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How Does a Horse Get Colic? A Definition and Treatment Options

Last updated: March 19, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Our horse began lying down and rolling around in the stall, which is unusual for him. I suspected he was suffering from colic and made him stand up. After this incident, I decided to do some research to learn more about colic.

Horses get colic for various reasons, such as overeating, dehydration, and eating moldy hay or feed. “Colic” is the term used to describe severe stomach pain in horses. Most often, the cause is a gastrointestinal disturbance related to the colon.

It would be best if you treated colic with urgency and a veterinarian consulted immediately. Severe colic can be fatal. Horses lay down for various reasons; we need to determine if our horse is just being a horse or has colic.

Not all horses act the same when they have severe stomach pain, but there are some common signs you need to be aware of.

Colic in horses defined.

Before we delve too deep into colic, it’s necessary to have an understanding of the condition. Colic is severe abdominal pain in horses. Acute colic is a grave condition and can be fatal.


Horses have a complex gastrointestinal system that is adversely affected for numerous reasons, but colic is typically related to overeating or eating incorrectly.

Why do horses get colic?

Colic is a condition that affects horses. It can be caused by many factors, such as overeating grain or eating ruined feed or hay. The more common cause of colic is intestinal gas accumulation, which causes pain and often causes the horse to refuse food or drink because it is painful to consume anything.

The wall of the intestine is stretched.

The wall of the intestine is stretched excessively by either gas, fluid, or ingesta. This stretching causes stimulation of the sensitive nerve endings located within the intestinal wall, and pain impulses are sent to the brain.

Tension on the ligamentous attachment.

Pain develops due to excessive tension on the ligamentous attachment of the intestine to the body wall, called the “mesentery.” When this happens, intestinal displacement could occur or be in the process of occurring.

Restriction in blood supply to tissues.

Ischemia develops a restriction in blood supply to tissues, causing a shortage of oxygen needed to keep tissues alive. The lack of blood flow is usually caused by a blockage or severe twisting of the intestine.

Inflammation of the intestines.

Inflammation develops and may involve the entire intestinal wall (enteritis) or the intestine’s covering (peritonitis). Under such circumstances, proinflammatory mediators in the wall of the intestine decrease the threshold for painful stimuli.

What conditions lead to colic in horses?

Many conditions can cause a horse to colic. The general types of diseases that lead to colic are;

  1. Flatulent colic is excessive gas in the intestine,
  2. Simple obstruction of the intestine. Sometimes surgery is necessary to treat; however, it can be treated non-surgically.
  3. Strangulating obstruction is obstruction of both the intestine and the blood supply to the intestine. Emergency surgical intervention is generally necessary.
  4. nonstrangulating infarction, interruption of the blood supply to the intestine alone. Emergency abdominal surgery is normally required.
  5. Enteritis inflammation of the intestine, especially the small intestine, usually accompanied by diarrhea
  6. Peritonitis, inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity,
  7. Ulceration erosion of the intestinal lining,
  8. Unexplained colic– There are still some causes that are a mystery. In general, horses with strangulating obstructions and complete obstructions require emergency abdominal surgery, whereas horses with other types of colic can likely be treated with medicine.

Treatment for horses suffering from colic.

If a horse shows signs that indicate it may be suffering from colic, a veterinarian should be called immediately to be evaluated. He will likely need some type of medical treatment. It may be medicine to help relieve the pain and soften a stool or surgical intervention.

Sometimes rehydrating a horse relieves colic pain.

Often dehydration is a risk, and getting fluids back into the horse is a priority. Lack of hydration is a primary cause of obstructive colic. The goal would be to rehydrate and clear out the intestine’s contents.

Horses must drink 10-12 gallons of fresh water each day. Failure to hydrate correctly can lead to impaction and colic. Treatment for dehydration is obvious: fluid replacement with electrolytes. Click here to check prices for electrolytes on Amazon.

