Colic in Horses – A complete Guide to Getting Rid of the Pain

colic in horses

Like any other health problem, Colic can also cause severe discomfort. And Colic in horses is one of the greatest concerns for horse owners. Depending on its severity level, its timely diagnosis is very important. Although the prognosis today is far better than before, it is still one of the common causes of death in horses.

Colic is defined as abdominal pain. But, here, abdominal pain is not a diagnosis. Instead, it is a symptom that may refer to a variety of causes. Colic is an umbrella term that includes all the conditions that are related to the gastrointestinal tract that cause abdominal pain. 

Moreover, it also includes conditions that are not gastrointestinal but they do cause Colic. One way or the other Colic requires you to diagnose and treat it on time. Though it seems that it is a deadly problem, there is still hope. Because the technology today has improved the way you can diagnose and treat it. And we have better anesthetic drugs along with better monitoring and surgical techniques.

To know more about different health problems in horses, check this article “Health Problems in Horses – The Most Comprehensive Account of the Major Health Issues in Horses“.

Now you get a general idea of Colic in foals. Let’s discuss it in detail:

Signs of Colic in horses

If your horse has a colic problem, how are you going to tell? Though the vet is the appropriate person to diagnose whether your horse has a colic problem or not, as a horse owner, it is your responsibility to be observant enough to know when your horse is having a problem, especially Colic. Symptoms depend on the severity of the problem. To ease you out, symptoms of Colic are given below:



  • Lying on the side for long
  • Posturing to urinate frequently
  • Lying down and getting back up


  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Violent rolling
  • Injuries to face and body during to thrashing around

Some other symptoms of Colic in foals include inappetence, kicking up at the abdomen, groaning, diarrhea, infrequent to no defecation, visible abdominal distention. Foals may salivate and grind their teeth excessively, or they roll upon their backs.

Colic is a life-threatening disease. You should not be ignorant of these symptoms. If symptoms are mild, try walking your horse around slowly but not more than 10 minutes. And if symptoms persist for more than 30 minutes, contact your vet. Moreover, don’t wait a little longer if your horse displays moderate or severe symptoms.

Causes of Colic in horses

There are different types of Colic. Some of which are more severe as compared to others. Colic in foals is categorized into types depending on a different cause. Therefore, instead of identifying the cause directly, the vet tries to identify the type of Colic a horse has. This, in turn, gives information about the cause and its appropriate treatment. However, if the horse doesn’t respond to initial treatment, then a more specific diagnosis is required.

Horses are prone to Colic, naturally. And fortunately, many types of Colic respond well to treatment. Following are the different types of Colic in foals:

Gas colic

As the name suggests, this type of Colic is due to the production of excessive gas by microbes in the colon. It occurs when there are changes in the diet of the horse or when you provide the horse highly fermented feeds. It can also occur due to parasites or low-dietary roughage levels. The gas causes mild to moderate pain when it stretches the wall of the gut. Mostly, it clears up with little treatment. Spasmodic Colic refers to intestinal cramps or spasm. It is also caused by gas.

Colon shift or twisted gut

Sometimes colon moves out of its place due to gas colic. Or it may hook over the kidney, or twist on itself. You can imagine how painful it could be. Such gas buildup and impaction cause severe or prolonged pain. And it may even damage the colon by blocking the blood supply and oxygen availability. This type of Colic constitutes almost 4% of Colic. Although it is not very common, it is highly dangerous if emergency surgery is not done.

Impaction colic

This type of Colic in horses occurs due to poor motility. In poor motility, the process that moves food in the gut becomes disrupted and food stops moving. The gut adds fluid to move the food, but that also becomes trapped. And if the gut keeps on adding fluid, the horse becomes dehydrated and shock. The flood starts stretching the stomach and causes pain because the horse can’t throw up. Or in severe cases, the stomach may burst.

It accounts for 10% of all Colic. Sometimes partially digested feed such as roughage builds up in the large intestine. It causes blocking. One symptom could be the horse doesn’t pass dung. Causes of impaction include poorly chewed food, a block in the digestive tract, poor water intake, dry feed, and poor motility.

Sand colic

Sand colic occurs in horses that feed on sandy grounds or live in sandy areas. It occurs due to sand particles that got stuck in large intestines.

Strangulation colic

Lack of blood supply to an area of the intestine causes strangulation colic. As you may know, what happens when blood supply is cut off. It results in the sudden death of the intestine wall. And as it sounds, this condition is life-threatening.

Some risk factors can prone your horse to Colic. Such factors include:

  • A sudden change of environment or routine
  • Stress such as exercise after eating, traveling or while unfit
  • Poor feeding regimens such as inappropriate quantities, soiled food, lack of water or fiber
  • Poor and over-grazed pasture
  • Digestive disorders such as worms, erosion of the lining of GI tract, inflammation of abdominal cavity or tooth problems


If left unchecked Colic in horses can be very dangerous. Thus, precise and timely diagnosis is very important. Your vet will consider the following examination:

  • Changes in feed or routine, travel, any previous episodes of Colic, medications or deworming/vaccination schedule
  • A physical examination includes respiratory rate, heart rate, rectal temperature, the abnormal color of mucous membrane, presence or absence of gastrointestinal sounds, abdominal distention and skin turgor.

