5 Tips to Prevent Spring Colic

5 Tips to Prevent Spring Colic

Posted by Bluebonnet Feeds on Apr 18th 2023

Spring showers don't just bring flowers; they also promote the growth of lush green grass.

Combined with warmer weather, the increased risk of colic is a fear shared by many horse owners each spring. The good news is that this risk can be reduced with some easy-to-follow practices.

5 Tips To Keep Your Horse Healthy & Happy This Spring

  1. Gradually transition horses onto spring pastures
  2. Encourage drinking with electrolytes
  3. Offer high-fiber grazing options with plenty of roughage
  4. Monitor and maintain body condition
  5. Watch your horse for signs of colic and gastric distress

1. Gradually transition horses onto spring pastures

While the image of your horse grazing out on a lush, green pasture is a beautiful one - it can also be dangerous. Come springtime, the sugar levels of pasture grass can spike rapidly. This quick change can shock a horse’s digestive system and increase the risk of colic.

Why the change? When grass photosynthesizes (produces energy from sunlight to grow), sugar is produced. Warmer temps and longer days are just the cues needed to bring grass out of its dormant state, and jumpstart photosynthesis, which means more sugar.

For the average, otherwise healthy horse, this sugar may cause digestive issues and increased risk of colic, for a variety of reasons:

  • eating more sugar than the body can use as energy
  • upsetting the natural balance of gut bacteria
  • disrupting the healthy pH levels in the hindgut

Risks Of Eating More Sugar Than Your Horse’s Body Can Use

Sugar is a use-it-or-lose-it type of energy source. The body can break sugar down into energy (glucose) very quickly, but if this energy is more than the horse needs at the time it doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Think of the excess glucose as a couch potato, just sitting on a lounge chair in the small intestine - while your horse’s body is desperately trying to evict them, with as little drama as possible. Ideally, this eviction comes in the form of eventually using this glucose as energy.

Though, more often the body has to:

  • store what it can of the excess, in the muscles and liver
  • or excrete it as waste

To move the excess glucose into the bloodstream or out through the digestive tract, it needs to be diluted. So, more water is pulled into the intestinal tract. With more water being used to process this extra sugar, horse’s often suffer from diarrhea, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Sugar-Spikes Upsetting The Natural Balance Of Gut Bacteria

To put it simply, there are beneficial, or “good”, bacteria and “bad” bacteria that coexist in a single neighborhood (the hindgut). When the “bad” bacteria don’t outnumber the “good”, everyone lives harmoniously and the body functions as it should. The populations of each bacteria largely depend on their “food supply” - in very simplistic terms, fiber generally feeds the “good” bacteria and sugar generally feeds the “bad”.

Grass that’s high in sugar is usually also low in fiber.

So, when a horse eats lush pastures they’re consuming more sugar than fiber, meaning the harmful bacteria have a growth advantage over the beneficial ones. These “bad” bacteria process the sugar through fermentation, producing both gas and organic acids.

This imbalance in the gut, from the overpopulation of harmful bacteria, can cause inflammation, irritation in the gut lining, and increase the risk of gas colic. If you are concerned about an imbalance, we recommend the help of a pre, pro, and postbiotic.

Sudden Increases In Sugar Levels Disrupt pH Levels In The Hindgut

The same acids produced during the fermentation of excess sugar, throws off the pH of the hind gut (by making it more acidic). Harmful bacteria thrive in more acidic environments, while beneficial in more alkaline, so this shift essentially doubles-down on the digestive risks mentioned above.

Studies suggest that the optimal pH range for the equine hindgut can vary from horse to horse, but often between 6.0 and 7.4, with some variations depending on the region of the hindgut*.

Spring turnout tip: To avoid these issues, it's important to introduce your horse to spring pasture over the course of several days or weeks. Start with short periods of turnout on the new grass, and increase the amount of time your horse spends on it each day. This will give their digestive system time to adjust and avoid sudden changes.

Generally speaking, pasture sugar levels are at their lowest before the sun rises in the early morning and highest after a full day of sun exposure. When managing grass intake, it’s best to turn horses out very early in the morning and pull them off grass by noon.

2. Encourage drinking with electrolytes

Electrolyte deficiencies and dehydration increases the risk of colic.

Horses tend to drink less water when it’s cold, and take time to adjust as temperatures increase. As spring weather gets warmer, horses may not drink enough water at first.

More heat, more sweat

Since sweat is a horse’s primary cooling mechanism, horse's ability to regulate its body temperature is largely dependent on its hydration status and electrolyte levels. So, as temperatures increase and your horse is still working to drink more water, they’re also losing more through sweat - making for a perfect dehydration-storm.

Electrolytes are lost through sweat. and studies have shown that, even when turned out with little activity, horses in hot weather can lose over 1 gallon of sweat per hour.

A horse's ability to regulate its body temperature is largely dependent on its hydration status and electrolyte levels.

More Electrolytes, More water

Dehydration can further compound the problem of overheating (yes, even in mild spring temperatures).

