Observant Management Can Help Avoid Issues as Seasons Change
In a perfect world, we'd have unlimited riding time and perfect weather year-round. In case you hadn't noticed, that's not where we live.
Conscientious horse owners know that each season brings its own set of unique challenges. Keeping horses healthy and happy requires being proactive and taking steps beforehand to hopefully avoid concerns.
Veterinarians routinely see an increase in calls about horses dealing with digestive upset during sudden weather changes.
"Although there is scant information in the scientific literature supporting this, we do see more digestive upsets with sudden weather changes," acknowledges Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS, who is Director of Technical Services for Farnam.
Godbee says that this happens more often during the spring and fall when the temperatures can change dramatically within a 24-hour period as weather fronts move into an area. Although some people blame this on abrupt changes in barometric pressure, Godbee believes such digestive disturbances are not just related to one thing.
"Digestive disturbances are observed more often in warm/hot weather changing to cold weather," he notes. "Often, we move horses to stalls from being on pasture or large paddocks during this time. Decreasing exercise will alter gut motility and this may lead to gastrointestinal upset. Also, as the temperature drops, water temperature drops and horses tend to consume less water if the water temperature drops below 45°F."
Although hydration is crucial year-round, it's especially important to ensure that horses are drinking enough during times of extreme weather fluctuation. Godbee finds that judicious use of electrolytes is a good way to help horses maintain water intake, no matter the season.
To prevent horses from gorging themselves when first turned out, feed hay first. This will help decrease overeating of lush grass.
Studies have shown that wearing a grazing muzzle limits a horse's grass intake by as much as 85 percent. They can still eat some grass, but not enough to overwhelm the digestive system. Wearing a grazing muzzle also allows a horse to enjoy the benefits of exercise at pasture and socializing with other horses, without the concern that he will overeat.
Horses tend to drink less water if it is very cold or very warm. Studies have shown they prefer water at around 68° F. If you live in a region with cold winters, you should take steps to warm water in the winter enough that it encourages intake. For example, heated buckets or stock tank heaters won't make water hot, but will take off the chill so horses will be more inclined to drink.
Tip #1: Monitor Body Condition Score Year Round
It's much easier to maintain a horse in healthy condition than to have to put on weight or take it off. Get familiar with the Henneke Body Condition Score chart (easily accessed with an online search on your computer or phone). Scores range from "1" (very poor) to "9" (obese). A healthy adult horse should be a "6" or "7," although some very fit equine athletes may score a "5" but still be in good health. If you don’t see visible ribs, the horse’s condition score is “5,” which is considered “moderate,” or higher. Looks can be deceiving, so use your hands to palpate the horse's body when checking condition. If you have any concerns about whether your horse is too fat or too thin, talk to your veterinarian.
Tip #2: Probiotics Can Help During Weather Changes
In order for digestion to occur properly, the horse's hindgut requires a healthy population of beneficial microorganisms. Many things can interfere with this population of beneficial bacteria, including antibiotics, change of feed, stress, travel, seasonal changes, etc. Use of a good probiotic supplement can help keep the beneficial bacteria thriving. Probiotic supplements introduce live bacteria and microbes into the horse’s system in an attempt to maintain the population of “good bugs” in the gut. Some supplements also contain prebiotics, which are nondigestible carbohydrates that serve as food sources for the beneficial bacteria. It's a good idea to use a probiotic supplement when your horse is under stress for any reason, after a course of antibiotics, when you are changing feed, or during seasonal changes.