   Advanced diagnosis 

  • Ultrasound of abdomen
  • Rectal examination
  • Abdominocentesis
  • Gastroscopy
  • Using nasogastric tube to check for reflux

Treatment of Colic in horses

After diagnosis, your vet will prescribe you the appropriate treatment and management plan for your horse. While waiting for your vet, monitor the signs, try to keep your horse calm and don’t give anything to eat or drink. Check the horse is in a safe area such as a large stable or corral so that your horse would be safe if it is anxious, restless or is rolling around.

The treatment of Colic depends upon the type of Colic. It usually involves antispasmodics, pain relief, laxatives, electrolytes/fluid therapy and surgery. Your vet will consider the following treatment options:


In almost every colic case, vets prescribe analgesics such as detomidine or flunixin meglumine (Banamine). These analgesics treat abdominal pain as it can be very severe. 


If the cause of Colic is poor motility and the horse is suffering from an impaction, vets prescribe laxatives. Laxatives help loosen and dislodge the impaction. This will get feces moving again. Laxatives include magnesium sulfate/Epsom salts or mineral oil. It is administered into the stomach directly, using a nasogastric tube. Make sure that until the horse defecates, it is held off-feed, giving time to the gastrointestinal tract to return.

Fluid for re-hydration

Colic can cause dehydration in horses; the horse is re-hydrated by using oral or IV fluids. Your vet may use a nasogastric tube to give gas and fluids a way to exit and to relieve pressure in the stomach.


If your vet suspects displacement/entrapment, strangulation or twisted gut, he may prescribe surgery because it would be the only option. Although dreaded by most owners, surgery is effective. The surgical outcome depends on the condition of the horse, how long the horse has been suffering from Colic and the location of the problem within the digestive tract.

Mineral oil

Vets also use mineral oil to treat Colic in horses. Though mineral oil is not a laxative and it is a crude method, but it’s quite effective. It is used in the case of impaction colic. In this process, the vet mixes a liter of mineral oil with a bucket of water. Then pump it directly into the horse’s stomach using a nasogastric tube.

The reason for using mineral oil is that it is indigestible and makes its way out directly. It softens the fecal material and brings the colic episode to an end.

Prevention of Colic in horses

Colic has become very common in horses these days. The reason is that dietary practices and feed has been changed. The diet of the horses now is different from their ancestors even if they live at a grass. It is not according to their natural feeding habits. The natural way of horse feeding is “trickle feeding” which refers to eating large quantities of low energy food the whole day.

In contrast to this, today’s management provides rationed hay, hard feed twice a day. It also includes stabling horses for eight hours without any food or exercise. Such a difference in natural/ ideal and actual situation leads to many problems in horses, especially Colic.

There are many ways you can prevent Colic in foals. Though many types of Colic are not preventable, taking the following precautions can reduce the risk of Colic.

Provide fresh and clean water

As we have discussed earlier, that lack of water can result in Colic and impaction. This further reduces the water content in horses, which leads to dehydration and worsening of the condition. Horses not having water for one or two hours are at increased risk of Colic. Also, make sure that the temperature of the water is appropriate for a horse because horses don’t like to drink ice-cold water.

Avoid feeding horses on ground in sandy areas

Use hay racks or feed tubs so that horses may not eat enough sand that could upset their gut. You can also place rubber mats underneath the rack. This would reduce the amount of sand a horse can eat while eating scraps.

Control parasites

Regularly deworm your horses. This would reduce the risk of Colic in horses. Make sure that the worm control programs are up to date as your vet has prescribed.

Allow pasture turnout

Pasture turnout is very important for the health and well-being of a horse. Sometimes confining your horse in a stall is necessary, especially if your vet advises you so for some reason. However, horses have a lower colic risk if you provide them access to different pastures. Also, limit their access to simple carbohydrates.

Floating horse’s teeth

In simple words, floating a horse’s teeth is to file its teeth. It makes the chewing surface relatively smooth and flat. With routine floating, your horse can chew its food properly. This reduces the risk of Colic in foals.

Look for colic signs after changes in diet, exercise or stabling

Sudden changes in exercise, diet or stabling increase the risk of Colic in foals. Colic usually occurs within two weeks after making such changes. However, if it is necessary, make gradual changes. For instance, mix one-fourth new feed with the three-fourth old one for a week, and then gradually increase the ratio.

Be careful when using Bute

If you are treating your horse with Bute (phenylbutazone), discuss it with your vet. The reason is that it can increase the risk of Colic and can also hide early signs of Colic. 


Although it is not always possible, early detection of Colic leads to a successful outcome. Moreover, by taking precautions, you can limit the risk of Colic in horses. Be aware of respiratory rate, pulse rate, and temperature and if your horse has already been treated of Colic before. Also, keep an eye on any changes that don’t seem normal. Make sure to manage the appropriate diet and environment. Closely monitor and take care of your horse yourself as much as you can.

To know more about different health problems in horses, check this article “Senior Horse Health Problems – Potential Risks, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment“.