Does a change in the weather really cause horses to colic?
Perhaps we should all find a big grain of salt here… And before I even get started, I’ll preface this with saying that there are actual studies that say “yes” and actual studies that say “no” and then there’s the happy medium of just learning a little bit more and keeping your eyes peeled and then it won’t matter what the weather is doing. And to be ultra, super, ridiculously clear here, it’s important to remember that correlation (being related to) and causation (definitely being the reason why) are not the same. There is some correlation between weather and colic in horses, but very little research that can prove causation. So, we carry on… and work with what we do know.
71 degrees to 36 degrees in two days?
Here’s the deal with weather. I believe that humans react to it much more than animals. We have the luxury of climate control, horses live outside and that’s all they know. So when the weather changes, a few things happen that MAY relate to a horse getting colic - and sometimes it’s the barn management that gets in the way.
- Water intake. Some horses drink less when the weather is cold. It has actually been shown that horses like to drink cold water, but they don’t drink enough of it. When presented with warmer water, they will drink more. So when the weather changes, from warm to cold, let’s say, they might drink less. This is a factor in colic.
Obviously, your horse will have trouble drinking when the water trough is frozen.
- Moving around. Oh no, it’s getting cold, bring the horses in and button down the hatches. While in some cases this is a good idea, like wicked lightning or icy ground, this restricts how much moving your horse will do. Knowing that moving helps your horse’s gut stay moving, this may relate to colic.
- Your horse’s temperature. Horses are great at regulating their body temperatures. Assuming they have adequate, high quality forage and options to get out of the wind, most horses are great. However…. there are plenty of reasons to blanket and clip horses and most of us have some variation of a clipping/blanketing routine. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We get into trouble when we decide a cold front (or warm front) needs more or less blankets, and we over/under blanket, affecting our horse’s body temperature. (TPR deets can be found here) You guessed it - a possible factor in colic. An easy way to monitor our horse’s temperature is to use a thermometer. This will tell you if he’s hot or cold.
- Is his exercise routine varied because of the weather? I’m a bit hard core, I’ll ride when the temps are below 20 just to move my horse around. But if we can’t get to the barn or we just don’t want to ride in fluctuating weather (I know the wind + silly young horse struggle is real), your horse’s mobility will go down. Similar to being in a barn longer than usual to avoid weather, this decreased mobility can affect his gut and digestive system.
- On the flip side, a warm spell while he still has a furry coat can also create overheating and colic risk factor problems. Just because you can finally ride in a t-shirt doesn’t mean your winter coated horse will be enjoying the warm temps.
- And what about his diet? It’s very tempting if the weather changes to add more of his concentrated foods, or maybe give him a bran mash. Any change to your horse’s diet, regardless of the weather, can impact his gut mobility and health. So keep things on track as they normally are. If you need to add some forage to help him stay warm, be sure it’s the same type that he normally gets! This article here details my dislike of wheat bran mashes.
The thermometer is always your friend.
So, in a nutshell, we can’t prove that weather causes colic, but we can certainly say that horse management changes during weather changes may lead to colic. At any rate, just keep paying attention and being smart about monitoring your horse’s vital signs and water intake. If you would like to learn more about colic and what to tell your Vet, read this gem!