Signs of dehydration include high heart rates.

If the horse is in a severely painful condition and has signs indicating dehydration, such as high heart rate, prolonged capillary refill time, and discoloration of the mucous membranes, the initial aims of treatment are to relieve pain and restore hydration.

Press your finger firmly on the gum above the front incisors and remove it quickly to check capillary refill time. The area should turn from white back to pink in about 2 seconds.

A Veterinarian can administer fluids via a stomach tube passed through a dehydrated horse’s nose. Or, in more severe cases, the vet will administer the fluids intravenously. To learn more about equine dehydration, you can read my article by clicking this link.

Medications are used to treat colic in horses.

In situations where medicine’s used first, the horse would have to be in the early stages of colic and not in extreme distress. An ultrasound examination can be used to check the progress of the treatment.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Flunixin (Banamine) and Phenylbutazone (bute) are used to treat the symptoms associated with colic. These drugs reduce inflammation, control pain, and reduce fever.

Banamine is an effective medicine for the treatment of colic.

Banamine usually takes 30 minutes to take effect; giving your horse a sedative may help until the Banamine kicks in. Click here for a list of the drugs used to treat colic. You can use intestinal lubricants and laxatives to help impaction colic.

Parasites can cause colic in a variety of ways. If a veterinarian thinks your horse will gain some benefit, he will administer deworming medication after he evaluates the horse.

Digestive Aids

Recently I read about Stops Colic Llc Say Whoa Gel Syringes, a gel that promotes bowel movement. For horses that begin to show early signs of colic, like not pooing or passing small hard stools, Stops Colic helps.

If it works as advertised and from the reviews, it seems to; Stops Colic would be an indispensable product to keep on hand. I’m ordering a couple of syringes for us. If I have the opportunity to use it, I will come back and let you know about my experience.

Sometimes surgery is necessary to treat colic.

Colic surgery often begins as an exploratory celiotomy.

If an obstruction is the origin of the colic, he will likely need surgery. After a careful examination by a veterinarian, he will design a plan of how best to treat your horse’s colic. The horse may be treated first with medicine to see if you can avoid surgical intervention.

Colic surgery is often referred to as exploratory celiotomy. The procedure occurs in the abdomen. It’s typically performed to address life-threatening abnormalities of the gastrointestinal tract caused by colic. 

Colic surgery may include the removal of the obstruction causing the condition.

The surgical procedures usually include either correction of displaced intestines, resection of necrotic intestines, or removing intraluminal obstructions. There is a wide variety of colic surgery, and the exact procedure depends on the condition found at the time of surgery.

If a horse has the surgery, he still has a good chance of a full recovery. Colic surgery is expensive, and the horse will need extensive care after surgery. Colic is the leading cause of death in horses; it accounts for close to 10 percent of deaths in horses.

What should you do when you first suspect your horse is suffering from colic?

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Our instincts were correct; he needed to be up and on his feet; also, walking around is good. There isn’t any solid evidence that walking helps relieve the pain, but it seems to keep his mind off it.

Also, if he continued lying in his stall and rolling around, he could cause worse damage and cause the intestines to twist and make matters worse.

Rolling and lying down are signs of colic in horses.

Frequent lying down and rolling are the most obvious signs of colic, and he will need immediate attention to have any chance of recovery. First aid treatment requires he is brought to his feet and kept moving.

horse colic,

Take turns hand-walking him, whatever it takes to keep him moving. Get the vet on the phone and ask if you should try to get some laxatives into the horse.

Mineral oil may help relieve colic pain until the vet arrives.

Here is a home remedy you may try after clearing with the veterinarian Mineral oil (through a syringe or stomach tube) is a possibility, or a mixture of bran, mineral oil, salt, and water may be effective if the horse will ingest this.

Your primary task is to keep the horse on his feet until the vet arrives. (The bran mixture: 1 quart bran, 1/2 cup mineral oil, two tablespoons of salt, and enough water to make it a mash mixture)

Contact your veterinarian.

