Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cold Weather Care

Sometimes I wonder if Colorado is the colic capitol of the world. This time of year is the worst. Starting in February or so, temperatures fluctuate like crazy.
This month we had a high of 64 degrees on Valentines Day, and this morning it was 3 degrees.

This is not unusual weather around these parts.

Mort was a notorious weather change colic-er. If the temp changed more than 40 degrees in a 12 hour period, he would colic. It could go up or down and he'd react. Once he started showing symptoms he was in trouble. He always pulled through but it took a call to the vet most of the time. I gave him two hours of walking and then would call.

I learned to keep hay in front of him 24/7 when severe weather was predicted. It cut his colic episodes by at least 50%.

In my thirties our horses lived on my husbands family ranch. They had 1200 acres of high quality mountain pasture. I didn't have a single incident of colic. Mountain lions, bears and barbwire, but no colic.

My first job as a full time trainer and riding instructor was at a small boarding and breeding facility 20 minutes up the pass, in Green Mountain Falls. We had a lot of colic. I mean a shitload. After my vet admitted he was called to our barn more than any other for colic I started searching for reasons. Our horses had excellent care. Their water buckets were always full, they were fed like clock work and the barn was meticulous.

One thing stood out. The horses were fed a large amount of complete feed and one flake of hay, 2x a day. They were all bright eyed, shiny and maintained a great weight.

I started to research the feed requirements for a healthy horse. Horses have miles of intestines jammed into their inefficient bellies. They can't throw up. Poop is really important. What makes a horse poop? Roughage. Anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds (alfalfa vs. grass) of it per day. I started feeding my horses an all hay lunch. My colic incidents became fewer, but there were still too many.

Sonita was the worst. Loki would colic, but not as often Sonita. Annie, my old mare, never had a problem.

I started my education in colic by studying poop. Sonita's manure was small, hard and infrequent. Loki's was average. Annie dropped huge, grassy piles. I mean, you'd a thought there was an elephant living with her.

Adding more hay created bigger, looser poop. Sonita's were still dry and hard and her colic incidents were high. I kept asking questions. The B.O. told me she drank very little water. On average less than five gallons a day. Loki was good for almost two buckets or ten gallons a day. Annie lived outside in a pen with a creek and had free access.

I had learned to water Sonita out of white or yellow buckets when we went to shows. If she couldn't see the bottom she wouldn't drink. Her bucket at the barn was dark green. I switched out her bucket and she started to drink like a normal horse. Then, I added an extra water bucket so they had ten gallons available at all times.

My colic issues dropped again, but still were statistically higher than normal. Several years later I learned that recent city expansion upstream had turned the beautiful creek that supplied water to my stable into a polluted mess. I have come to the conclusion that water quality was the primary problem.

I never completely solved my colic issues at that barn, but by the time I switched to another facility I put my hard earned colic education to use. I reduced my complete feed, doubled their hay and made sure each horse had constant access to a clean, half barrel (thirty gallons) of water. I checked our water source to be confident in the quality. I had a few minor incidents of colic during my time there. Annie was kept on pasture. Again, she was colic free.

After a three year stint I went to work with the Big K. My education really intensified there. We had four barns with a total of 30 stalls. We also had kind of a catch-all -- an open pen with shelter for babies, horses out of training, rejects, etc. There were anywhere from two to ten head at any given time. Then there was a herd of six buffalo, and anywhere from 10 to 20 head of cattle.

We watered out of tanks, tubs and buckets. We did not have heaters and Eastern Colorado is windy and cold in the winter.

Colic was extremely rare at K's place. We were crazy ice choppers. Horses drank just fine as long as their water was ice free. The cattle were like the horses. They wanted clean, ice free water. The buffs didn't care. Don't get me wrong, all animals in our care deserve clean water, but I think the buffs would be cool with sucking dirty ice out of each other's beards.

The biggest difference was the amount of hay we fed. We kept them knee deep in hay. Hard keepers and horses in heavy training were supplemented, but many horses ate nothing but hay.

I started to feed my own horses a combination of alfalfa and free choice grass. They had thirty gallon tubs and individual salt blocks. My colic dropped to zero.

Over the years I have noticed a few things. Anxious, crabby and depressed horses colic more than calm, happy horses. It can be their nature or their life style, but how a horse sees the world affects their digestion.

Regular exercise keeps the hay running through them.

Being able to eat small amounts of roughage 24/7 keeps a healthier gut than large feedings a few times a day. Alfalfa is calorie dense so I don't free feed it. Ideally, I like to feed alfalfa twice a day and slow feed grass all of the time. I don't grain or supplement my horses at all. I make sure their hay is top notch, they have salt and clean water. They are gorgeous, have all the energy and stamina I could ever need and have been healthy for a very long time (yes, I am knocking frantically on wood).

The last place I trained out of had pasture, pens and stalls, depending on the situation.

The absolute healthiest horses I have ever known are horses on quality pasture. They need a wind break, access to feed in inclement weather, clean water and salt. They graze and travel all day. They are living like a horse should and colic only comes if the grass is poor, water is scarce or dirty, the ground is wormy or another illness creates the symptoms.

