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What Is It?

The word colic describes abdominal pain, which can be caused by many different problems. It can occur suddenly or gradually over a period of days. Horses often develop colic because their digestive systems are very long (more than 100 feet!) and complex.

Certain parts of their digestive system are prone to develop twists and impactions (blockages) of food material. Also, horses' digestive systems are designed for foraging—eating small amounts of food throughout the day while on the move.

However, domestic horses are often fed large amounts of highly concentrated diets (e.g. grain) two or three times a day and kept in small areas without enough pasture turnout, grazing, and exercise.

Stress from activities such as racing or showing may also contribute to colic.

Signs of Equine Colic

Colic can have many signs, but the most common can include:

  • Decreased eating and/or drinking

  • Reduced quantity of manure or decreased frequency of defecation.

  • Change in consistency of feces (e.g., small, hard manure balls vs. large, soft manure piles)

  • Disturbed bedding, showing that your horse has been pawing or getting up and down

  • Kicking at abdomen

  • Pawing

  • Looking back at the abdomen

  • Lying down and getting up repeatedly

  • Rolling or thrashing

  • Sweating

  • Increased respiration/breathing rate.

  • Increased heart rate

  • Fever

  • Lack of gut sounds (check with stethoscope)

Diagnosis and Treatment

The most important step in treating colic is to contact your veterinarian immediately. Do not attempt to diagnose and treat colic on your own.

Most colic cases can be treated at the farm by your veterinarian with the use of pain-relieving medications, muscle relaxers, laxatives, and fluids. However, some cases require more sophisticated diagnostic tests and/or surgery and will need to be transported to a clinic. In general, the more intense are the signs of pain, the more serious the episode of colic.

If your horse begins to colic, here are some guidelines in caring for your equine companion:

Vital Signs

Contact your veterinarian and be ready to give him or her a good description of what is going on. This includes:

  • Heart rate and respiration rate, rectal temperature.

  • The intensity of the signs of pain, presence or absence of gut sounds.

  • Pregnancy status (if she is a mare).

  • Brief medical history, any changes in diet or environment and the insurance status of the animal.

While you are waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, be sure to:

  • Remove food, water is optional--check with your veterinarian to determine if he or she wants the water source removed.

  • If your horse is on pasture, contain him or her in a safe enclosure.

  • Continue to monitor vital signs, if you can, about every 15 to 20 minutes (see box).

  • Blanket your horse if he or she seems “shocky” or if the weather is cool.

  • Survey the horse's living area to see whether he or she has been eating, drinking, and defecating normally.

  • A horse that is continually attempting to lie down and roll should be walked. If the horse will remain standing and is not constantly kicking at its belly, you do not need to walk the animal. If it is necessary to walk the horse, allow intermittent rest breaks. And if the animal is willing to lie quietly, you may allow it to do so.

Do not administer any medications unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian. Some medications can mask important signs and allow a serious case of colic to progress to the point where it becomes more difficult to treat.

Caution: Human safety comes first. If your horse becomes excessively agitated due to panic or pain, contain him or her in a safe enclosure or stall. Do not attempt to handle or treat an agitated horse. Sometimes, even a well-mannered horse may attempt to bolt, kick, lunge, etc., when in severe pain.


Colic is the leading cause of death in horses, and it can happen to even the most expertly cared for animals. However, you can take some simple steps to minimize the risks for your horse.

  • Monitor your horse's eating, drinking, and manure production so that you can quickly detect changes in behavior and consult your veterinarian.

  • Make sure your horse has access to plenty of fresh, clean water, at all times, especially in the winter. Horses will drink more water in the winter if it is warm and does not contain ice.

  • Always feed plenty of forage (hay or pasture).

  • Limit the grain ration to just what the horse needs, do not overfeed grain.

  • Divide the daily ration into multiple feedings, at least two or more.

  • Keep the horse on a regular schedule and don't make any rapid or abrupt changes to the diet/

  • Do not feed horses on the ground.

  • Make sure your horse has adequate shelter to protect him or her from weather extremes. A cold horse may not drink enough.

  • Provide plenty of exercise daily, preferably free-choice in a pasture or paddock.

  • Follow your veterinarian's recommendations for internal parasite control.

  • Have your veterinarian check the teeth of your horse regularly and provide dental care when necessary.

  • Don't give medications to your horse unless approved by your veterinarian.

  • Pay close attention to pregnant mares during late gestation.

Colic Checklist

  • Call the veterinarian.

  • Remove food and ask your veterinarian if he or she wants you to remove water.

  • Take vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respiration) if you can.

  • Move your horse into a safe, contained location (a bedded box stall with buckets, hooks, etc. removed or a small paddock with sturdy fencing) if you can do so safely.

Colic Summary

  • Colic is the leading cause of death in horses.

  • Colic requires immediate attention from a veterinarian.

  • Horses often develop colic because their digestive systems are very long and complex.

  • Colic can happen to any horse, but you can help minimize the risks for your equine companion.

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