What Is Colic In Horses: Complete Guide For Horse Owners

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As a horse owner, one of the most distressing ailments your equine companion can experience is colic.

Understanding "what is colic in horses,” its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention is crucial for maintaining your horse's well-being.

Recently, my sister had to deal with colic in one of her horses.

​Now, luckily, she is a vet and was able to jump on the situation quickly and ensure her horse made it; but, not all of us are veterinarians, and not all of us have experienced a horse with severe colic in the past.

​So, I thought it was timely to write this article for the colic notices out there (like me).

Key Takeaways

  • Equine colic is a serious concern for horse owners that requires identification and comprehension.

  • Recognizing the signs of colic and understanding potential causes are essential to providing suitable care.

  • Prevention strategies include promoting a healthy lifestyle, consistent veterinary care, deworming, dental assessments & monitoring symptoms.

Defining Equine Colic

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Equine colic, simply put, is abdominal pain in horses, which many factors can cause. It is a severe concern for horse owners, as it can lead to life-threatening complications if not promptly addressed and treated.

To offer your horse optimal care, you must identify and comprehend the various forms of colic.

Types of Equine Colic

Colic in horses can manifest in various forms, including:

  • Displacement colic: occurs when the intestines move away from their normal position within the horse's digestive tract, causing discomfort.

  • Entrapment colic: results from the intestines becoming trapped in a loop or other structure, leading to observable clinical signs.

  • Impaction colic: characterized by a blockage in the intestines due to an accumulation of material, causing severe pain for the horse.

  • Gas colic: caused by an excessive buildup of gas in the intestines, leading to discomfort and pain.

  • Spasmodic colic: caused by spasms in the intestines, resulting in intermittent pain.

  • Enteritis/infection colic: caused by inflammation or infection in the intestines, leading to pain and discomfort.

  • Strangulation colic: occurs when a portion of the intestines becomes twisted or constricted, cutting off blood supply and causing severe pain.

All of these forms of colic affect the horse's intestinal and gastrointestinal tract and require prompt veterinary attention.

Comprehending the diverse types of colic can guide horse owners in identifying symptoms, discerning causes, and determining suitable treatments for each unique variety. As a horse owner, being vigilant and gaining familiarity with the different forms of colic allows for prompt action if your horse exhibits signs of discomfort.

Recognizing Colic Symptoms in Horses

Every horse owner should master the skill of identifying colic symptoms in horses. Signs of colic may include looking at their sides, kicking their flanks, lying down, changes in drinking habits, elevated heart rate, and irregular breathing. Other indications may involve pawing the ground, lying down and rolling, kicking or biting their abdomen, and not eating.

However, it is vital to differentiate colic symptoms from other conditions affecting the horse's digestive system. For instance, colic symptoms may resemble gastric ulcers or sand colic. Recognizing the characteristic signs of colic and differentiating them from other diseases is critical to offering your horse suitable care.

If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, immediately contacting your veterinarian is necessary. A veterinarian can accurately diagnose and treat the condition, possibly using a stomach tube or other diagnostic tools to provide relief to the horse.

Identifying Causes of Colic in Horses

Numerous factors can contribute to colic in horses, including:

  • Age

  • Lifestyle

  • Diet changes

  • Routine alterations

  • Exercise

  • Weather

  • Parasite infestation

  • Sand ingestion

  • Dental issues

  • Medication use

  • Stress

These factors can affect blood flow and the overall health of the horse, leading to the development of various types of colic, such as spasmodic colic.

One common cause of colic in horses is parasite infestation, particularly strongyles. In these cases, pain medications may be required to alleviate the horse's discomfort. Awareness of potential causes of colic in horses is necessary for administering suitable care and preventing the condition from deteriorating.

Diagnosing Colic: The Veterinarian's Approach

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Veterinarians hold a significant role in the diagnosis of colic in horses.

​They employ a combination of methods, such as:

  • Obtaining a comprehensive medical history

  • Conducting a physical examination

  • Assessing the horse's vital signs, including monitoring the horse's vital signs

  • Performing diagnostic tests such as nasogastric tube intubation and rectal palpation

These methods are often utilized to diagnose colic in horses accurately.

