Winter weather doesn’t seem to be ready to let us enjoy the sunshine just yet. With that in mind, we aren’t quite ready to let go of our winter warnings and considerations. Two real concerns like to rear their heads in the winter, colic and water consumption. Are they one in the same? Are they two separate issues? Is it the chicken and the egg all over again? Yes, no, yes, no, yes… sometimes… As most horse owners know, hay is often a vital part of a feeding program to keep horses healthy and meeting dietary requirements through the winter months. Likewise, water is always a vital part of a horse’s day. (It is the number one essential nutrient after all!) So what really happens in winter to upset the apple cart and lead something seemingly so simple into chaos? Just like most things in life, normally it is multiple factors and not simply one cause or culprit, but we are going to try to tease apart each in an effort to decrease the likelihood of running into these issues in our barns.

Not all hay is created equal.

I said it. We all know it. Yes, alfalfa inherently has a higher nutritional value when compared with something like a bahiagrass hay. Several factors affect the quality of the hay: cultivar, maturity at cutting, storage, fertilization, and the list goes on. So yes, from farm to farm and cutting to cutting, hay quality may vary. These differences in quality can often lead to digestive issues if you are not aware or check quality before feeding.

What is the one hay most Georgia horse owners stay away from to prevent the dreaded ‘C’ word? Coastal bermudagrass… Let’s start by setting the record straight: Coastal bermudagrass is not unsafe or nutritionally inadequate for your horse given it is forage tested and appropriately fed. So why does it get such a horrible reputation for colic among horse owners? It is finer stemmed when compared to some forage options which can result in impaction, it is a dry forage which requires adequate water intake and it is one of the most commonly fed hay types. The most common hay type fed to the most horses naturally means this will be the number one forage for colic just because of the numbers alone. As long as the nutritive value is satisfactory to the classification of horse as determined by a forage test conducted through your local Extension office, you should be able to safely feed it with proper management.

Water is essential.

That shouldn’t be national news or something new, but in the winter, it can be more difficult to prioritize. Some horses may be more opinionated about their water intake during the colder months. Some decide ice water does not quite suite their fancy during blanket weather. Can you really blame them? What are your options? Water heaters can be utilized but can pose hazards that many choose to avoid. Insulated buckets and troughs can be created rather easily from materials found around the barn such as towels, hay or foam. If ice water is not the issue but your horse’s water intake seems lower than it should, consider adding small amounts (we are talking sprinkles to start) of salt or supplement to daily feeding to naturally encourage water consumption. Following a trick of the trade from many competitors in various equine disciplines, you can offer electrolyte water (think of your favorite sports drink which offers an electrolyte boost). Just be sure to always offer fresh unaltered water simultaneously to allow your horse to not consume more electrolytes than necessary. If more drastic measures become needed, you can administer electrolyte paste to get your horse to desire a refreshing drink.

The bottom line is simple. We think about water intake all the time in the heat of the summer, but the importance of water never wanes, it is just as important to our horses in the winter. What happens when water intake decreases and dry hay consumption increases? Often the result is impaction colic. There just is not water moving the forage through the system. When lower quality hay or even large quantities of hay is coupled with lower water intake, impaction colic can swiftly follow. Many may be too hasty to blame solely the hay or hay producer when in reality, it was hay, feeding strategy and water intake that all likely played a part in creating the problem. So as we continue to dip into lower temperatures and feed the remaining portions of hay in the barns before spring grass appears, remember to keep the hay quality high, water intake constant and always consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to ensure colic isn’t lurking around the corner.

Brooklyne Wassel, Pike County Extension Coordinator & Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent