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  • August 05, 2022 5 min read

    Colic is one of the biggest killers of horses worldwide. It can affect both young and old horses and be caused by a multitude of factors. It can come on suddenly or gradually, and horses can be affected by colic multiple times per year. Whilst we don’t have a cure for colic, we can put measures to prevent it. In this article, we explore what colic means, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and lastly, what we can do to prevent our horse from suffering from colic. 

    What is colic?

    Colic is abdominal pain. It can range from mild to severe and come on gradually or suddenly. Colic can also start as a mild case but then quickly turn into a severe case and, in some instances, be fatal, which is why immediate veterinary attention should be sought if you suspect your horse has colic.

    There are many different kinds of colic, and generally, each kind has a different cause. The most common types of colic are listed below.

  • Impaction 
  • As the name suggests, this type of colic is caused by an impaction in the intestine, and the intestine becomes blocked. Impaction colic can be caused by an accumulation of sand, feed or another indigestible material. 

  • Gas
  • Horses can suffer from a buildup of gas within the intestines. The intestines then expand, which results in pressure and, in some cases, inflammation, which causes discomfort for the horse.

  • Displacement/Torsion
  • Displacement colic occurs when part of the intestine moves out of place within the abdomen. In horses, this presents a significant problem because a horse’s small intestine is about 20 meters long (yep, that’s a long side of a dressage arena!). So, if a little moves out of place, this could cause significant problems, like torsion. We often hear that a horse had a twisted gut; this is exactly what torsion colic is. It is when part of the intestine has wrapped around another section, limiting blood supply and causing a blockage.

  • Sand
  • Like impaction colic, sand colic is caused by the accumulation of sand in the gut. Sometimes a horse may exhibit loose stools, which can be a sign of sand build-up, before showing any signs of colic. 

    What are the signs and symptoms of colic?

    Below are some symptoms a horse may show if it has colic. 

    • Lying down more frequently than is usual
    • Kicking at their stomach
    • Rolling; particularly getting up and rolling again repeatedly
    • Looking at their flank
    • Curling their upper lip
    • Standing as if to urinate 
    • Frequently exhibiting the “cat” stretch
    • Pawing
    • Sweating and rapid breathing
    • Generally being unwell or flat

    If you suspect colic, even if you think it is mild, you should seek veterinary attention immediately.

    What are the causes of colic, and how can colic be prevented?

    A number of factors can cause abdominal pain in horses. However, I have listed below some of the most common causes of colic, which we can control to some degree.




    • Reduce sand ingestion by feeding hay or feed on a large rubber mat
    • Allow access to hay in a dry paddock 
    • Feed off the ground where possible
    • Feed an adequate amount of hay, as this will help shift the sand through the gut to avoid accumulation
    • Feed psyllium every month to prevent the build-up of sand


    • Do not feed too much grain (starch and sugar), especially in one meal, as this will put too much pressure on the small intestine and its ability to digest the food
    • If possible, feed grain in small amounts a couple of times per day, as opposed to one or two meals
    • Make any feed changes gradually over a period of seven days. This means mixing a small amount of the new feed in with the current feed, slowly increasing the new feed and decreasing the old feed over this time
    • Feed your horse sufficient hay. Hay is a wonderful source of fibre and will help “sweep” the gut
    • Do not feed spoilt or mouldy feeds, and ensure the feed is of good quality

    Parasitic Infection

    • Intestinal worms and parasites may lead to colic. Therefore it is essential to have in place a worming regime (where required), especially where the horse is agisted or exposed to other horses regularly

    Stabled Horses

    • Research suggests that horses that are stabled for the majority of the day are more susceptible to colic. This may be due to the lack of exercise and less access to a continual food source. 
    • Make sure you exercise your horse regularly
    • Ensure that your horse has access to hay throughout the day
    • Where possible, turn out your horse to pasture

    Teeth condition

    • Make sure that the dentist visits your horse regularly
    • Ensuring your horse’s teeth and mouth are in good health will ensure that your horse chews its food correctly, which will aid digestion

    Sudden changes to a horse’s routine

    • All changes made to a horse’s routine must be done gradually, where possible
    • Horse’s on spell should be brought back into work slowly and gradually
    • Where possible, horses should be fed at the same times each day

    Access to Water

    • Ensure your horse has access to clean, fresh water at all times
    • Water will help keep your horse hydrated
    • This is especially important in hot weather. If your horse is not drinking in hot weather, you may want to offer salt (in the feed or a salt block) so that the horse will need to drink
    • In cold weather (snow), ensure the horse’s water is not iced over

    What do I do if my horse shows signs of colic?

    If your horse exhibits any colic signs, you must call your vet immediately. Early detection and treatment of colic, in most cases, will mean that your horse will make a full recovery. It is also important to note that in most cases, colic is due to gas or impaction, and both causes respond well to treatment.

    Whilst waiting for the vet, it is important to ensure that your horse is kept as calm as possible. If they are rolling around violently, ensure they are in a large box or out in the paddock so they don’t become cast (if you are able, and it is safe to do so). There are various theories about whether walking a horse will help, but when the horse wants to roll, there is no stopping it! It is also important that you stay safe yourself in this situation and don’t get caught by a leg in the air!

    Do not administer pain relief or other medication to your horse unless the vet has advised you. 

    When the vet arrives, they will assess the horse and determine its pain level. Amongst other things, they will listen to its heart rate and gut sounds and take its temperature. They may also assess other aspects of the horse’s well-being such as sweating, flared nostrils, breathing and capillary refill time. The vet will also ask you questions about your horse’s history and the behaviour that it has exhibited (pawing, rolling etc.).

    The vet will then make a determination with respect to a treatment plan for your horse. This may include, but is not limited to:

    • Administer analgesics and sedatives to provide pain relief
    • Administer a drench which will include laxatives to help soften any impaction
    • Conduct a rectal palpation, which may indicate any abnormalities or provide evidence of a blockage
    • Administer fluids intravenously, which may help to provide hydration to the gut and assist with intestinal function
    • Put together a programme that will help you assess and observe your horse’s response to the treatment provided
    • Advise whether your horse should be admitted to a veterinary hospital for treatment and observation
    • Advise whether your horse requires surgery

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