Horses can’t vomit as we do, so don’t try any of your own remedies without checking with the veterinarian. He will probably have a good idea of his treatment plan from the information you have given him over the phone. He will likely provide a muscle relaxant to promote defecation or perhaps an enema, but that decision is best left to an expert.

Picture of a horse showing signs of colic,

What are the symptoms of colic in horses?

Our horse exhibited the classic sign of colic, rolling around in the stall. However, there are other signs of colic you need to be conscious of as well. These include:

Pawing the ground repeatedly is associated with Colic

Pawing repeatedly with a front foot. Pawing is not unnatural for a horse, but if you notice continuous pawing of the ground, this is a good indicator of pain. Horses do not have very many ways to communicate pain to others. Pawing the ground is one clear distress signal.

Horses turn their heads and frequently look back at its flank.

Looking back at the flank region is a telling sign of abdominal pain. When your horse is frequently turning his head back to look at, nudge, or even bite at his flank, he is telling you in no uncertain terms he has belly pain.

A horse curls its upper lip back when it is suffering from colic.

Curling the upper lip, when done in conjunction with other behavior in which a horse extends its neck, raises its head, and inhales as it rolls its upper lip back, displaying its front teeth, is also called flehming.

This behavior is sometimes seen as the early onset of colic pain or when a horse is experiencing low-level gastrointestinal discomfort.

A horse arching its neck in combination with flehming is a sign of colic.

Arching the neck is another indicator of pain, especially if done in conjunction with curling of the upper lip.

Repeatedly raising its rear leg in an aggravated manner is a sign of colic.

Repeatedly raising a rear leg is a typical sign of irritation related to insects aggravating a horse. Check the horse’s legs, and If you have ruled out insects as the cause of the issue, this behavior could indicate pain somewhere else in his body.

It may be a sign of colic. Many stabled horses, fed concentrated feeds and kept confined, can suffer from undiagnosed abdominal discomfort.

Kicking at the abdomen is a sign of stomach pain.

Kicking at the abdomen a horse with belly pain will often try to kick at its belly, which is usually a reliable distress signal.

Horses that frantically roll on the ground may be suffering from colic pain.

Rolling from side to side, healthy horses will go to the ground, roll, pop up, and shake; this is actually good for them. But a horse suffering from colic will drop suddenly to the ground and roll and roll frantically, and when he does get back up, he won’t shake but instead will look back at its flank.

The differences will be evident from the roll of a healthy horse. Also, healthy horses rarely roll in their stall, and horses with colic rolling in their stall will appear to be messy, sweaty, and usually covered in manure and shavings.

Horses that roll because of colic pain appear distressed.

Horses with severe colic will roll and kick without any concern for their safety or others around them. Sometimes they will cause themselves injuries from this wild behavior. A horse that displays this type of rolling is in an emergency situation and needs veterinarian attention as soon as possible.

Excessive sweating is indicative of pain and could be a sign of colic.

Sweating is an integral part of a horse’s health. Horses’ only way to cool themselves is by sweating. During periods of extreme pain, they may start to sweat excessively.

A horse can lose up to 4 gallons of sweat in an hour. And a horse’s sweat contains high volumes of water and electrolytes, so when a horse sweats too much, it can lead to foaming at the mouth, fainting, and even death.

Stretching out while standing is a sign of abdominal pain.

Stretching out as if to urinate can be mistaken for signs of urinary tract distress but is more often related to abdominal pain. In geldings and stallions, they will partially drop their penis, stretch out their bodies, and dribble small urine amounts. 

Straining to defecate is a symptom of colic.

If you notice your horse is straining to pass manure, be aware that this is a sign of trouble. Adult horse rarely has problems passing manure. He likely has an advanced illness, one of which could be colic.

Straining to defecate is also symptomatic of rectal impactions, chronic diarrhea, urinary tract problems, or neurologic problems. 

