First Aid for Horses – Colic

Colic is a scary thought for most horse owners, which conjures up images of long nights in the paddock with the horse and large veterinary bills. Let’s delve deeper and define this concerning problem.

Enteroliths from a horse, a cause of colic.

Enteroliths from a horse, a cause of colic.

Colic, by definition, is any abdominal condition that causes pain, so in reality is a symptom of a problem, not the actual disease itself. Colic for some horses can be life threatening, and yet for others may be chronic and create discomfort for a long period of time. Colic may require surgical or medical intervention, or may be able to treated with diet or home remedies, but it can be difficult to determine the cause without medical attention and therefore is something we should be consulting our veterinarian about. Colic is widely considered to be the leading cause of premature death in horses.

What are the causes of colic?

There are a number of different causes of colic, which can make management of this issue complex.

Timpanic colic - also known as gas or spasmodic colic, is often caused by a change in diet, although parasites may also be a factor. The build up of gas may be due to excess fermentation or the slowing of the passage of the gas. While gas colic may self-resolve, it can lead to torsion or displacement, which can be life-threatening.

Torsion and volvulus – this is where the intestine twists upon itself, and may obstruct the blood supply to areas of the GI tract. Prognosis is not great for many of these horses and early intervention is a must if they are to survive.

Displacement – this happens when a portion of the large intestine shifts. It can be a result of excess gas. The relocation may disrupt the standard motility or movement of the gut, and therefore create other issues as well. Medical or surgical intervention may be required.

Intasusseption  - a form of colic in which a piece of intestine "telescopes" within a portion of itself, usually because a section of the bowel has become paralysed. It is kind of like a snake eating its tail. This is a life-threatening cause of colic that will require urgent surgical intervention.

Impaction – impaction is where a large clump of food or grit (like sand) form a clump in the bowel and create a blockage. It may resolve with medical intervention although occasionally surgery is required. Impaction most commonly occurs in winter, when there is less water intake and an increase in drier food supplied (i.e. hay), in horses with dental issues (poor mastication) or in horses kept on sandy or high dirt-to-grass pasture.

Parasites – heavy worm burdens may cause temporary blockages. It is important to carefully de-worm theses horses as they can have a serious immune reaction that can result in fatal peritonitis.

Other causes of colic – Tumors, Toxins, Colitis, Gastric Ulceration, Hernias, Enteroliths (mineral stones of the gut)


Dog sitting, a potential sign of colic

Dog sitting, a potential sign of colic

How can I tell if my horse has colic?

Early symptoms of colic

  • Turning the head toward the flank
  • Biting or kicking at the flank or abdomen
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Restlessness
  • Depression
  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up, or attempting to lie down
  • Decrease or lack of appetite
  • No or decreased bowel movements (note, passing manure is not a sign they do not have colic, as colic based in the upper GI tract will still pass manure for a while)
  • Stretching out as if to urinate, but not urinating
  • Decrease in abdominal sounds, or even no abdominal sounds

As the colic symptoms worsen and the horse is in more pain, you may see

  • Sweating
  • Rapid respiration
  • Elevated pulse rate
  • Rolling
flank biting, another sign of colic

flank biting, another sign of colic

What to do if my horse has colic?

  • The very first thing to do is get in contact with your veterinarian. Colic can begin mildly but advance very quickly into a life-threatening condition. Be sure to describe the symptoms you are seeing and ask if your vet believes gentle exercise will help.
  • Try to keep your horse from rolling. Rolling may twist the bowel and complicate the issue (however – safety first: a wildly thrashing horse may kill you). However, if you horse is just wanting to rest, it may be ok for him to lie down (check with your vet).
  • Avoid feeding your horse hay or hard feed while you wait for the vet to attend.
  • DO NOT administer any pain relief before your vet has examined your horse. This can mask the symptoms and lead to a misdiagnosis, and possibly the death of your horse.


How can I prevent colic?

There is no proven ways to prevent colic in horses, but some ways to help reduce the chances of your horse developing colic include:

  • Introducing new feed gradually
  • Avoid excess high sugar feeds
  • Keep access to plenty of clean water
  • Maintain a schedule of consistency
  • If living in a sandy paddock, add psyllium husk to the feed, or avoid sandy paddocks altogether
  • Ensure proper parasite control is maintained


Colic is a disease that is feared by horse owners, but with early, correct intervention many horses will recover. Get familiar with the symptoms, be proactive in intervention, and keep doing everything in your power to help reduce the risk of your horse experiencing this pain.