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Horse Colic 101: What Every Owner Should Know

Published on: March 19, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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While talking with fellow horse owners, the topic of colic came up. One owner shared a recent experience with their own horse, and the group fell silent as they listened to the story of the horse’s struggle and the urgent rush to get them to the vet.

The account of his horse’s battle highlighted the importance of recognizing the signs of colic and seeking prompt veterinary care. Although it’s a scary situation, being prepared and taking swift action can make all the difference in ensuring our horses receive the treatment necessary for a successful recovery.

As a horse owner, understanding colic is crucial. In this post, we cover everything from causes and symptoms to prevention and treatment. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge needed to recognize signs and take action. Let’s dive in and learn more about this dangerous condition.

Picture of a horse with colic and a woman comforting him.
Horse with colic

The Basics of Horse Colic

Horse colic is a common and potentially life-threatening condition that affects horses of all breeds and ages. Colic is a general term used to describe abdominal pain, discomfort, or digestive upset.

In horses, colic can have various causes and symptoms, and it’s essential for horse owners to be familiar with the signs and understand how to respond appropriately.

Definition of Horse Colic

Horse colic is a condition that can be caused by various factors, such as blockages, gas buildup, inflammation, and twisting of the intestines. It can be a mild or severe condition and is often accompanied by abdominal pain, loss of appetite, changes in bowel movements, and lethargy.

In severe cases, colic can lead to life-threatening complications and require emergency veterinary intervention.

Importance of Understanding Colic

As a horse owner, it’s crucial to understand the signs of colic and how to respond promptly to prevent complications. Early detection and treatment are critical for a successful recovery from colic.

Therefore, it’s essential to educate yourself on the common causes, symptoms, and treatments of colic to take proactive measures to keep your horse healthy.

By learning about horse colic, you can better understand how to prevent it and what to do when it occurs. You’ll also be able to recognize the signs of a severe colic episode and when to seek immediate veterinary care.

In short, understanding horse colic is an essential part of responsible horse ownership that can make a significant difference in your horse’s overall health and well-being.

Causes of Horse Colic

The digestive system of horses is complex, and there are many potential causes of colic. Understanding the anatomy and function of the equine digestive system can help you better comprehend the various causes of colic.

The horse’s digestive system is designed to digest fibrous plant material continuously. The food enters the mouth, then passes through the esophagus and into the stomach. In the stomach, gastric juices break down the food, which then moves into the small intestine, where the bulk of nutrient absorption occurs. Finally, the remaining undigested material passes into the large intestine and out through the rectum.

Common Causes of Horse Colic

Several factors can cause colic in horses, including impaction, gas, displacement, and torsion.

  • Impaction Colic: This type of colic occurs when food material becomes impacted, or stuck, in the intestines, causing a blockage. This can be caused by dehydration, poor-quality feed, or inadequate roughage.
  • Gas Colic: Gas colic occurs when gas builds up in the digestive tract, causing pain and discomfort. This can be caused by changes in diet or feeding habits or a disruption in the digestive process.
  • Displacement Colic: Displacement colic occurs when a section of the intestine becomes displaced, twisted, or turned, disrupting the normal flow of food and fluids.
  • Torsion Colic: Torsion colic occurs when a section of the intestine twists on itself, cutting off the blood supply to that part of the intestine. This is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that requires emergency veterinary care.

Sand Colic in Horses: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention Strategies

Sand colic in horses is a condition that occurs when horses ingest sand or dirt with their food or water. Sand colic can cause irritation and inflammation in the horse’s intestinal tract, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and weight loss.

If left untreated, sand colic can result in serious complications, including impaction, intestinal rupture, and even death. Horses can ingest sand or dirt when they graze on sandy soil or eat hay that has been contaminated with sand or dirt particles.

Certain feeding practices, such as feeding horses on the ground or in areas with sandy soil, can increase the risk of sand colic. To prevent sand colic, horse owners should provide clean, high-quality hay and water and avoid feeding horses in sandy areas.

Additionally, periodic monitoring of fecal samples can help identify early signs of sand ingestion and help prevent the onset of sand colic. Horse colic can be caused by various factors related to the equine digestive system. Understanding the different types of colic and their causes can help you take proactive steps to prevent them from occurring.

Picture of a horse with colic laying down.
Horse with colic

Recognizing the Symptoms of Horse Colic

Horse colic can manifest in a variety of symptoms, both behavioral and physical. Being able to recognize these symptoms is essential to detecting colic early and seeking prompt veterinary care.

Behavioral Changes

One of the most common behavioral changes seen in horses with colic is restlessness. The horse may pace, lie down and get up repeatedly, or roll repeatedly. They may also exhibit signs of discomfort, such as pawing the ground, kicking at their abdomen, or stretching out as if trying to urinate.

Other signs of colic include reluctance to eat or drink, decreased bowel movements, or a general sense of unease or agitation.

Here is a good YouTube video from Auburn University about colic signs and symptoms:

Physical Changes

In addition to behavioral changes, horses with colic may also exhibit various physical symptoms. These include an increased heart rate, sweating, elevated respiratory rate, or a hard, bloated abdomen.

The horse may also show signs of discomfort or pain when pressure is applied to the abdomen or flanks. It’s essential to note that not all horses with colic exhibit all of these symptoms. The severity of the symptoms can vary depending on the cause and severity of the colic episode.

However, if you notice any of these symptoms in your horse, it’s crucial to contact your veterinarian immediately for further assessment and treatment.

Recognizing the symptoms of horse colic is crucial to ensuring prompt veterinary care and successful recovery for your horse. Keep an eye out for any behavioral or physical changes in your horse, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you suspect colic. Early intervention can make all the difference in the outcome of a colic episode.

