Colic Prevention - Introduce Spring Pasture Slowly

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By Jackie Bellamy-Zions, Communications, Equine Guelph

Spring is upon us and so is the prevalence of gas colic. Equine Guelph is sharing many strategies to prevent it.   

First, Equine Guelph recommends that every horse owner refers to its FREE Colic Risk Rater Tool to help them assess their management practices, such as introducing new feeds slowly to reduce their colic risk. An excellent video discussing safe introduction to spring pasture with expert in equine nutrition, Don Kapper, has just been added to the valuable resources housed on the Colic Risk Rater web page.

Horse people are generally good about making changes to their horse’s grain rations over a two-week period. It is understood that an increase in grain means an increase in starch that can cause hindgut issues like colic and diarrhea, and there is also the risk of laminitis. Pasture is not always thought of in the same way, but it should be. Spring grasses are higher in non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs), starch, and sugars like fructan, and low in fibre, especially during rapid growth phases.

A sudden increase of fresh spring grass in a horse’s diet can change the pH in the hindgut and cause all sorts of health issues including colic. Spring grass low in fibre is rapidly fermented, and an overload of starch enters the cecum killing off microbes important to digestion. Kapper says, “The first sign you will see is a loosening of the stools.”

When excessive fermentation creates a buildup of gas in the gut, this is when gas colic can occur. The stretching of the intestinal wall from the gas buildup causes considerable pain.  A veterinarian should be consulted whenever colic is suspected.  Gas colic is often mild, but it can also lead to a twist in the gut that would require surgery.

To keep your horse’s digestive system healthy, the gradual introduction of new forage (including pasture) is very important. The nutritional composition (e.g., the amount of protein, sugars, and types of fibre) varies greatly between forage types, and especially between hay and newly growing spring pasture. The bacteria in a horse’s gut need time to adjust to these changes. 

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Illustration: Ruth Benns

“If the horse is turned out 24/7, Mother Nature will take care of your horse’s gradual introduction to spring pasture,” says Kapper. “The grass grows slowly, and they will continue eating hay on the side.”

For the horse that is stabled, the stable manager must limit the amount of new growth the horse is exposed to in the pasture on a daily basis. First, let the grass paddock grow to approximately six inches. You may start with just one hour of turnout per day on the lush grass pasture before putting them back in their sacrifice paddock or drylot where they have been all winter.  You can slowly increase that by 30 minutes to an hour every other day.

Consider turnout very early in the morning when NSC concentrations are lower (NSC concentrations increase throughout the day with increasing sunlight). However, if there has been frost overnight, NSCs will accumulate in the grass. In this instance you want to restrict turnout.

Kapper makes a clear distinction between the management of horses diagnosed with metabolic issues and the rest of your herd. The metabolic horse requires a diet low in NSCs and may be best managed on a drylot, with hay as the only forage. Always work with your veterinarian when planning the best options for care of the metabolic horse.

Kapper also discusses weed control and pasture maintenance.  Horses generally avoid poisonous plants unless there is nothing else to eat. Being diligent with pasture maintenance pays off, not only in the reduction of weeds but in the ability to use your pasture to help fulfill your horses forage needs.  

With a high moisture content than hay, there is great value in being able to provide pasture to your horses. It is good for your budget and good for your horse’s overall health if introduced with caution.

CapriCMW Insurance Services Ltd. is the generous sponsor of the Colic Risk Rater Tool. Mike King of CapriCMW is a dedicated horseman who believes in the importance of education for horse owners. He addresses why it was so important for his organization to partner with Equine Guelph on this initiative: “Given our decades of experience in insuring horses from coast to coast, we know that colic is one of the highest risk factors for death in the Canadian herd. We can think of no better risk management tool to prevent colic than education.” 

Equine Guelph extends a big thank you to Don Kapper for sharing his expertise. There were so many great tips in this video. Here are the top 10:

  1. Introduce spring grass gradually, with increases of 30 minutes to an hour every other day.
  2. NSC concentrations are lower early in the morning except when overnight frost occurs.
  3. Keep hay in front of your horse at all times. Chew time = saliva = healthy pH in the gut, and reduces the chance of digestive issues.
  4. As little as four hours without forage can have a negative impact on gut health.
  5. Signs of not enough fibre: loose stools, and eating dirt, fences, trees, and manes and tails.
  6. Mow weeds as soon as you see them start to flower (in spring about every three weeks).
  7. When mowing pasture set the mower six inches from the ground.
  8. If stools loosen during a change in forage, brewer’s yeast can provide a good culture for microbes in the horse’s gut.  Prebiotics could also prove useful.
  9. Consult your veterinarian for diet and management advice for metabolic horses; they are very susceptible to issues when starch is even slightly elevated.
  10. Spring pasture maintenance begins with a soil test checking for an ideal pH between 6.5 and 7. From there you will know how much lime to add to improve pH, and what fertilizer to add.  

More tips on getting the most out of your pasture and maintaining your horse’s digestive health in the 27-minute video and at the Colic Risk Rater tool. Watch the Video Here:

Reducing Spring Colic - Equine Guelph

Equine nutritionist Don Kapper (Professional Animal Scientist) is the author of the chapter on Applied Nutrition for the authoritative veterinary textbook Equine Internal Medicine, 2nd edition, and was a member of the Performance Electrolyte Research team at the University of Guelph. He is also a frequent guest speaker in Equine Guelph’s online Nutrition courses and online Gut Health and Colic Prevention course. 

Published with the kind permission of Equine Guelph

Main Photo: Canstock/Virgonira