About winter and colic


Our horses are doing great. We have had an unusually warm autumn here in Sotardalen and not until the latest week the temperature has dropped down to around 0°C/32°F. When this shift in season happens there are often reports about horses showing symptoms of constipation colic.

Colic is a very dangerous symptom for horses; it is the most common cause of death. At one large stable not so far from these parts 25% of the horses are suffering from more or less severe symptoms. Keeping horses safe and healthy is a constant concern for every horse person and as being blessed with three Nokota horses as full members of our closest family we always share that concern.

It seems that the causes behind colic are not quite understood, probably because there are different causes and different kinds of colic. Some of the causes can be found in feeding, housing, care, health, climate, physical characteristics, and parasites. Constipation colic is when a horse get impacted and it can happen for a number of reasons, but a combination of dehydration and decrease of exercise may lead to an impacted content in the intestinal tract and eventually a blockage.


We are just simple horse people and have no degrees in the veterinary sciences, but the way I figure it horses living under domestication in an environment controlled by humans are due to certain unnatural circumstances. I am just a layman in this area so take these following ramblings as what they are, but as I come to think of it; some horses live under circumstances that seem like a perfect recipe for colic, i.e.:

  • Many horses are restricted to four hours a day outdoors often in a small corral and twenty hours in stall, only interrupted by maybe a few moments of hard exercise a week.
  • Feeding procedures often means that a full ration of hay and grains are given three times a day, same amount each time, each day, regardless of season.
  • Horses tend to drink less water in winter to reduce heat loss, especially if the water is ice cold.

Free living wild horses spend basically all hours searching for food, which means free movement in slow to moderate intensity and slow feeding.

The common recommendation to keep a domesticated horse at a constant weight is another manmade problem. Wild horses vary their weight over the year; in spring and early summer horses gain weight as they eat a lot of nourishing grass and legumes. When the summer turns into autumn grazing weakens in content and availability, then in winter very little remains and life on the plains becomes a test of endurance and by the end of winter many horses are undernourished with visible ribs. During low temperatures wild horses probably drink less to prevent heat loss, but that is combined with low food availability and unceasing search for food.


We keep our Nokota horses out on pasture year-round 24-7. The stable is always open and our horses chose freely where to stay. We cannot let our horses starve during winter so we feed them as usual four times a day, but we soak the hay in buckets of lukewarm water. We are careful never to overfeed during winter; rather too little than too much, and no grains. We let our horses gain some weight during summer and it is okay if they gradually lose some weight during winter, but we check them on a daily basis.

We do not use an electrically heated water bucket, but since the hose is frozen we carry fresh clean lukewarm water by the bucket to our horses four times a day, just to encourage our horses to drink more water. As I recon, it always pays off to keep the horses happy; it is what we are here for.


6 thoughts on “About winter and colic

  1. Our horses in Wyoming are pastured at night so they graze all night. Boy in the spring when the grass is rich and green they put on weight like crazy. We have six, but of the 50 or so there we never see colic. In 30 years with 50 horses a year, I recall one or two instances.

    At a barn in Ohio where my daughter worked with horses they had colic all the time.

    So I think you are on to something, in a non-grazing environment feeding should be carefully managed.

    The other thing that’s interesting is that none of the horses out West seem prone to founder even though they are eating all night. I suppose if they got into a grain field it would be different, but on
    the mountain they’re limited to grass and the natural other food. We do supplement if a horse is
    older or is too thin, and use a vitamin block or might have to bring in hay at the end of the season
    if it’s a dry year.

    Always look forward to reading about your horses and how you care for them.


  2. Great article. I totally agree with your thoughts. Also, in the wild the mustangs that colics doesn’t survive to breed, hence the mustangs that live are not prone to colic. I love that you’re keeping them as “natural” as possible. That is undoubtedly the best way to have happy and healthy horses.


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