Colic in Horses 101: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Colic is the nightmare of every horse owner. It is the number one killer of domestic horses – even more than injuries, accidents, or heart problems. All horse owners need to keep a lookout for the signs of colic in horses. Never ignore the signs. Colic is a quick killer. Always keep an emergency veterinarian’s number nearby since colic strikes at any time.

What Is Colic in Horses?

Colic is an umbrella term referring to many severe digestive problems in a horse, causing abdominal pain, death of parts of the intestinal tract, and eventually death to the horse. Symptoms of colic are similar no matter what the cause:

  • Excessive sweating due to pain;
  • Horse turns to look at or bite the abdomen;
  • Horse paws at the abdomen with hind hoofs;
  • Rolling;
  • No appetite;
  • Not being able to pass droppings, even after numerous attempts;
  • Going into the urinating position but not urinating;
  • Pulse much more rapid than normal;
  • Horse has no sounds of digestion coming from the belly. A healthy horse constantly has rumblings and gurgling going on.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

It has been accurately said that the horse has a digestive system designed by a committee. The horse has from 50 to 70 feet of intestines. They are this long to extract every possible bit of nutrition from their diet. However, in order to fit 70 feet of intestine into a horse it has to be constantly curved. Any blockage at these bends and curves causes colic. Since a horse almost always cannot vomit, anything that is swallowed must go through the digestive tract in order to leave the body.

Many causes include:

  • Impaction: This happens most to horses living in sandy areas that swallow sand along with grass. The sand builds up and does not pass.
  • Gas: just like with people, gas can be painful.
  • Bad teeth so the horse swallows food without chewing properly.
  • Parasites.
  • Sudden change in diet.
  • Overeating.
  • Eating a poor-quality or moldy diet for a long time.
  • Side effects of medications like NSAIDS.
  • A previous history of colicking.

Treatment Options Available for Colic in Horses

At the first sign of colic, call the vet. Get the horse on its feet to prevent rolling. Rolling during colic can be dangerous since the rolling may cause the guts to literally twist in knots and die. Press an ear to the horse’s belly to determine if there are any gut sounds. Take the horse’s pulse to see if it is too fast. This is information the vet will need to know when he or she arrives.

Horses can be walked unless the horse is too exhausted to do so. Walking can help ease the pain. The vet will examine the horse to determine what kind of colic the horse is suffering from. Painkillers and other medications like laxatives will be given. This encourages the horse to pass droppings and return to normal. Some horses may need medications or fluids given intravenously.

In severe cases, medications are not enough and the horse needs surgery. Any twisted intestines are placed back in order. Any dead intestines are removed. A horse can survive after having many feet of intestine removed. There have been great advances in colic surgery over the years. The University of Minnesota estimates that a horse has a 75% chance of survival after colic surgery.

Prevention of Colic in Horses

Colic in horses is hard to prevent since there are so many reasons that cause colic. However, there are many things a concerned horse owner can do to minimize the chances of colic attacks.

  • Make sure the horse’s teeth are floated (smoothed out) at least once a year. This ensures that the horse can chew properly and get the most benefit of costly feed, hay and pasture.
  • Only feed quality hay and grain to a horse. Get rid of any spoiled, moldy or foul-smelling feed immediately.
  • Do not overfeed a horse. This is especially important with grain. Horses cannot digest so much food at once. Horses have been known to eat themselves to death.
  • Check the horse’s pasture for any poisonous plants or trees.
  • Do not suddenly change a horse’s diet. Very gradually change it if necessary. Take plenty of the hay and feed the horse is used to in the horse trailer when travelling.
  • Work with a vet to place the horse on a deworming schedule to prevent a lethal build-up of parasites.
  • Limit pasture time in the spring when the grass suddenly grows thick so the horse does not gorge on new grass that its digestive system is not used to.
  • Alternate pastures so horses do not wear the pastures out. Horses have been known to eat dirt or fencing in desperation.
  • Keep a horse well-exercised to prevent boredom. Boredom causes many problems, such as wood-chewing which not only causes colic but damages the teeth. Horses with windows or who are able to look out onto the barn aisles are less bored than horses shut in stalls or sheds without anything to look at.


Most horses will suffer at least one bout of colic in their lifetimes. The chances of survival are better the sooner the horse is treated. Take the time and money to keep a horse on a parasite control program, regular exercise regimen and dental checks to prevent common forms of colic. Feed only quality, good-smelling food but not too much of it. The costs of preventive care for colic in horses are far less than emergency colic surgery.


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