Colic ..... the word alone strikes fear into the hearts of horse owners. Colic is the leading killer of horses around the world, it affects all ages, breeds and different uses of horses. The good news is that with prompt and appropriate veterinary treatment the majority of affected horses can be saved.

Colic simply means abdominal pain. It is not a specific disorder, rather a symptom. There are many causes of colic, including a build up of gas in the intestines, parasite burden, kidney infection, a torsion of the intestines or a blockage.

Symptoms of colic include:

  • anxiety or dullness
  • pawing at the ground
  • looking at the flank
  • lying down frequently and/or rolling
  • playing in the water bucket but not drinking, lack of appetite
  • reduced or no faeces
  • sweating
  • high heart rate (over 50 beats a minute)
  • reduced gut sounds
  • stretching out frequently as though wanting to urinate

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to contact a vet for advice as soon as possible rather than taking a wait and see approach. If colic is treated early it can stop a relatively minor colic from developing into a severe colic and as vets we'd much rather treat a mild early case of colic than one that has been watched for several hours and the horse is now in severe pain and very unwell.

When you are calling the vet there are several pieces of information that are helpful for them to know if you are able to tell them:

  • what is your horses heart rate and temperature - a cheap stethescope and thermometer are handy to have in your horse's first aid box.
  • what symptoms are your horse displaying
  • Have you recently drenched your horse, travelled with your horse or changed their diet?


While waiting for the vet, if there is going to be a delay before they can get there, or they have recommended you monitor for now, it is important to keep checking on your horse every 20 minutes or so. A colic can deteriorate very quickly. Whether or not to walk your horse can be somewhat controversial. If they are wanting to roll, then getting them up and walking can help prevent a twist in the bowel. A short walk of half an hour or so can help to get things moving also, but I don't recommend walking a horse for hours or heavily exercising a horse as this just tends to exhaust them. If they will stand quietly, it can be better to let them rest. Whilst waiting for the vet to arrive, do not let your horse eat or drink.

Most importantly DO NOT give your horse any medication unless advised to by the vet. Some medications mask the symptoms of colic and make it difficult for the vet to make a diagnosis, some of the pain medications are so effective they can mask the symptoms of a surgical colic and so delay the diagnosis of one until it is too late for surgery. Other medications can make a mild impaction colic into a severe one.

Once a vet has arrived, they will do a thorough physical examination and certain tests to help them diagnose the cause of colic. Things they may do include:

  • asking questions about your horse's history (including recent work, travel, diet changes, worming etc)
  • Observe the horse's behaviour to asseess the level of distress/pain
  • Monitor vital signs such as gum colour, capillary refill time, hydration, heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, gut sounds
  • Check faeces for consistency, worm eggs, sand etc
  • Pass a stomach tube - to check for fluid or gas build up in the stomach, and to give fluids and oil
  • rectal exam
  • blood test
  • taking abdominal fluid sample
  • recommend refferral for surgery

The majority of colics can be managed medically with combinations of pain relief, fluids (oral or IV), laxatives and diet management. Some colics such as caused by torsions or twists need immediate referral for surgery for the horse to have a have a chance at survival.

There are some steps owners can take to help reduce the chances of their horse developing colic. This list below is helpful, but it a discussion with your vet will give you more tailored advice for your horse.

  • always ensure access to fresh water and encourage your horse to increase their water intake. Wetting down feed, salt blocks, adding molassess to horse's water when travelling, electrolyte pastes can all help. In winter some horses need to have slightly warmed water, and in summer some horses won't drink hot water.
  • Ensure diet changes are done gradually over 2 weeks to allow the horse's gut bacteria to adjust to the new feed.
  • Worm your horses on the basis of regular faecal egg counts, rather than a set worming regime, or just worming when they "look" wormy.
  • regular dental checks by a dental vet to ensure your horses are able to chew their feed properly.
  • Feed frequently with high fibre diets
  • if sand colic is an issue, regular treatment with psyllium husks (contact us for more regarding this)
  • appropriate ulcer treatment for stressy or performance horses (please discuss the best approach with your vet)
  • Insurance