If my horses don't have a free choice hay situation, when bad weather comes, I bury them in grass hay. An eating horse is warm, an eating horse gets thirsty and drinks, an eating horse is digesting. Water heaters are wonderful. I want the water cool, not cold, or warm. If I don't have them, then I want all of the ice removed at least twice a day.

I spent years blanketing my horses because of that stinking show deal. I don't anymore. I don't ride them into a lather when they're hairy. If they get wet, then I'll dry them with a cooler or six. I don't stall anymore. They have lots of room, each other and a shed.

If it's too cold, horses will sometimes not drink enough. This can lead to dehydration. If I'm worried about a horse, I'll feed them sloppy soaked warm beet pulp with some molasses and salt. The molasses gets even the picky ones to eat it, the salt makes them thirsty and the little bit of water they get from the mash encourages them to drink.

I don't like automatic waterers because I can't monitor their water intake.

I'll salt all my horses feed during extended periods of cold. Again, it encourages them to drink.

That's it. Simple, maybe, but it's worked for me for a very long time.

Keep the gut moving with hay, salt and water.

Good health before the cold hits is key.

Keep the ice out and your eyes peeled.


Katharine Swan said...

I'm in Colorado too and we had two horses at our barn colic in the past couple weeks. One died, one recovered and is fine. I definitely have found all you say about colic, weather, feeding, and temperament to be true. Good advice to other horse owners and a post that everyone should take seriously!

Becky Bean said...

Define "Ice free" -

The places I've lived have either never frozen or frozen so much that I could just lift off an entire, solid disc of ice in the morning, noon, and evening.

Is there an in between? What's "ice chopping"

Your local fair-weather horse owner

emma said...

great points! we had a colic episode last weekend and the vet said he was running wild with cases all weekend long.. in our case, the horse had free access to hay, but has been stalled & blanketed over night during the cold and not drinking

mugwump said...

Dear fair weather--An axe, enthusiastically applied to ice...or a long, heavy iron rod, stabbed up and down repeatedly, to punch through ice so axe doesn't bounce back into your face.
Personally, I could never lift the whole disc of ice out of the 100 or 500 gallon stock tanks...but I'm kind of a wuss.

mugwump said...

Stalled and blanketed is the owners choice, but won't make any difference i the horse isn't drinking.

mugwump said...

Dear Fair Weather, the cowboy term is whacking ice.

DarcC said...

I keep three horses in Massachusetts, where we are currently having the winter from hell. They have in/out stalls, a 70 gallon heated stock tank, and are currently going through grass hay at an obscene rate. No grain. I think I have a salt gnaw rather than a salt lick. But they're happy and healthy.

On Sundays I clean stalls at a miniature horse farm. High-class, world champion, highly sought after minis. They're stalled 18-20 hours a day, get grain 3x day and minimal hay. They don't colic so much as they get ulcers and founder. It bothers me so much I've given my notice. They've done it their way for 30 plus years and they won't change now.

Fi said...

If I could like this I would. I'm in the UK and we can also have a lot of toing and froing of temperatures (maybe not to quite the extremes you describe though thank god!) Yesterday I was driving around with the window open it was so warm, tonight I was scraping ice off my windscreen at 8.30pm so I could drive home from work! I'm a big advocate of giving as much hay or haylage as they'll eat unless there's a medical reason not to. I also seem to be the only person who bothers breaking the ice on the trough on frozen mornings at a few yards I've been at...

mugwump said...

Fi- You can like it, even without a button or a thumb...

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

I'm on the southeast coast, where we're suffering the most changeable winter anyone can remember. In addition to record cold + 30-50 mph winds, we've repeatedly seesawed between almost 60 and the 20's, overnight usually. I have been super anxious about colic this year,

My guy gets as much orchard grass as he can eat, a pittance of feed, and a warm beet pulp/bran/alfalfa cube mash nightly with loose salt am/pm. He usually breaks the ice himself - when possible I refill the entire 15 gal tub morning and night. The well water is warm enough to keep from freezing too hard overnight, and I can see at a glance how much he's drunk.

Happy to read confirmation of my horse-keeping here. You've soothed my inner worry wort - thanks. :D

KD said...

Ha ! Took me a second or two. "LIKE"

Laura said...

Great advice - I wish more boarding stables fed more hay...

My boys are at home, so I feed almost exactly as you described. No colics yet...*touch wood*

A trough heater is a must here (Canada), you wouldn't be able to chop through the ice fast enough. The axe/iron rod would probably freeze into the trough as you were chopping! :-S

I'm going through hay like crazy, as it has been obscenely cold here since Xmas, but it is worth it!

PonyFan said...

Colic sucks. A lot. I too, learned about it the hard way. I am super paranoid about it now.

Now do you have a magical solution for those "easy keepers"?

My pony is kept on the strictest diet I feel comfortable with - 1 flake of grass hay 3-4X per day, depending on the temp. She has salt, and an auto-waterer, shelter, and a large dry paddock. No grains. Not even a cookie.

