Horse colic prevention and management
Colic is one of the most common health emergencies for horses. As soon as you recognise the signs of colic, call your vet.
What is colic in horses?
Colic is the term used to describe symptoms of abdominal pain. It can indicate a problem with the gut itself or other organs within the abdomen. Depending on the type of colic, symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Colic is a common emergency for horses but treatment and prognosis has improved in recent years. With early detection and good management techniques, the outlook for horse’s with colic is good.
By following good management techniques, the risk of a horse getting colic can be reduced but not eliminated.
Early detection of colic will improve the chances of survival. Be especially vigilant with any horse that has a history of colic.
Signs of colic in horses
The symptoms of colic in horses can vary depending on the severity of pain. In addition to general changes in behaviour, signs of colic can include:
- loss of appetite
- restlessness and pawing at the ground
- looking or kicking at the stomach
- being unable to pass droppings
- gurgling sounds from the stomach
- an increased breathing rate
- stretching as if to urinate
- rolling or attempting to roll, or lying down
- elevated pulse rate
- a dull and depressed demeanour, or lethargy
Some horses with colic may only show some of these symptoms. If in doubt, always call your vet for advice.
What causes colic in horses?
There are many causes of colic, but most are related to problems in the gastrointestinal tract.
There are a number of factors that can put your horse at higher risk of colic:
- Digestive disorders such as dental problems, worm burdens and gut damage (including previous colic surgery)
- Poor feeding including giving soiled food, inappropriate quantities, lack of fibre and/or water, or a sudden change in diet
- Stress such as hard exercise while unfit or after eating, travelling, or sudden change of routine, diet or environment
- Poor and over-grazed pasture, especially if the soil is sandy
Effects of domestication
Horses evolved on a different diet from the one they’re expected to eat today. The way in which horses eat and the time they spend eating has changed a lot – even a horse living on grass eats a different diet from their ancestors.
The intestines of domesticated horses have not evolved with these changes, meaning they’re more likely to experience digestive upsets. A horse’s digestion involves fermentation, which creates a by-product of gas. This gas can easily distend the gut, causing colic.
Horses are also designed to be on the move, grazing along the way. This ‘trickle feeding’ means horses can eat large quantities of low-energy food for around 16 hours a day.
Today’s approach to horses often means they are stabled for longer periods of time, without sufficient exercise or roughage. This is a big difference to the life horses were designed to lead. Horses can react to any added stress on their lifestyle, which can be the cause of colic.
Types of colic in horses
Different types of colic in horses have different causes and treatments.
Spasmodic colic is the most common type of colic in horses. ‘Spasmodic’ refers to spasms in the gut – when the gut becomes overactive, the intestines begin to contract and cramp. This causes intermittent bursts of pain for a horse and you may hear noisy activity in the abdomen.
While it can be tricky to pinpoint the exact cause, spasmodic colic is often linked to sudden changes in feed (for example, a sudden increase of fresh spring grass) or environment, stress and dehydration. It can also be caused by tapeworm infestations.
Treatment for spasmodic colic
Spasmodic colic is often resolved with non-invasive medical treatment, such as pain relief and antispasmodic drugs administered by your vet.
Gas colic is caused by a build up of excess gas in the intestine. As the gas expands in the gut, the intestines become overstretched. This can be very painful for horses and can cause them to look bloated. Gas colic usually occurs due to an excessive production of gas, or a blockage.
Gas colic can be caused by forage and hard feeds that are high in sugar or starch content, a sudden change in diet, or dehydration. It can also be triggered by feeding on mouldy forage or drinking dirty water.
Treatment for gas colic
If there’s no obstruction, gas colic is usually resolved with non-invasive medical treatment. But there is the added risk of displacement due to the gas distention. Severe cases of displacement may require surgery for a good prognosis.
Impaction colic happens when the digestive tract becomes blocked by a large mass (such as food, partially formed faeces or worms), preventing the normal passage of gas and food in the gut. This blockage is usually found in the narrow pelvic flexure in the large intestine.
A blockage of food can occur when a horse has dental problems and is unable to chew properly or consumes too much food in a short space of time. The risk may also increase when a horse has not drunk enough water. Water is critical for aiding digestion as it keeps fibre moving through the digestive system. Stabling for long periods of time is also thought to decrease gut motility, preventing the passage of contents in the gut.
Foals are also at risk of impaction colic caused by a heavy worm burden. Large roundworms can easily block the intestine due to their size and this can be fatal for foals.
Horses with impaction colic usually struggle to pass droppings or may refuse their food – your horse may experience low grade pain over a prolonged period of time.
Treatment for impaction colic
Impaction colic can usually be treated with nasogastric intubation (stomach tubing) carried out only by your vet. This involves the vet passing a tube through your horse's nose and into the stomach, where fluid is used to soften the impaction, helping the blockage to pass through the system. Severe cases of impaction colic may require surgery to remove the blockage.
Displacement colic is when a part of the gastrointestinal tract moves into an abnormal position within the abdomen. This displacement can create an obstruction, causing bloating which can be very painful. Entrapment can also cut off bloody supply to the intestines, causing damage to the tissue.
The exact cause of displacement can be difficult to pinpoint. Since the colon is attached in only one place, it can move freely out of place and easily become trapped. This movement could be because of a build up of gas in the large colon.