Other diagnostic tests may be necessary, including abdominocentesis, ultrasound, complete blood count, and blood chemistry. Providing the veterinarian with detailed information is a crucial part of diagnosing colic in horses, such as the length and speed of progression of the colic episode, the severity of pain, whether feces have been passed, the response to any provided treatments, and the horse's deworming history. This information will help the veterinarian make an accurate diagnosis and determine the appropriate course of action for treatment.

Treating Colic in Horses

Treatment for colic in horses hinges on the root cause and can entail medication, hospitalization, or colic surgery. Collaborating closely with your veterinarian to ascertain the most effective treatment plan for your horse's specific condition is paramount.

In some cases, supportive care and close monitoring may be sufficient as a medical treatment, while in more severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to relieve pain.

Horse Colic Recovery and Management

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Recovery and management of colic in horses vary based on the severity and cause of the condition. For minor cases, a few days of rest may be sufficient for the horse to return to its normal lifestyle. However, more severe cases involving hospitalization and surgery may take weeks to months for the horse to recover fully.

Providing a secure and supportive environment for the horse is paramount during the recovery phase. This includes securing the horse in a small pasture or large box stall to prevent injury and closely monitoring its condition. In addition, horse owners should research therapeutic options to lower costs and consider non-invasive treatments when possible.

Emergency preparedness is equally vital. Here are some steps to take:

  1. Ensure that your truck and trailer are in proper working condition.

  2. Have a plan for trailering your horse to an equine hospital if necessary.

  3. Prompt action can make a significant difference in the outcome of a colic episode.

Preventing Colic in Horses

Preventing colic in horses involves:

  • Promoting a healthy lifestyle

  • Consistent veterinary care

  • Deworming

  • Dental assessments

  • Access to water

  • Pasture turnout

  • Monitoring for symptoms

A healthy lifestyle can help diminish the probability of colic by minimizing stress, providing regular veterinary care, and ensuring proper nutrition.

Other preventative measures include:

  • Providing access to fresh water

  • Allowing pasture turnout

  • Refraining from feeding on the ground in sandy areas

  • Feeding grain and pelleted feed only when necessary

  • Monitoring for colic symptoms

  • Performing routine dental care

  • Undertaking routine parasite prevention.

​Horse owners can considerably lower the risk factors of colic in their horses by implementing these measures.


In conclusion, understanding the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of colic in horses is crucial for maintaining their well-being.

As horse owners, it is our responsibility to provide the best care possible for our equine companions. By being vigilant, knowledgeable, and prepared, we can help prevent colic in our horses and ensure they live healthy, happy lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes colic in a horse?

Colic in horses is most commonly caused by impaction, where undigested feed or parasites block the movement of digesta through the intestines. Gas colic can occur when the microbes in the colon produce excessive gas due to dietary changes, and sudden changes in diet or overfeeding grain can also lead to improper fermentation or obstruction in the gut, causing colic.

What happens when a horse colics?

When a horse colics, it typically exhibits signs of restlessness, sweating, increased breathing rate, and irritable kicking, as well as the accumulation of gas in the stomach or intestines, causing abdominal pain. If not treated quickly, the fluid buildup can stretch the stomach and cause it to burst, while poor motility in the colon can lead to gas colic and displacement.

How do you fix colic in horses?

Medication and a nasogastric (stomach) tube can treat most colic cases on the farm. Still, if more serious treatment is needed, referral to an equine surgical hospital is the best option.

How do veterinarians diagnose colic in horses?

Veterinarians diagnose colic in horses by obtaining a medical history, conducting a physical examination, assessing vital signs, and conducting diagnostic tests such as nasogastric tube intubation and rectal palpation.

How can horse owners prevent colic in their horses?

To prevent colic in horses, ensure they are adequately taken care of with regular veterinary care, deworming, and dental assessments. Also, provide adequate access to water turnout and monitor for symptoms.