Picture of a vet checking a horse for colic.
Vet checking horse

Diagnosing Colic in Horses: What Happens at the Vet

If you think your horse might be experiencing colic, it’s really important to call your vet right away. They’ll come and check out your horse to figure out if it’s actually colic and what’s causing it.

They’ll do a physical exam to check for any signs of discomfort or pain and try to identify the underlying issue. The sooner you get your horse checked out, the better chance they have of getting better!

Physical Examination

The vet will begin by taking your horse’s vital signs, including their heart rate, respiration rate, and temperature. They will also listen to the horse’s gut sounds using a stethoscope to determine if there is an abnormality in the digestive tract. The vet may also palpate or feel the horse’s abdomen to check for any discomfort or pain.

Diagnostic Tests

If the physical exam indicates colic, the vet may perform additional diagnostic tests to determine the severity of the condition and identify the underlying cause. These tests may include a rectal exam, where the vet inserts a gloved hand into the horse’s rectum to feel for any blockages or abnormalities.

An abdominal ultrasound may also be used to visualize the internal organs and identify any abnormalities. Based on the results of the physical exam and diagnostic tests, the veterinarian will make a diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment for your horse.

Treatment for Horse Colic: How Vets Help Your Horse Feel Better

The main thing when treating horse colic is to get your horse feeling better and fix the underlying problem causing the colic. The vet will check out your horse to figure out how severe the colic is and what’s causing it. Then they’ll come up with a plan to help your horse feel better and get on the road to recovery.

Medical Treatment

In most cases, the vet will begin with medical treatment, which may include administering pain medication to relieve the horse’s discomfort. The vet may also provide fluids to keep the horse hydrated and replace any electrolytes that may have been lost. Depending on the severity of the colic, the horse may need to be hospitalized for observation and further treatment.

Surgical Treatment

In more severe cases of colic, surgery may be necessary to remove any blockages or repair any damage to the intestines. This is typically reserved for cases where medical treatment has been unsuccessful or where the horse’s life is in immediate danger.

After surgery, some horses get better and are able to go back to their normal life. I had a young Thoroughbred that had colic surgery and fully recovered and returned to the track. But some horses may have problems that last a long time, or they might need continuous vet care.

How well a horse recovers after surgery depends on different things, like how bad the colic was and how well they are taken care of after surgery. It’s important to work with your veterinarian to make sure the horse is feeling better and to take good care of them.


Recovery from colic will depend on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. Horses that undergo surgery may need to stay in the hospital for several days or weeks to recover fully. Horses that receive medical treatment may need to be monitored closely for several days to ensure they are fully recovered.

Treating horse colic involves a combination of medical and surgical interventions aimed at relieving the horse’s pain and resolving the underlying condition. With prompt and appropriate treatment, most horses with colic make a full recovery and can return to their normal activities.

Preventing Horse Colic: Tips to Keep Your Horse Healthy

Horse colic can be a painful and potentially life-threatening condition, but there are steps you can take to prevent it from occurring. Here are some strategies for preventing horse colic:

Proper Diet and Nutrition

One of the best ways to prevent colic is by feeding your horse a healthy, balanced diet. This should include high-quality hay or pasture, along with a balanced feed that meets your horse’s nutritional needs. Ensure your horse always has access to clean, fresh water, as dehydration can increase the risk of colic.

Regular Exercise

Regular exercise is also essential for preventing colic. Horses that are inactive or have limited turnout are more prone to developing digestive problems. Try to provide your horse with daily turnout, as well as regular exercise, such as riding or lunging.

Picture of a horse lying down with colic pains.
Horse lying down with colic pains

Monitor Your Horse’s Health and Behavior

It’s crucial to keep a close eye on your horse’s health and behavior to catch any signs of colic early. Look out for behavioral changes, such as restlessness or reluctance to eat, as well as physical symptoms, like an elevated heart rate or sweating. If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Other Tips: Other strategies for preventing colic include:

  • Regular dental checkups to ensure your horse can properly chew and digest their food
  • Providing frequent, small meals instead of large, infrequent ones
  • Avoiding sudden changes in feed or environment

Preventing horse colic involves a combination of proper diet and nutrition, regular exercise, and monitoring your horse’s health and behavior. By taking proactive steps to keep your horse healthy, you can reduce the risk of colic and ensure your horse lives a long, happy life.

Conclusion: Take Action If You Suspect Horse Colic

Horse colic is a common condition that can have serious consequences if left untreated. Here are the key points to remember:

  • Horse colic is a general term used to describe abdominal pain, discomfort, or digestive upset in horses.
  • Common causes of horse colic include impaction, gas, displacement, and torsion.
  • Symptoms of horse colic include behavioral changes (e.g., restlessness, reluctance to eat or drink) and physical changes (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating).
  • If you suspect your horse has colic, it’s crucial to contact your veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Treatment for horse colic may include medical intervention (e.g., pain management, fluid therapy) or surgical intervention (when necessary).
  • Prevention strategies for horse colic include proper diet and nutrition, regular exercise, and monitoring your horse’s health and behavior.

The key to preventing complications from horse colic is early detection and prompt veterinary care. If you suspect your horse has colic, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian immediately. With the right treatment and prevention strategies, you can help keep your horse healthy and happy for years to come.


What is the main cause of colic in horses?

The main cause of colic in horses is unclear, but it can be triggered by a variety of factors, including changes in diet, stress, parasites, and dental issues. Some types of colic are also associated with gastrointestinal problems, such as impaction, torsion, or displacement of the intestines.

Should you walk a horse with colic?

It depends on the severity and cause of the colic. Light exercise, such as hand-walking, can sometimes help relieve mild colic symptoms and prevent complications. However, if the colic is severe or caused by a more serious issue, such as a twisted intestine, walking can actually worsen the condition and increase the risk of further injury.