She is ridiculously fat. Think thirteen hands, one thousand and fifty pounds fat. She is using a warmblood girth for her saddle right now.

Of course, she only works lightly right now because a) that's my availability, b) it's cold as $%&$ up here in the great white north, and c) that's all I dare ask of her in her condition.

mugwump said...

PonyFan...A grazing muzzle or slow feeder. It's the action of eating and digesting, not the amount.

FD said...

Have you checked the pony for cushings and/or insulin resistance? It's ridiculously common in ponies.

I ran livery/ competition yards for 16 years, and had had my own/loaners for another decade, and have had maybe 6 cases of colic. 1 twisted gut and the 5 others were following competitions/ travel - client horses, not any I'd travelled.
The key was precisely as described above - potable water available 24/7, free choice forage, nibble netted and soaked (reduces calories) for good doers, 6 hours minimum turn out if stabled and worked every day, 2× a day if on minimum turn out. Hard feed was kept to as little as possible to maintain weight, generally chaff/sugarbeet as a carrier for supplements, alfafa, high oil/fibre low sugar feeds for those who needed a little extra. I also treated new horses almost routinely for ulcers, because, in my experience, the vast majority of stabled horses who don't have a free choice forage diet, have them.
When travelling/competing every horse had a soaked hay net, got water at rest stops, and got electrolytes as needed.

Anonymous said...

Tennessee fluctuates like that too, but we have had more prolonged cold, and more severe cold this year than the past 15. My horses are currently dependent on a water trough, sans electricity, for water (first time ever for me) I have been breaking ice 3 times a day. My two older mares (broodies in their previous lives) were used to living out 24/7 with no human interaction in their lives - and they will break ice on their own, though I try not to leave it up to them. I've found that if you keep one drinking hole open and let the ice insulate the rest, you have less trouble than scooping and breaking and trying to keep the entire thing open. I also add warm water to their pellets AM and PM to make it good and soupy. And they have free choice hay, free choice salt, and whatever pasture they can pick. No stalls, no blankets. And (knock on wood) have not had a colic in a long time.

Heidi the Hick said...

Excellent advice!!!

It's cold enough where I live that a trough heater changed my life. The trough would freeze solid and you'd have to offer them a bucket a few times a day. Now I've got the pipe wrapped with an electric cord and insulated, and the trough heater, and they're drinking and we're all happy (as long as the electricity stays on!)

Your advice on feeding hay is so true. It's been stomach ulcers rather than colic plaguing me, but having hay in front of them all the time is so important. You know what else changed my life? Slow feeders. Less wasted hay, more grazing. We haven't had stalls at all this year, because the barn renovations didn't get done, so they're in shelter but not inside the barn. The sensitive little mare is blanketed but the boys aren't, although Phoenix gets a blanket if the wind blows into the shelter. I hate to admit it, but I get the cheapest grass hay I can find. And just give them lots of it. Copper only gets pellets to carry her stomach supplement, and it's like, 1/2 cup. That's it. This is what's working for me, and like you, it took years and a lot of research to figure it out.

Darc C - I'd have a hard time with that too. I'm sure those horses are so well cared for and pampered, and the intentions are good, but that sounds like jail.

Mona Sterling said...

First of all - for some reason your description of buffalos drinking dirty ice water from each other's beards made me almost snort a drink out my nose. Disgusting and funny!

I'm in the PNW and we're having an early spring instead of a long winter. Our concerns here are towards laminitis with all the spring grass in February.

And now everyone else can throw something at me since we've had a warmer and nicer than usual winter. :)

Stacey said...

I laughed so hard at the image of dirty beard-sucking buffalo. That deserves a medal.

I love hearing about how your thoughts and methods have evolved during the years. Your fierce drive to improve--and the fine awareness of the changes that you have made--make your observations such a pleasure, and show very clearly the process so that your words are useful to people at any point along the knowledge spectrum. I know I'm not the only one who appreciates this.

Thank you once again for sharing.

PonyFan said...

Thank, for the advice, mugwump, I was so happy when I found a stable that was willing to feed small amounts up to 4x per day - most just feed the "fat pen" twice or even just once . . . Which leads back to the dreaded colic.

I think I will have her tested for insulin resistance the next time the vet is out. Of course, we just had our routine check up and our teeth done, so it might be a while, knock on wood.

I'm a little dubious about the grazing muzzle, could it interfere with her drinking? What about it freezing to her face? Plus, she's awfully smart and tricky, I'm not sure how much time she would spend wearing it and how much time it would spend in the far back corner of the pen. Might be an idea to revisit in the spring though, when even the dry pens get a fair bit of grass and weeds.

I think I'll talk to the BO about getting some slow feeder nets, I'd be willing to pony up one for each horse in the diet pen.

Plus, maybe I'll pick up some E conc to supplement her. . . As you pointed out, drinking more water doesn't hurt.

mugwump said...

PonyFan - I'd be leery of a grazing muzzle in small, crowded spaces or anywhere one could get hooked on something. The few times I've used one I had a breakaway on it.
Slow feeders are ideal.
Here's some DIY
I would want to make sure the netting was small enough to keep pony feet out of it.

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