Do not do your own internal examination or attempt to pull manure out of your horse’s rectum. Do not attempt to perform an enema on an adult horse that is straining to pass feces. Please do not insert any object in his Rectal tissue is fragile and can be easily ruptured, causing life-threatening conditions.


Bloated bellies in horses are a sign of colic.

Distention of the abdomen is another way of saying bloated belly. A bloated stomach occurs when the intestines overfill with gas or fluids. If the organ is filled with gas, the horse will likely show some of the earlier discussed signs of colic.

A variety of issues can cause a bloated belly. Most commonly, the cause is overeating of grain or drinking too much water, parasite infestation, or an anatomical condition such as a twisted intestine that prevents food from moving out of the stomach.

A horse that has lacked water for a long time may drink too much when water is made available. Drinking large amounts of cold water can cause a spasm in the stomach opening resulting in stomach bloating, a painful condition. The contractions usually resolve themselves after a short period.

Overeating causes colic and bloated bellies.

Overeating of grain is another common cause of stomach bloating. The bloating occurs when a horse breaks into the feed room or inadvertently is given access to a large quantity of feed. A horse has a small stomach.

The stomach capacity of a horse is only about 2 to 4 gallons (8 to 16 liters). So it is not difficult for a horse to intake more feed than its stomach can handle. When grain stays in the stomach for an extended period, fermentation begins to produce gas, which leads to enlargement and pain.

A full belly on a horse also causes waves of contractions designed to push food into the small intestine, increasing pain because the food cannot leave the stomach. Most animals vomit when they overeat, this relieves the pressure, but a horse can’t vomit, although rare stomach rupture can occur in these situations.

Loss of appetite is a symptom of horses with colic.

You know your horse, and he probably loves to eat like most other horses. If he has food available and shows no interest in the feed or picks at the food without really eating, be aware that something is wrong. Lack of interest in feed is a sign the horse may have colic.

A horse with a sudden mood change may be suffering from colic.

If your horse has developed a sudden mood change, he doesn’t want to eat, stands alone in a pasture with other horses, and seems unusually tired, these are signs of depression and could be a symptom of depression.

Fewer bowel movements could indicate a horse is suffering from colic.

Generally, horses poo about 6 to 8 times per day and last approximately 15 seconds; of course, each horse is different, and that is why you should have a basic idea of how often your horse dumps and what it looks like when he is healthy.

If you notice a decrease in bowel movements, it could be a symptom of colic. Especially in a situation in which you have observed one or more other signs of colic.

A horse will not normally display all these signs when he has colic. Although these symptoms are all indicators of stomach pain, they do not identify the region of the GI tract that is affected or whether surgery is necessary.

Can you reduce the chances your horse will colic?

The following are recognized methods to reduce the risk factors associated with equine colic:

  • Feed good hay- no old hay with mold
  • Access to clean water
  • Turn your horse out as much as possible
  • Make diet change gradual
  • Keep your horse wormed
  • Exercise your horse
  • Don’t feed your horse on dirt
  • Make sure you are feeding the right quantity and quality of grain feed
  • Feed on a regular schedule

Our horse underwent surgery for colic.

He had an obstruction, which required surgery and a long recovery. We purchased him at a racehorse yearling auction. He suffered this episode before he ever ran his first race.

He recovered from the surgery well enough to make it to the race track. He wasn’t a great racehorse, but he did manage to win a couple of races.


How long can colic last in horses?

Uncomplicated cases of colic, which causes painful cramps in horses, usually recover within 12-24 hours when treated by an equine vet. Once your horse has had a bowel movement and begins acting normal, you can allow it to start eating.

Will a horse still eat if it’s colicing?

Most horses suffering from colic will not eat because of the intense abdominal pain they are suffering. In addition to not eating, they also tend to exhibit other behaviors such as rolling, pawing at the ground, and frequently looking back towards their stomach.