Colic simply means ‘pain in the abdomen’ and therefore has many different causes. It may be serious or even life-threatening, but most horses with colic recover fully and uneventfully

Key facts

  • The gastrointestinal tract in the horse is 25-30 metres long in total and consists of the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine.
  • Depending on which areas are affected, clinical signs will vary in their nature and severity. 
  • Most cases will respond to medical treatment such as painkillers, relaxants and fluids, but occasionally surgery is necessary to correct the problem.
  • Your vet may wish to perform an internal examination, pass a stomach tube or take a sample of blood or fluid from the abdomen in order to gather further information. In a small minority of cases, euthanasia may be the only humane option.
  • Please remember that, however quiet and well behaved your horse is in usual circumstances, a horse in pain may unexpectedly roll or kick out and you must consider your own safety when handling a horse with colic.

Signs of colic

  • lying flat out
  • pawing at ground
  • rolling
  • kicking at belly
  • looking at belly
  • poor appetite
  • tooth grinding
  • sweating
  • restlessness
  • stretching
  • posturing to urinate.

Types of colic

  • spasmodic - due to feeding/management changes, parasitism (worms), stress, heat, drinking very cold water;
  • impaction - similar to constipation, may be due to dry diet, dental disease, reduced water intake or box rest;
  • displaced/twisted intestines - may require surgery under general anaesthesia;
  • other less common causes such as tumours, infections, liver disease, grass sickness, gastric ulcers.

Normal clinical measurements in the horse

  • heart rate: usually between 25-45 beats per minute, depending on the size, type and fitness level of the horse;
  • respiratory rate: usually between 8-12 breaths per minute;
  • temperature: approximately 37.5o C - 38.5o C or 99-101 fahrenheit is normal for a horse;
  • intestinal sounds: should be present all over the abdomen;
  • gums: should be pale pink and moist

Before the vet arrives

  • take away any food or water present;
  • walk the horse in hand if safe to do so;
  • if possible, have a stable ready with clean bedding and good lighting;
  • warm water may also be useful;
  • do not give any painkillers or other drugs unless requested to do so.

Prevention of colic

  • maintain a regular management and feeding regime where possible;
  • practice effective parasite control;
  • discourage windsucking behaviour which predisposes to gas build-up;
  • provide a diet with plenty of fibre (hay, haylage or grass)