Horses with displacement colic may show mild or severe general signs of colic over several days or weeks.
Treatment for displacement colic
In some cases, displacement colic can be treated with oral or intravenous medications. In severe cases of displacement, surgery may be required to correct the obstruction.
Torsion is a very severe type of colic. Since the large colon is fixed in place only at the base, it can twist around the base, cutting off blood supply. This can result in tissue damage, causing large amounts of toxins to enter a horse's circulation. Even if the torsion is corrected by surgery, the toxin shock can still be fatal.
Torsion can be caused by impaction and entrapment colic.
Treatment for torsion colic
Horses experiencing torsion deteriorate rapidly. Signs of torsion are usually very severe, and surgery is urgently required for a good chance of survival.
A strangulating obstruction occurs when a section of the small intestine is tightly squeezed and does not get a supply of blood. When blood supply is cut off, the tissue of the small intestine begins to die. This causes toxins to be released into the bloodstream, causing serious illness.
There are a number of ways strangulating obstruction can occur, including a strangulating lipoma (a benign fatty tumour) and an internal hernia.
Treatment for strangulation obstruction
Cases of strangulation are very severe, and urgent surgery is needed for survival.
Sand colic occurs due to a build up of ingested sand or dirt in the large intestine. This can also lead to an impaction and irritation of the bowel lining. Sand colic is more common where horses are grazing on sandy soil and short grass. As horses graze, they ingest the sand and you may find sand in your horse's droppings.
Treatment for sand colic
Mild cases of sand colic can be treated medically, but severe cases will need surgery to remove the blockage.
What to do if your horse has colic
Colic is an emergency and the vet should be called as soon as you spot any symptoms, even if they are mild. Follow your vet’s advice and do not try to treat colic yourself without their guidance.
While you wait for your vet, you should:
- monitor your horse’s symptoms, their pulse rate, temperature and respiratory rate
- remove feed, hay and water from your horse unless your vet has advised not to
- check your horse is in a safe area, free from hazards
- if your horse is anxious or restless and is in a safe area such as a large stable or corral, keep watching but do not interfere or put yourself at risk of injury
- if symptoms are mild, it may help your horse to walk them gently in hand
It's a good idea to make a note of anything unusual and anything eaten prior to the onset of symptoms.
Treatment for colic
For mild cases of colic, the vet may administer drugs to relieve pain and relax your horse. This can help the gut to start working properly. They may also use nasogastric intubation to administer fluid and treatments to the stomach. Monitor your horse’s progress carefully and keep the vet informed of any changes.
In more serious cases that do not respond to initial drug treatment, your vet may recommend surgery. This will involve transporting your horse to your local equine hospital.
How to prevent colic in horses
While some types of colic are impossible to prevent, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of others.
Supply fresh water
Horses should have plenty of opportunity to drink clean, fresh water both in the stable and in the field. There are also some ways you can ensure your horse stays hydrated:
- Clean out buckets and troughs thoroughly, and ensure water is changed twice daily in the stable
- During cold weather, check that sources of water are not too cold or frozen. You can provide tepid water to encourage your horse to drink, as not all horse's will drink very cold water. In hot weather, ensure the water is clear of algae.
- Provide a salt lick to stimulate your horse's thirst
Feed a high-fibre diet, little and often
A high fibre diet fed little and often can help your horse's digestive system to work as it should. You should plan your horse's diet based on their condition and workload, and prioritise good quality forage. When making changes to your horse's diet, ensure this is done slowly to avoid upsetting the digestive system.
Your horse’s diet should be fed little and often. Feed rations can be spread throughout the day, while forage can be split into piles and spread throughout the pasture. This encourages your horse to move while they graze.
Set a regular exercise routine, ensuring that your horse is fit for the work needed and changes are made slowly. Do not suddenly overexert your horse and give them plenty of time to cool down after exercise. Allow your horse to cool off before feeding after heavy exercise.
Time spent in the field is also an important part of your horse's exercise routine – always provide as much turnout in a paddock as possible. Having plenty of access to turnout and socialisation ensures good physical and mental wellbeing and reduces stress. It also helps to keep your horse's gut motility moving.
Stay on top of dental checks
Poorly chewed food can increase the risk of a blockage in the intestine. Regular dental checks can prevent dental problems from going undetected.
Monitor grass growth
Lush spring grass should be treated as a change of diet for your horse. You can ration this grass by using a strip grazing system in your field. To aid your horse's digestion, you should also ensure that the pasture is not overgrazed.
Wherever possible, avoid grazing your horse on heavily sanded soil to reduce the risk of sand colic.
Use a targeted worming programme
A significant number of colic cases are caused or are made worse by worms. Routine worm testing and targeted treatment is essential good management.
Testing regularly for worms can help you to treat as and when needed – a targeted worming programme also helps to prevent resistance in worms, ensuring that treatment is effective when applied. Preventing worms in your horse will avoid internal damage and impactions that can lead to colic.
Adopt a regular routine
Horses are creatures of habit, and a regular daily routine can help to keep mealtimes consistent. This allows the gut to prepare for food. If you need to make changes, do so slowly to allow your horse to adjust.
• 10 November 2023
• 10 November 2026