Colic in Horses: Everything to Know

Colic in Horses: Everything to Know

Colic in horses is a general term used to describe abdominal pain or discomfort. It is a common and potentially serious condition that can affect horses of all ages and breeds. Colic can have various causes, and the severity of the condition can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening, therefore it is extremely important that as owners we are aware of the signs of colic and what to do if we suspect our horse has colic.


Unlike most other animals, horses are unable to vomit, therefore they are much more likely to develop digestive upset that affects the hind gut region. 


Symptoms of colic:

  • Behavioural changes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased or absent bowel movements
  • Kicking or pawing at the stomach area
  • Looking at flanks
  • Frequently lying down and getting up or rolling
  • Increased heart rate and temperature
  • Sweating



Different types of Colic


  1. Gas colic: This occurs when excessive gas builds up in the horse's digestive system, causing discomfort and pain. It is often related to dietary changes, feeding patterns, or the ingestion of gas-producing substances.
  2. Impaction colic: In this case, a blockage or impaction forms in the horse's gastrointestinal tract, usually in the large colon. It can be caused by inadequate water intake, poor-quality forage, ingestion of foreign objects, or a lack of exercise.
  3. Spasmodic colic: This type of colic involves spasms or contractions of the horse's intestinal muscles, leading to pain. The exact cause is not always clear, but it may be related to stress, dietary factors, or changes in routine.
  4. Sand colic: Cases of sand colic are normally brought on from ingesting sand, horses will struggle to digest sand, therefore it can lead to blockages in the intestine. Horses who graze on sandy paddocks or drink from sandy based water supplies are most at risk of developing sand colic.
  5. Parasitic colic: This type of colic is normally caused by an excessive worm burden that builds up in the gut causing a blockage
  6. Torsion or displacement colic: These are more severe forms of colic where the intestines twist or move out of their normal position. These conditions require immediate veterinary intervention, as they can lead to a loss of blood supply and tissue damage. 


What to do if you suspect your horse has colic


If you suspect that your horse has colic, it is important to contact your vet as this is considered a medical emergency. 


While waiting for your vet to arrive it is important to keep your horse comfortable. Contrary to popular belief you should not force your horse to move as this can cause further discomfort and potentially worsen the condition. It is also okay to allow your horse to roll or lie down as normal, as can help relieve the pain and discomfort they are experiencing.


The treatment will depend on the type of colic and severity of the condition. For mild cases, a vet will normally inject an anti-inflammatory or anti-spasmodic medication to relieve symptoms and restore normal gut function.


Intravenous (IV) fluid therapy is often necessary to address dehydration and electrolyte imbalances that can occur with colic. In cases of severe displacement emergency surgery may be required at a specialised equine hospital. Unfortunately there will be some cases in which horses won’t survive or may require euthanasia. 


Minimising the risk of Colic 


Thankfully there are many measures horse owners can take to minimise their horse’s risk of developing colic, these include:


  • Avoiding sudden changes to the diet - all dietary changes should be made gradually over a period of 21 days, as this will allow the good bacteria in the hind gut to adjust accordingly.


  • Prevent your horse from over indulging in rich grass as this is high in sugar and likely to cause digestive upset. It is always best to introduce your horse to grazing gradually. Grazing can also be limited by introducing a strip grazing system which limits access to fresh grass and allows grazed pasture to recover.


  • Ensure your horse has plenty of access to forage. Horse’s are trickle feeders meaning they need to eat little and often, therefore they should not go any longer than four hours without access to forage. The fibre content in forage promotes gut mobility ensuring food is able to travel correctly throughout the digestive tract.


  • Avoid grazing on sandy paddocks and don’t allow your horse to drink from sand based ponds, rivers, etc. to minimise the risk of sand colic.


  • Don’t exercise directly after feed - it is true that exercise slows the digestion process. This may mean that partially digested food becomes stuck in the digestive tract causing a blockage.


  • Prevent dehydration - always ensure your horse has access to a clean, fresh supply of water. Water is essential in digestion and is required to help the passage of food in the digestive tract.


  • Avoid feeding gas producing foods such as green leafy vegetables or feeds that are high in sugar and starch.


  • Feed only good quality food - poor quality food often contains mould that can upset the hind gut microbiome.


  • Avoid stressful situations - it is true that stress can bring on an episode of colic. If your horse is prone to colic, take measures to avoid stressful situations and any sudden changes in routine.


  • Parasite management - it is important to take measures to prevent worms. Regularly carrying out faecal egg counts is a good indication of whether or not your horse has worms and will help you choose a targeted deworming strategy if necessary.


Colic can be a devastating condition, therefore it is important for owners to take measures to minimise their horse’s risk and to make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms. It is also a great idea to have an emergency plan in place should your horse develop colic. This will allow you to make more informed choices in your horse’s best interest should an incident occur. 

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