Horse Colic

Information on equine colic symptoms, such as cramps, gas and digestive problems in horses.

equine colic symptoms and digestive problems in horses

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  1. What is Horse Colic?
  2. What Causes Horse Colic?
  3. Diagnosing Horse Colic
  4. Help for Horse Colic
  5. More Information on Horse Colic

What is Horse Colic?

Colic in horses is a term used to describe abdominal pain caused by some disruption of the horse’s digestive system. This pain may range from mild discomfort to agonizing pain that may in fact be life threatening.

Strictly speaking, equine colic is a clinical symptom rather than an actual diagnosis and it is caused by a number of underlying problems varying from severe gastro-intestinal conditions, to eating too much food too fast. Whatever the cause; horse colic is often a medical emergency and remains the leading cause of natural deaths in horses.

Horse colic can usually be divided into 3 types, intestinal dysfunction, intestinal accidents and enteritis or ulcerations.
  • Intestinal Dysfunction occurs when the horse’s digestive tract is not functioning properly for some reason. It could mean that the horse has digestive impaction, paralysis or even excessive gas which results in colic. This type of colic is the most common among horses.
  • Intestinal Accidents include any injuries that may have occurred to the intestine and may include intestinal tears, hernias and displacements. This type of colic is less common and often requires swift veterinary attention and emergency surgery.
  • Enteritis or Ulcerations are often the result of infections, inflammation and gastro-intestinal diseases and is often caused by parasites and stress.



There are a number of signs that may suggest your horse is in pain and may have colic. The first signs of equine digestion problems noticed by horse owners will be changes in personality and behavior. Horses with colic are uneasy and may exhibit behavior problems during training. They often lose interest in food and water, and may generally come across as lethargic and depressed.

Other horse colic symptoms include:
  • Rolling excessively
  • Sweating
  • Pawing or scrapping
  • Kicking, looking at or biting their belly
  • Stretching out as if to urinate
  • Pacing
  • Repeated "flehmen" response or grimacing
  • Repeated lying down and rising
  • Grinding teeth
  • Sitting or lying down
  • Somber mood
  • Slightly increased temperature
  • Decrease or total lack of appetite
  • Inability to defecate
  • Little or no stomach gurgling


What Causes Horse Colic?

Colic can be caused by a number of things all varying in severity. Some of the common causes include:

  • Sand ingestion (Sand Colic) – Horses fed on sandy surfaces may ingest large amounts of sand over time. This sand builds up in the system and will eventually result in intestinal discomfort and colic.
  • Over-feeding
  • Parasite infestations
  • Changes in feeding routines, or an irregular feeding routine
  • Sudden changes in diet
  • Moldy or rotten feed
  • Ingestion of inedible materials such as sticks, stones, plastic, or wood.
  • Fine grain (this sometimes packs together and causes intestinal blockage.
  • Twisted intestines, which is a very serious condition that includes strangulation, incarceration and intussusception of the intestine. This often requires surgery to fix.

Diagnosing Horse Colic

If you suspect that your horse has colic, it is essential to call your horse’s vet for advice on treatment. Even what seems like a mild case of colic can quickly become serious and life-threatening. Your vet will ask for a detailed history of your horse and will need to know when the symptoms started.

There are also a number of diagnostic tests that can help to determine the underlying cause of the colic and help your vet determine whether treatment should be medicinal or surgical. Diagnostic tests that you may expect include checking heart rate, rectal examination, abdominocentesis, auscultation and fecal examination.

Help for Horse Colic

Treatment of horse colic will ultimately depend on the underlying cause. Fortunately, most cases of colic can be treated with intestinal lubricants, pain relievers or simple procedures such as water lavage, nasogastric tubing or intravenous fluids.

Banamine is often the pain reliever of choice, and while it is very effective at relieving pain, it may mask the pain of severe colic that requires surgery. In some cases surgery is necessary and may involve resection of damaged intestinal tissue.

More Information on Horse Colic

Tips for horse colic

While some horses may simply be predisposed to getting colic, and not all cases can be prevented, there are a number of measures you can take to help reduce the chances of your horse getting colic.

  • Changes in feeding or feeding routines may predispose your horse to colic. Try keep to a feeding routine and a high quality diet that is nutritious, high in roughage and low in concentrate. Also make sure that your horse has access to plenty of fresh, clean water.
  • Try to feed your horse small amounts more frequently, rather than supplying one large meal. If your horse is too hungry by the time feeding comes, he may eat too quickly or eat too much which may cause colic.
  • If you need to change your horse’s diet, do so gradually.
  • Do not feed your horse on sandy surfaces where sand may be ingested.
  • Make parasite control a priority and determine their effectiveness with regular fecal examinations.
  • Make sure your horse is getting sufficient daily exercise and if changes are made to exercise or training routines, make sure they are done gradually.
  • Avoid the use of medications unless absolutely necessary and recommended by your vet. Many medications, especially pain relief medication can cause ulcers.
  • Check hay, bedding, and pastures regularly for any potentially toxic or hazardous substances or objects that may be ingested.
  • Reduce your horses stress levels. Pay special attention during transportation, show time, and heavy work loads, or while your horse adjusts to a new home as these are often times of stress for your horse.
  • Longer turn-out times have been associated with reduced colic, so consider extending turn-out time if possible.
  • If your horse has colic, try walking him or her to ease the discomfort. However, do not walk your horse to the point of exhaustion.
  • Never administer pain drugs for colic without first consulting your vet. This may mask symptoms and make it difficult or impossible for your vet to diagnose the problem.
  • Never let a horse with colic roll. If they have a twisted intestine rolling may cause serious damage. Rather try and get your horse up and walking.
  • Keep in mind that a horse in pain may be dangerous and may hurt you unintentionally. Caution should therefore always be exercised around a colicking horse.


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