial during frigid temps. It’s also important to understand in some cases a calorie deficit is due to the quality of feed consumed rather than the amount, so invest in quality forage. Slow-feed hay nets can also help to create a grazing environment and lengthen feeding time.

Weight loss can be particularly challenging for senior horses in the winter. As they get older, their digestive systems start to function less productively, and their dental health may be compromised. Always consult with your vet on your horse’s weight loss, regardless of age, to rule out medical reasons and help investigate other factors that may contribute to your horse’s weight. Teeth play a big role in proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, and weight maintenance.

Loose Stool
Loose stool can happen at any time, but it can be particularly frustrating in the winter months. Diarrhea can develop for several reasons including infection, changes in diet, stress, etc. The first step to tackling diarrhea is to consult with your vet to rule out more serious health concerns that may need immediate attention. It is also smart idea to evaluate the horse’s environment and what also may be contributing to the issue.

Sudden changes to the diet can also cause loose stool, so it is beneficial to make transitions gradual. This includes changes to their hay, as rapid shifts can cause incomplete fermentation in the hindgut. If you are feeding a large quantity of concentrates containing starch/sugar, make sure to break feedings in smaller/more frequent meals throughout the day versus one large meal. In some cases, a slow-feed hay nets can help gradually introduce and transition changes in hay.

Sudden shifts in temperature can be stressful for a horse, creating an undesirable environment in the horse’s gut. Horse owners may also choose to put their horses in stalls in inclement weather. But if this is not part of their regular routine, the sudden confinement can also create a stressful situation on your horse. If they are not wet/shivering and have access to a shelter/lean-to, in most cases they are okay to leave outside. Provide plenty of turn out, as unrestricted movement helps promote proper gut function and typically makes for a happier horse. Gastro-Plex™ paste can be a helpful tool when you anticipate sudden shifts for immediate gastric support/relief.

Provide Additional Digestive Support through a Daily Gastric Supplement
A gastric health supplement helps allow the body, specifically the digestive tract to better manage stress, changes in your horse’s diet or environment, and fluctuations in the pH and microbial population within the gut. As a result, this helps the stomach to face changes more smoothly with a lesser concern of digestive issues, especially in the winter months.