Under normal conditions, a horse at maintenance in average temperatures, should drink around 6 gallons of water per day for every 1000 lbs. Keep in mind exercise and heat dramatically increase the amount of water your horse needs.

Whether your horses are just turned out or are being exercised, they will need plenty of salt, and likely a well-balanced electrolyte supplement.

Sodium is what creates your horse’s desire to drink, and is the electrolyte lost the most through sweat. If your horse is low on sodium, they have less desire to drink - making it extremely difficult to help a horse recover from dehydration.

Tips to increase sodium:

  • Provide access to a white salt (loose or in a salt block) 24/7
  • Monitor their consumption to ensure they’re consuming at least 2 tablespoons per day
  • Expect your horse to not consume enough salt on their own - supplementation may be required

Providing electrolytes can stimulate the horse's thirst response, encouraging them to drink more water and prevent dehydration. We love Stride Animal Health’s Turbo Mag BCAAas a source of electrolytes, and to help maintain metabolic pH.

Important note: Be sure to check labels for added sugar levels in your electrolyte supplements, as this can exacerbate the issue of spring pastures.

3. Provide plenty of roughage

Horses are designed to eat constantly throughout the day.

If deprived of food for a mere one to two hours, horses can experience gastrointestinal discomfort (an upset stomach). The horse’s stomach is mostly empty about 6 hours after being fed, with nearly all the larger fibrous particles passing within 12 hours. Make sure your horse has access to plenty of roughage throughout the day, especially if they are spending more time in a stall due to weather or other factors.

More roughage also helps keep the digestive system moving, which can prevent impactions. It also provides a source of fiber that promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.

To simulate grazing behavior and saliva production (which helps buffer stomach acid and aids digestion) we recommend hay nets or slow feeders. Not only do slow feeders reduce waste and extend eating time, they can actually have a calming effect on the horse. In a study by the University of Minnesota, horses fed using hay nets ate up to 74% slower.

4. Monitor and maintain body condition

If your horse starts packing on the pounds when they're out grazing in the springtime, it might be time to give your vet or nutritionist a call.

Make sure your horse is in good shape

Aim for a body condition score between 5 and 6 (moderate) out of 9 on the Henneke scale. Horses with insulin resistance tend to put on more fat around their neck, shoulders, back, butt, and eyes - so watch out for those areas.

Sometimes you'll need to limit your horse's access to the pasture with a grazing muzzle or dry lot, to keep their calorie intake under control.

Provide regular exercise or turnout

If your horse has been less active over the winter, gradually reintroduce them to exercise or turnout. Regular exercise or turnout is important, and supports a horse's digestive health by:

  • Promoting movement of food through the digestive tract, which supports healthy uptake of nutrients and decreases the chance of impaction colic.
  • Improving blood flow to the digestive system for increased delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the cells.
  • Reducing stress, which can have a negative impact on digestion, including the build-up of stomach acid and imbalanced bacteria in the gut.

For horses that need a gut reset - we recommend ADR Paste or ADR Powder

5. Monitor your horse for signs of colic

Even with the best prevention strategies, horses can still colic. If you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, contact your veterinarian immediately. It's important to monitor your horse for signs of colic, such as:

  • Pawing
  • Sweating
  • Rolling
  • Refusing to eat or drink

Other things to watch:

  • Gut sounds: some gurgling or bubbling, specifically on their right side are normal, but a lack of these sounds can be a sign of gastric distress.
  • Vital signs, including temperature, pulse and respiration: Keep a record of your horse’s normal range, to identify any changes during potential emergencies.
  • Capillary refill and “skin tenting”: If you’re concerned about things like dehydration, stress or colic, measure the amount of time it takes for color to come back to your horse’s gums. Or, pinch skin at the point of the shoulder, measuring the time it takes to “snap back”. Both should only take a few seconds to return to normal. Remember, older horses will have less elastic skin than younger horses, so take this into consideration.

Spring into Success

Horse ownership not only comes with great joy, but great responsibility. From managing grazing time to recognizing signs of colic, we’ve offered practical tips for keeping your horse healthy and happy. By prioritizing proper nutrition, hydration, and care, you can ensure that your horse thrives throughout the spring and beyond.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into your horse’s individual needs, set up a FREE nutrition consultation with one of our experts today.

*Julliand, V. and De Vaux, A. (2013). Horse species symposium: microbiome of the horse hindgut: knowledge and future directions. Journal of Animal Science, 91(11), pp.4994-5003.

*Villot, C., Meunier, B., Nosjean, O. and Martin-Rosset, W. (2016). Effect of a high-fiber, reduced-starch, low-fat diet on equine gastric and fecal microbial populations. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 44, pp.45-53.

*Costa, M.C., Arroyo, L.G., Allen-Vercoe, E., Stampfli, H.R. and Kim, P.T., (2015). Starch and sugar catabolism in the hindgut of horses in vitro and in vivo. Journal of Animal Science, 93(3), pp.1045-1058.