Winter Months “Notorious” For Increased Colic Risk

As winter makes its presence known – and briskly so – it’s important for horse owners to consider that with lower temperatures comes higher colic risk.

“Winter months are notorious for increasing the chance of impaction colic,” says Jyme Nichols, PhD, director of nutrition at Stride Animal Health.

The reason for this? Well, that’s as clear as water.

Dr. Nichols expressed how when the temperature dips, a horse’s water source gets cold or simply freezes over. Horses drink less than needed, which is seven to 10 gallons of water a day.

“Horses will restrict their own water intake, and when they restrict their water intake, it basically sends them into a mild dehydration that can actually impact how the digesta is flowing through the digestive tract,” continued Dr. Nichols. “And if there’s not enough hydration and not enough water in the digestive tract with that digesta, it can cause it to impact and basically bulk up. It essentially gets stuck and can’t move through the intestines. That’s where you start to get those [impaction] colics. The old ‘go to’ is to throw a little bit of extra salt in their grain. And that is somewhat helpful for getting horses to increase their water intake a little bit more. I personally am a fan of adding a metabolic pH balancer in lieu of that, or in addition to, salt.”

A helpful solution to prevent water intake concerns during the cold weather is to provide horses with a sole heated water source and remove their access to cold or icy water. A study conducted by University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that horses consumed 41% more water when provided continuously heated water than when provided ambient near-freezing water. For reliable, heated water sources, there are heated buckets, which are tested to withstand temperatures down to -20 degrees F and come equipped with an anti-chew coil. Floating tank de-icers and a snap-on guard also work well for larger troughs already in place.

Understanding Colic

With several types of colic, impaction colic is the most common during the harsh winter months. “Impaction colic is caused by feedstuffs that are unable to easily pass through a part of the gut, leading to accumulation of more feed and compaction into a firm and large fecal ball. Impaction colic is typically caused by dehydration or poor water intake, coarse or poorly chewed roughage, ingestion of sand, and decreased gut motility,” explained Tony Hawkins, DVM, Valley Vet Supply Consulting Veterinarian.

Dr. Hawkins explained how horses can experience different types of colic, in addition to impaction colic. Gas colic is often caused by excess gas production in response to dietary changes or grain consumption. Colonic shift is a type of colic that can result from displacement out of its normal position, a twist or torsion, or strangulation. According to a National Animal Health Monitoring System survey, for every 100 horses, 4.2 colic events occur on average every year. Of those, 1.2% of these events will be surgical and 11% will be fatal.

“The good news is that most cases of colic resolve with on-farm medical management,” said Dr. Hawkins. “It is important for horse owners to understand what colic is, what signs to watch for and what to do during a colic episode.”

Signs of colic can include:

 Decreased appetite

  • Lying down more than normal
  • Pacing
  • Pawing
  • Grinding teeth
  • Looking at /scratching/kicking the abdomen
  • Posturing to urinate without normal urine output
  • Rolling
  • Abnormal vital signs (temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, gum color)

On-farm Management

“If you notice the signs of colic, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian. If the symptoms are mild and you catch it early, there are some things you can try at home to resolve a minor colic,” says Dr. Hawkins, who offered the following guidance for horse owners.

  • Before an emergency arises, discuss with your veterinarian about the advisability of having prescription pain medication on hand and proper dosage. Herbal colic treatment pastes also can help.
  • Do not give more than one dose of pain medication. Do not try to pass a tube, do not force feed mineral oil and do not perform an enema.
  • Try not to let your horse roll. Rolling can injure your horse and actually cause a more serious colic. The best way to prevent your horse from rolling is to walk them, which can provide pain relief and encourage gut motility. If your horse is thrashing or trying to roll while walking, stay safe and out of the way, and call your veterinarian.
  • Provide water but do not allow your horse to eat until the colic is resolved.


While colic cases cannot always be prevented, sound management and routine health care can reduce overall risk.

“Provide fresh, clean water at all times,” Dr. Hawkins encourages, noting that, “Horses without access to water for even one to two hours are at an increased risk of colic. Offer horses regular exercise and/or pasture turnout. Nutrition is key as well; feed a high-quality forage-based diet. Feed grain and pelleted feeds only if necessary; concentrates increase the risk of colic up to 10X compared to a 100% hay diet. Feed a supplement formulated for complete gastrointestinal health. In sandy regions, feed psyllium and avoid feeding hay on the ground. Schedule regular dental care, routine fecal examinations and administer appropriate parasite control.”

To help ensure your horse’s health, speak with your veterinarian, and continue learning at

About Valley Vet Supply
Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with trusted animal health solutions. Building on over half a century of experience in veterinary medicine, Valley Vet Supply serves equine, pet and livestock owners with thousands of products and medications. With an in-house pharmacy that is licensed in all 50 states, and verified through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for customers’ horse, livestock and pet needs. For more information, please visit

Contact: Aimee Robinson / 785-713-6567