How To Deal With Colic In Horses

July 23, 2020

How To Deal With Colic In Horses

Owning a horse isn't the same as having a smaller pet like a dog or a cat, which requires less maintenance. There is a lot of care that goes into taking proper care of a horse. A significant part of that is maintaining their health. Colic is an illness that you might deal with as a horse owner.

Treating a horse that has colic can quickly become an overwhelming situation, but you can take steps to control the situation. A full understanding of preventing horse colic, horse colic systems, horse colic treatments, and potentially colic in horses is the best way to be equipped for caring for your horse. To learn everything you need to know about horse colic, continue to read the guide below.

Horse suffering from colic

Types of Colic

There isn't just one type of colic, and knowing the difference between the different types will affect the causes and treatment. Here are the most common types of horse colic:

Displacement Colic

Displacement colic refers to the displacement of the small intestine, which can quickly become twisted due to its position free-floating in the gut. While this is most common with the small intestine, the large intestine can also become displaced. This type of colic can be caused by gas build up in the gut. This makes the intestines buoyant and more subject to movement inside of the abdomen. Displacement requires a more intense treatment, which means that it can only be done via surgery. This surgery repositions the small intestine and may also be needed to remove any damaged portions of the intestine, which can sometimes occur because of reduced blood flow.

Impaction Colic

The large intestine folds upon itself with impaction colic, resulting in both changes in direction and a change in diameter. This makes an impaction more likely. Several feed-related issues can cause the impaction itself. Most commonly, things like coarse feed, foreign materials like sand, and dehydration can cause build-up or blockage.

Gas Colic

Gas colic simply refers to the build-up of gas in the gut, causing the stomach to distend, ultimately resulting in pain. This is usually caused by a build-up of bacteria resulting from contaminated food or water sources. Even overeating good quality feed can contribute to causing gas colic, so paying close attention to your horse's feeding patterns is essential. Treating gas colic involves a stomach tube being inserted by a professional veterinarian to relieve the pressure.

Spasmodic Colic

This type of colic refers to spasms, or painful contractions, of the intestine muscles. This has frequently been compared to indigestion in people and is easily treated. The causes for this type can be as simple as overexcitement or even stress, so paying close attention to your horse's behavior and the mood is the best way to detect spasmodic colic.


Enteritis refers to the inflammation, usually due to bacteria, of the intestine. A tainted food supply or overeating most commonly causes this. This colic type can potentially be challenging to detect, simply because the symptoms are very similar to impaction or displacement colic.

Causes of Colic in Horses

So, what causes colic in horses? Colic is defined as abdominal pain, although many horse owners will refer to any problems related to the gastrointestinal tract as colic. There are numerous causes for colic, but in most cases, they are related to the anatomy and microflora in the horse's digestive tract. Other common causes include:

  • Dental problems. If a horse is experiencing dental issues, they may not be able to chew their food correctly. This means that the starches in the horse feed cannot break down as much as they should, which ultimately affects digestion. This is also why older horses who are fed coarse hay are at a higher risk for colic.
  • Stress. For horses, stress can come about in a variety of ways. A change in routine, a new herd mate or handler, and even a drastic change in weather could cause enough stress to cause colic symptoms. A horse suffers from chronic stress, which can lead to Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), which can potentially cause colic symptoms.
  • Long term use of NSAIDS, which is a non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory drug. This one is slightly complicated since NSAIDS can treat colic in horses, among other conditions. The use of this medication has been a bit controversial since many horse owners have seen side effects of the medicine that outweigh the benefits. In colic, and especially when used for a long time, NSAIDS could very well worsen the horse's condition.
  • Antibiotic usage. This can potentially lead to colic because they alter the microbial population in the horse's gut, affecting the digestion of starches.
  • Ingestion of sand. This can occur if horses are kept in stalls or pastures on sandy soil, are fed on the ground, or graze in overgrazed pastures. The sand can build up within the large bowel of the horse, which causes irritation.
  • Low water consumption. This is most likely to occur in the winter when horses naturally drink less water. Colic can also happen when the water horses consume is stagnant and not fresh.
  • Parasite infection. If a horse has a parasite, this can cause obstruction or impaction of the intestines. Colic can also occur in horses after being given dewormer.
  • An abrupt change in feed. This could lead to improper fermentation in the gut, or even an obstruction if the horse is given too much grain in one meal.
  • Moldy or otherwise tainted feed. This could lead to a type of colic called gas colic, which is associated with a gas build-up in the gut. Essentially, gas builds up in the gut, which then distends, causing abdominal pain. Bacteria can also cause excess gas in the stomach caused by mold or other factors.
  • High grain-based diets or low forage diets. When on a high-grain diet, the rate of passage of ingesta is increased. This leads to more fermentable carbohydrates to reach a horse's gut, which then decreases the pH. This can result in a release of toxins, which can directly cause colic.

Preventing Colic in Horses

Horse Colic Symptoms

Learning what to look for when trying to determine a case of colic is essential, since catching colic early is ideal. If you know exactly what to look for, you'll move on quickly to treatment and future prevention. Symptoms of colic in horses include:

  • Absence of gut sounds
  • Uncommon positions like stretching or sitting
  • Uneasiness or general stress
  • Distress
  • Sweating
  • Bloating
  • Rolling
  • Pawing

These are all common symptoms of colic in adult horses, but foals can also get colic. They exhibit different symptoms than adult horses, however. Instead, a foal may show they have colic by lying on their backs with their legs tucked underneath them.

Treatments for Horse Colic

If you've successfully identified a colic case for your horse, the next step is determining a treatment. Treatments are directly related to the cause of each particular instance of colic. Not every treatment is created equal. If you pursue the incorrect treatment in response to a certain type of colic, it can make the condition much worse.

Sign of colic in horses

In some cases, it can be challenging to determine the cause of the colic. Even if you are sure of the cause, it's much safer to have a veterinary professional evaluate your horse to confirm the cause and prescribe the correct treatment. This is also important because the severity of your horse's symptoms isn't necessarily related to the colic's severity. It's entirely possible that if you observe only mild symptoms, the colic could be worse than you think. Some cases can be successfully treated with medication, while more severe cases could potentially require immediate surgery. While waiting for a professional opinion from your veterinarian, you should do the following:

  • Carefully observe the behavior of your horse. This includes monitoring vital signs and the passing of feces.
  • Remove any feed or other sources of food. If the colic cause is an obstruction, it's vital to remove all food sources to prevent the horse from eating and making the blockage worse.
  • Let your horse rest. Your first instinct might be to walk your horse to alleviate some pain, but this isn't necessary for any treatment type. When it comes to colic, rest is much more beneficial. 
  • Do not give your horse any medication. Pain medication could potentially mask any further colic symptoms, which would complicate an accurate diagnosis. More specifically, Banamine should never be administered in the muscle. This should only be administered orally or intravenously. If injected into the muscle, this could cause a potentially fatal clostridial abscess.
  • When the veterinarian arrives, they will monitor vital signs and listen for gut sounds. The next step is to pass a nasogastric tube to perform a rectal exam. Once this is done, most colic cases can be treated with medication and a stomach tube, which is used to alleviate gas, without needing to take your horse off the farm. However, in the case of impaction or a displacement, your horse may need to be taken to the hospital for immediate surgery.


All in all, colic is a very treatable and preventable condition. Many of the symptoms are also easy to recognize as something that is out of the ordinary, so being informed about the types of colic that exist and symptoms, causes, and treatments is practically a guarantee that your horse will have a successful recovery.

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