Colic is one of the most common equine ailments. Knowing the symptoms, causes and treatment of colic in horses can help guard against this potentially fatal condition. Colic is not a disease. It is, in fact, a collection of symptoms indicating abdominal pain. In simple terms colic is the equine equivalent to a tummy ache, but colic is not at all a simple matter. There are many types of colic, with over fifty different causes. No case of colic should be taken lightly and if colic is suspected, a call to the vet is in order.

Types of Colic:

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic is normally diet-related, caused by eating poor-quality food, improperly chewed feed, water deprivation or poor teeth. Horse can also have impaction caused by ingesting too much sand (ie drinking from a stream with a sandy bottom), or impaction caused by a parasite infestation.

The horse with impaction colic will have an anxious expression, elevated pulse and respiration, pale mucous membranes and abdominal pain. For mild cases, withholding food and hay but encouraging the horse to drink will be sufficient to soften the impaction and allow it to pass. More severe cases require more aggressive treatment, including sedation, hydration (either via stomach tube or IV), and stool softener.

Flatulent Colic

Flatulent colic can be either primary (gaseous indigestion, caused by overindulging in lush grass or grain), or secondary, which accompanies a bowel obstruction. In both cases, the horse appears bloated, and if you tap his stomach, a hollow sound can be heard. Louder, high-pitched sounds will be heard via stethoscope.

Administering an analgesic (such as banamine) for the pain, and walking to encourage the passing of gas is often a successful treatment for the primary type. For secondary, surgery may be required to remove the blockage.

Spasmodic Colic

Spasmodic colic is caused by contractions of the bowel, often triggered by anxiety, of as the result of a hot horse being allowed to drink too much cold water. The horse suffering from spasmodic colic will demonstrate his discomfort by rolling, pawing, shaking and kicking.

Loud, rushing bowel sounds can be heard. Most horse will recover from spasmodic colic on their own, but if no improvement is noted within an hour, treat as for primary flatulent colic.

Signs and Symptoms of Colic:

The symptoms a horse exhibits may vary due to the type of colic, but in almost all cases the colicking horse will show signs of anxiety indicating that something is amiss.

  • Swishing of the tail (more than usual)
  • Turning his head to look back at his flanks and belly
  • Excessive pawing
  • Getting up and lying down frequently
  • Rolling
  • Kicking at his belly

symptoms of colic in horses

If You Suspect Colic:

  1. Take your horse’s pulse (an elevated pulse is a sign of pain)
  2. Check the stall and paddock for signs of manure (if there isn’t any, this could be a sign of trouble)
  3. Call the vet immediately. Don’t take a “wait and see” approach. Colic is always a potential emergency.
  4. If your horse rolling violently, keep him walking to keep him on his feet*
  5. Take away his food/hay, but allow him as much water as he’d like

*To Walk or Not to Walk

The jury is still out on the question of whether it is helpful to keep a horse walking during a colic episode. In some cases, walking can facilitate the release of gas. In other cases, walking will only serve to exhaust the horse, making him more uncomfortable.

If you are uncertain, seek the advice of your vet. There is also some debate as to whether the horse should be allowed to lie down. Conventional wisdom used to dictate that the horse should be kept on his feet, but many vets will agree that unless a horse is rolling violently to the point that he might hurt himself, he can be allowed to lie down and even have a little roll or two.

Treatment of Colic:

In general, the vet will listen to the gut sounds, measure pulse, respiration, and the colour of the gums, and check for distention of the stomach (via a stomach tube) or an impaction (via the rectum) to help determine the type and severity of colic.

Once the type and severity are determined, your vet will administer analgesics (such as Banamine) to help ease the pain. He might also attempt to soften the horse’s stool with mineral oil or another laxative (via a stomach tube).

If the colic is serious and your vet feels surgery might be required, then get ready for a trip to your nearest equine hospital. Otherwise, treatment can take place at home. Be prepared to stay near your horse for the next couple of days until you and your vet are certain he’s out of the woods.

Your vet will likely want to come back and do a re-check within twenty-four hours, and possibly administer more pain medication and/or laxatives.

In the meantime, short walks combined with grazing on some nice grass will help to jump-start your horse’s digestive system. Otherwise, keeping him relatively confined (in a well-bedded, comfortable stall or small paddock) is a good idea. This way you can keep an eye on whether or not he’s passing manure and drinking water.

The Best Cure is Prevention:

Prevention of colic starts with good stable management. By following the rules of good feeding, keeping your de-worming and dentistry regimes up to date, and ensuring that your horse has access to fresh clean water, you can help keep colic away.

Especially in winter, when water becomes freezing cold or buckets ice over, horses might not drink enough water. By installing heated buckets, or providing warm water for drinking, you can help to make sure your horse is getting the water he needs. Be vigilant in keeping track of how much water your horse is drinking, and if he is not drinking normally, figure out why and correct the problem before it leads to colic.

Remember that any case of colic is potentially serious. It is important to know what is “normal” for your horse, and to act swiftly when you notice behaviour that is out of the ordinary. If your horse is displaying any of the signs and symptoms of colic, call your vet. When it comes to colic in horses, you’re always better safe than sorry.

Has your horse ever colicked? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!