Summer seems to fly by faster every year, this one is no exception. Ready or not, the season is already changing. For your animals this is a bigger deal than you might imagine. Research indicates that there is a clear peak in colic caused by impaction or changes in GI motility in the fall and spring months in temperate climates like ours. While we don't know a specific reason for this uptick, it’s worthwhile to examine what’s happening this time of year and how we might manage our horses to minimize their risk for these kind of colic episodes.
So what is happening as we slide from the halcyon days of summer into the colorful harvest of fall. One of the most obvious things is that the length of daylight is getting shorter and the weather is cooling. Shorter days and kids returning to school causes changes in management, including changes in feeding schedules and exercise routines. Inclement weather may keep horses more confined than usual. Feed changes may be especially significant for horses that spend time in pasture. Did you know that a grass diet may be as much as 80% water while hay contains only around 10% moisture. The correlation between not drinking enough water and impaction colic is huge, so availability of clean water is always of paramount importance every day of the year. Yes, yes, you know all about providing water for your horses, but on any given day do you know how much they’re actually drinking? Some animals are sensitive to changes in water temperature (both too warm and too cold) and cleanliness. A good manager knows how much his or her horse drinks on average and pays attention to altered consumption. Noticing how much water your horse drinks overnight might just give you enough heads up to add some salt to their feed, serve up a sloppy bran mash or soak the hay to increase fluid intake, maybe avoiding an impending impaction colic.
It’s well known that horses are particularly sensitive to changes in feed and feeding. We know that it’s wise to introduce feed changes gradually. (Over 7 to 10 days is a good rule of thumb.) For some animals even a new batch of hay from the same provider can cause GI upset. Combine a mild upset stomach with less exercise than usual or an empty water bucket and your horse may colic for real. Parasite control is also a big component of colic prevention. Fecal testing in both the spring and fall will help fine tune your de-worming protocol. Seasonal changes also occur in the biology of parasites which may influence your individualized de-worming program.
One last note to consider is that an increase in laminitis may also occur during our regional transition from summer to fall. Pastures which grow less during the normal summer drought are starting to grow again in the last growth spurt before winter cold temperatures shut it down again. This fall greening may be just enough to push laminitis prone horses (those with Cushing’s disease aka. PPID, metabolic syndrome or those who have foundered before) over the edge.
As we roll through autumn and into the winter months many of these same considerations will become even more important in your management for a colic free horse. Water is always on top of the list when temperatures turn frigid. Again, knowing generally how much your horse is drinking on a daily basis is important. Confinement and decreased exercise can be difficult enough for horses used to turn out or steady work. Keep in mind the important relationship between exercise and energy and immediately cut back (or eliminate) those high calorie grain rations if your horse is stuck inside. Increasing forage should be your go to management change if your horse needs extra calories to keep themselves warm. Forage is digested by bacteria in the large intestine creating a better heat source over time than quickly digested concentrates or grains. The horse’s gastrointestinal tract is a marvelous thing, its driving force is a microbial multitude. GI microflora change in response to both diet and environment, keeping them happy is a good way to keep your horse happy too.