Spring Weather

Published on Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:17pm

And its special horse management challenges


Spring brings gorgeous weather and new sprouts of grass out in the field, both welcome revelations to horse owners who have grumbled through a long winter of snow and frozen water tanks. Unfortunately, the seasonal warm-up is not all good news for backyard horse owners—it can bring with it a new set of veterinary issues to watch for.


Although colic can strike at any time of the year, the reemergence of rich, young grass provides a new potential cause. Colic is a term for generalized abdominal pain, but that pain could have a variety of causes, with the more serious cases being life threatening.

Mild colic can be caused by a gas bubble or slow-moving feed, while more serious (and rare) causes could include a twisted or ruptured intestine. No horse is immune to colic, which can strike even in the most well-managed barns, but there are a few things owners can do to try to minimize the likelihood that colic will happen.

Veterinarians recommend establishing a daily routine of feeding, exercise and turnout—it’s believed that deviations from the normal schedule can cause intestinal upset in horses. Horses should be given a high-quality diet made up mostly of pasture or hay, with grain given as a supplement in two or three small feedings per day. Any changes to the horse’s exercise, diet, or turnout should be made gradually, especially as fresh pasture emerges. Provide fresh, clean water at all times to keep the horse hydrated and the intestines moving as they should. Pay attention to weather changes, too: A horse with a thinner coat or less body fat may need more diligent blanketing or barn time during sudden cold spells.

Perhaps most importantly, learn to recognize the signs of colic. Only 10 percent of colic cases become severe enough to prompt surgery or cause death, but symptoms tend to be similar between mild and serious cases, so it’s vital to realize when a horse is uncomfortable. Symptoms of colic can vary by horse, but most often include pawing, rolling, kicking or biting at flanks, depression, lack of appetite, elevated heart rate, and sweating.

If you notice symptoms of colic, contact your veterinarian immediately and follow their instructions for treatment, which may include a dose of the anti-inflammatory drug flunixin. Keep the horse walking and do not offer feed or water until the veterinarian arrives.

Skin issues

Although your horse may be grateful for time spent outdoors without a winter blanket, spring’s warm rains can cause skin disease. Two of the most common issues relating to the skin are rainrot, also called rain scald, and dew poisoning, also called scratches. Rainrot is a bacterial infection that is happiest in moist environments, as the name implies. It manifests as scabby crusts that slough off from raised bubbles of matted hair.

Rainrot is likely painful for horses, and can result in significant hair loss. The first stage in treatment is getting the horse dried off, followed by shampoos of the affected area with an over-the-counter disinfectant shampoo. If you can loosen the scabs during the bath, removing them can help speed healing as it allows air to the reach the infected areas. Don’t pull or pick at dry scabs, though, since this will likely be uncomfortable and could cause bleeding.

Dew poisoning most often manifests on the horse’s lower legs and ankles as a crusty, crumbling set of scabs that are usually concentrated on the hind legs. The scabs may fall off, leaving bleeding areas that look like scratches. If allowed to persist, the scratches can cause enough pain to create lameness.

Dew poisoning may be caused by mites, bacteria, or fungus. Since it’s often unclear which is the culprit, it’s best to attack on all fronts: Remove the horse from the wet environment and clip the hair around the infected area; and wash the scabs with clorhexadine (which addresses fungus and bacterial infections) or providone-iodine solution. You can also use aloe vera-soaked wraps to soften scabs.

If either skin condition causes serious swelling or lameness, contact your veterinarian. He may recommend anti-inflammatories or oral antibiotics.


One day a horse is sound, the next he’s three-legged lame, hobbling through the spring mud. In most cases, this overnight transformation is the result of a hoof abscess. The sudden and somewhat dramatic transition is often alarming to horse owners, but most abscesses resolve without long-term repercussions.

Abscesses happen when bacteria gains access to the hoof through a crack or old nail hole. The horse’s body responds to the invasion by creating pus, which builds and puts pressure on the interior tissues of the hoof. The inflammation and increased blood flow results in warmth in the foot and a detectable pulse in the hoof (you should not be able to feel a pulse when touching the surface of a healthy hoof).

Eventually, the infection will work its way to the surface of the hoof, creating a break where the pus can drain out. Many farriers and veterinarians recommend applying an Epsom salt pack or icthamol bandage to the foot to encourage drainage. After the abscess has “blown,” apply a antiseptic hoof pack with an iodine-based solution until the drainage ceases and the break is dry. Horses should show improvement in 24 hours. If the problem persists, contact your farrier or veterinarian.