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Colic: Recognize, Prevent, and Understand

Colic is the number one killer of horses. It can be life threatening in a relatively short period of time.  Quickly and accurately recognizing the signs, and seeking qualified veterinary help can maximize the chance of a horse recovering from colic.


  • Colic is defined as abdominal pain that can range from mild to severe.  There are a myriad of causes, however most fall into one of three groups:

  • Intestinal dysfunction. This is the most common cause, meaning the horse's bowels are not working properly. This includes gas distention, impaction, spasms, and Gastro-Intestinal (GI) paralysis (lack of motility).

  • Intestinal accidents. Fortunately these occur less frequently, but typically are more life threatening, almost always-requiring emergency surgery. This includes displacements, torsions, and bowel strangulations.

  • Enteritis or ulcerations. This is a colic related to inflammation due to infection and/or ulcerations caused by numerous factors including stress, salmonellosis, toxins, and parasites.


  • Signs of Colic: varying greatly between horses, more common signs include:

  • Turning head toward the flank

  • Pawing

  • Kicking or biting abdomen

  • Stretching out as if to urinate without doing so

  • Laying down flat and not interested in food

  • Rolling, getting up and down

  • Absence of, or reduction in, digestive sounds

  • Elevated pulse rate (determine normal for your horse, usually 28-40bpm)

  • Lack of Bowel Movements

  • Lip curling (flehmen response)

If your horse is colicky, remove all food and call Equine Medical Service. Time is perhaps the most critical factor. Sometimes people choose to see if symptoms will pass, and try walking the horse. This approach will only work in horses exhibiting only mild signs, and since time is so critical to successful treatment, it is not recommended to wait until symptoms persist.

While your waiting for the veterinarian take the horse's pulse, respiration, and temperature. Check the color of mucous membranes, note behavior signs such as pawing, etc. Make note of bowel movements including color, consistency and frequency. Recall any recent changes in your horse's routine. Let the horse lie down, only if it appears to be resting quietly. If the horse is rolling or behaving violently walk slowly. Do not administer drugs, including bute or banamine, unless a veterinarian advises to do so. Medications will alter the physical exam performed by vet, frequently masking a more critical colic that may require aggressive therapy or surgery, resulting in a time delay and reducing success of treatment.

Impaction colic is a common cause of abdominal pain. Impaction is defined as obstruction of the bowels; this may be either large colon or small colon. Impactions can occur in association with temperature change (which can result in reduction of water consumption and altered exercise regime) poor teeth and change in feeding routine. This leads to the upset of normal intestinal motility patterns. Sand impactions occur more frequently in certain geographic locations, drought years, and inquisitive, bored, mouthy horses, or horses lacking adequate quality pasture or hay. Enteroliths (stones) can also cause obstruction, almost always-requiring surgery. These GI stones are found more often in the southwest and California due to minerals found in the soil. However, they are not unheard of here in Colorado. Foreign non- digestible material is another cause of obstruction. An example of this is horses eating rubberized or nylon fencing when it begins to unravel.

Most horses with impaction colic will respond to medical treatment involving administration of laxatives, fluids, and pain reducers. At times a severe impaction occurs and the signs of distress in the horse worsen with continued abdominal pain, increased heart and respiratory rates, and signs of shock. This escalating condition may mean that the patient's original problem is becoming more severe or that the colic has undergone additional complications, such as a displacement of the colon, and that surgery is the only cure.

  • Management to Help Prevent Colic

  • While horses are predisposed to colic due to anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. Horses are designed to graze on grass pasture most of the day, therefore feeding a quality diet comprised primarily of roughage (hay) helps maintain normal function of the GI tract. Clean available water is necessary.

  • Avoid changing the feeding routine, including the type, amount, and time fed. If a change is needed always make it a gradual change, by mixing old with new, each day increasing amount of new feed and decreasing amount of old. Watch for and avoid toxic substances, such as noxious weeds, blister beetles, moldy hay, and other ingestible foreign material.

  • Recognize when your horse is not drinking water and/or has a reduced fecal output. To avoid sand ingestion use feeders or mats when feeding off the ground.

  • Change the intensity/duration of an exercise regimen gradually. Maintain a good preventive health maintenance program, with the help of the veterinarian, including vaccination protocol, worming program, and dental care.

  • Understandably the word colic scares many horse owners. It is important to realize the majority of colic's can be treated medically and does not mean certain death. However, for a successful outcome, all colicky horses should be treated promptly.

  • Some cases are more serious, requiring expensive surgery, this is why it is critical to recognize the signs of abdominal pain, and maintain a good management program to minimize the risk of colic in your horses.