Colic is a painful, sometimes fatal, condition that strikes fear in the heart of any horse owner. Many cases of colic are mild and can be resolved with veterinary intervention. Others are severe enough to necessitate surgery or euthanasia. [1]

Colic is a generalized term is used to describe abdominal pain in horses. It is not one specific condition but rather a symptom associated with numerous abnormalities that affect the horse’s digestive organs.

Horses evolved as hindgut fermenters, grazing for most of the day while constantly moving. However, modern management practices are not always aligned with the natural lifestyle of horses.

Typical practices such as stall confinement and low forage intake have become key contributors to increased risk of colic. [1]

The most common types of colic are related to impaction, in which undigested feed or foreign bodies such as parasites block the movement of digesta through the intestines and cecum.

More serious cases involving “twisted gut” or intestinal strangulation can block blood flow to the area, causing tissue death. This must be caught quickly and treated with surgery to avoid further complications, but even surgery does not guarantee survival.

Symptoms of Colic

Symptoms of colic are usually easy to recognize since horses are often visibly uncomfortable.

According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), common signs of colic include:

  • Depression
  • Inappetence (not interested in eating)
  • Pawing
  • Looking at the flank
  • Lying down more than usual or at a different time from normal
  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up or circling
  • Curling/lifting the upper lip
  • Kicking at the abdomen with hind legs
  • Rolling onto their back
  • Frequently stretching out like they need to urinate
  • Dog-sitting
  • Groaning
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Visible abdominal distention
  • Less than normal to no manure production
  • Diarrhea

Foals can experience colic as well. The most common signs in foals are rolling upon their backs, teeth grinding, and salivating excessively.

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What To Do If Your Horse Colics

If you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, you should call your veterinarian immediately. With colic, the earlier you can intervene, the better your horse’s chance of recovery will be in most cases.

However, there are several things you can do while waiting for the vet:

  1. Remove access to all hay and feed from your horse.
  2. Walk your horse if he is comfortable enough to do so. (Never force an uncooperative horse to walk.)
  3. Try to keep your horse as calm and comfortable as possible.
  4. If recommended by your veterinarian, administer banamine paste as a pain medication. It is helpful to obtain a temperature and heartrate before giving banamine. If the horse can be kept somewhat comfortable until the veterinarian arrives, intravenous banamine is more efficacious and allows the veterinarian to observe the horse’s condition with no pain medicine.

Once your veterinarian arrives or if you take your horse to the veterinary clinic, several standard colic treatments are usually administered including:

  • Banamine, Buscopan and possibly some type of sedation to keep your horse calm
  • Laxatives such as mineral oil or magnesium sulfate administered into the stomach via a nasogastric tube
  • Rehydration with oral or IV fluids

Depending on what your veterinarian finds upon examining your horse, they may refer you to a surgical canter immediately or they may recommend medical monitoring.

Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and may also pass a nasogastric tube, used both for therapy and to diagnose some types of colic. They will also likely conduct a rectal examination, and possibly an abdominal tap, an abdominal ultrasound and various blood tests. All of this information helps your veterinarian determine cause, severity, prognosis and treatment plan for your horse.

Top 11 Causes of Colic and How to Prevent Them

Not all cases of colic in horses can be prevented, but there are measures you can take to greatly reduce your horse’s risk of developing this painful condition. Most of these measures revolve around managing and feeding horses as naturally as possible

Here we list some of the top causes of colic, along with what you can do to prevent them.

1) Stall Confinement

Horses stalled more than 50% of the time are at increased risk of colic when compared to horses that have pasture turnout more than 50% of the time. [3]

Increased stabling (more than 12 hours per day) has been shown to have noticeable physiological effects on horses. This includes decreased colonic motility, and decreased movement of digesta through the gut. [3]

Stall confinement is also associated with wind-sucking or cribbing, which may contribute to an increased risk of colic. [1]

The solution to this problem is simple: turnout. By allowing horses as much turnout time as possible, you will automatically reduce their chances of developing colic since both movement and grazing will help keep the digestive system functioning smoothly.

2) High Grain/Low Forage Diets

Horses’ digestive systems are better equipped to process forage than concentrates. Research shows that feeding large amounts of grain or other concentrated feeds can increase a horse’s risk of developing colic.

When a horse is fed a high-grain diet, the digestive tract cannot process and absorb all the sugar in the feed before it reaches the hindgut. This can result in hindgut dysfunction and acidosis.

Twice daily feeding of concentrates is also associated with the secretion of large amounts of fluid into the small intestine which, in turn, leads to the absorption of fluid from the large colon. This can cause dehydration of colonic contents and impaction colic. [2]

Feeding horses appropriately can reduce their risk of colic. If concentrates must be fed, feed smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.

Also, ensure that the majority of your horse’s diet is grass/forage or hay. A horse should consume at least 1-2% of their body weight in forage daily.

You can submit your horse’s diet for complementary evaluation by our equine nutritionists to determine whether your horse is meeting their nutritional and feeding requirements.

3) Inadequate Deworming Practices

In one survey study involving 774 equine veterinarians, researchers found that horses receiving dewormers on a regular basis had a decreased risk of colic.

However, research also shows that administering dewormers to foals can cause colic associated with intestinal obstruction from the rapid death of ascarids (parasitic roundworms). [3]

The consensus among veterinarians is that a regular deworming program using fecal analysis to look at parasite load will help to prevent colic in many cases. Check with your veterinarian to see which dewormers are recommended for your area and how often you should administer them.

Having fecal egg counts tested will help you appropriately pick your dewormers, see how well your deworming programs are working and prevent the development of parasite populations that are resistant to our current deworming options.

When deworming your horse, it is a good idea to supplement your horse’s diet with probiotics to restore balance to the digestive tract.

4) Sand Ingestion

Horses grazing or eating off of sandy ground may ingest too much sand which can cause sand accumulation in the colon and colic.

To prevent sand colic, avoid feeding horses on sandy soil. Instead, feed them in raised feeders or hay racks.

Some research suggests adding psyllium, probiotics and prebiotics to the equine diet can help increase fecal sand output to decrease the risk of sand colic. [4]

If you live in an area with sandy soil, consider a digestive health supplement containing prebiotics to decrease sand accumulation in the hindgut.

5) Abrupt Feeding Changes

Microbes in the horse’s gut acclimate to digesting certain types of feed and hay. When changes are made too quickly, a disruption occurs in those microbes which can lead to colic.

All feeding changes should be done gradually, over a period of 7-10 days. This goes for concentrates as well as changes in hay or pasture.

If you know that your horse is especially sensitive to any type of feed change, you can even prolong the transition to several weeks.

6) Dehydration

Horses that do not drink enough water are at higher risk of developing impaction colic. Since horses tend to drink less in winter, encourage drinking by providing a warm water source.

In one study, horses in cold temperatures provided with warm water (19oC or 66oF) drank 40% more water than horses given water near freezing temperatures. However, horses only consume larger quantities of water when warm water is the sole available option. When both cold and warm water are provided, horses tend to prefer the cold water and drink less water overall.

You can keep your horse’s water warm using heated or insulated buckets, or tank heaters. You can also soak hay cubes or pellets in winter to increase water intake.

Keep in mind that horses cannot lick ice or eat snow to stay hydrated.

It is always recommended to provide fre