What is COLIC in Horses? All the Info you Need

What is Colic in Horses?

What is colic in horses, and what does it mean when a horse colics?

Colic in horses broadly defines an abdominal pain that doesn’t seem to improve with time. Depression and lethargy can sometimes accompany colic. 

Horse colic is a generalized term used to describe the symptoms and clinical signs of pain, constipation, and increased gas production. 

 It can cause severe chronic pain for weeks or months until surgical removal of the causative agent.

Portrait of a brown horse

Signs of Colic in Horses 

Horses with colic often exhibit one or more clinical signs. These correspond to abdomen, chest, and/or hindquarters pain. 

Several factors cause colics, including genetics or metabolic disorders, physical trauma and pain, stress, feeding issues, and parasites. 

Symptoms of colic include and are not limited to: 

  • Pain in the abdomen.
  • Pain in the back.
  • Pain in the loin and flanks, legs, and head (often with a fever).

One of the horses’ most common colic signs is pawing at the ground. The horse’s head is typically near the bottom side of its body and paws the ground consistently using a forefoot. 

Stretching their bodies and raising their heads are other visible clinical signs in response to pain in the abdominal area.

Abnormal sounds from the abdomen, such as grunting or growling; coughing or wheezing when breathing out, also known as “straining.” 

Some animals may have difficulty standing up straight due to pain from their hindquarters down through their hind legs into their hips.

Clinical signs also include:

  • Increased salivation
  • Urination and defecation
  • Difficulty breathing

Other signs of colic in horses may include :

  • Weakness or reluctance to move 
  • Lethargy 
  • Swelling around the hindquarters; 
  • Excessive drinking leads to watery diarrhea 
  • Increased salivation; 
  • Dehydration 
  • Changes in appetite
  • Festering “hot spots.” 
  • Anorexia 

What Causes Colic in Horses?

How do horses get colic? When a horse is in pain, it can be difficult to tell what’s causing it. The word “colic” refers to abdominal pain in horses, and a digestive disorder causes most colics. 

However, there are also cases of colic where the pain is not related to digestion issues or other abdominal organs.

Colitis (inflammation of the large intestine) and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) are common causes of colic in horses. 

Bacteria cause gastritis or parasites that enter through the mouth or anus, while inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease also result in colic.

Another common cause of colic is obstruction. Obstruction occurs when something becomes lodged in the colon—for example, the presence of a foreign object that gets caught up in intestinal folds forming adhesions. Surgery is needed to remove the cause of the obstruction. Chronic pains are present for months or weeks.

Colic in horses can be an extremely painful condition, especially when there is a lack of effective treatment administration. As previously mentioned, colic is a broad term used to describe pain in the abdomen, usually in the lower part, and caused by digestive, spleen, liver, or kidney problems. 

 Some common causes of colic in horses are:

  • Stomach ulcers 
  • Feeding and water regime
  • Exercise regime
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Parasites 
  • Tumors
  • Age of horse
  • Concurrent diseases such as laminitis 
  • Stress

In addition to these known causes, other factors can predispose your horse to colic, such as :

Young animals are more susceptible to horse colic than older ones due to their immature digestive and gastrointestinal systems, which can easily become inflamed due to poor diet choices or poor management practices. 

Some risk factors associated with colic include:

  1. Age and weight of the horse. Colic is more likely to occur in older, overweight horses 
  2. Males are more likely than females to develop colic and also have a higher risk of dying from the condition.
Two horses in the wild

How to Treat Colic in Horses

After assessing all the different factors involved in your horse’s colic and performing a thorough physical exam, the veterinarian will evaluate its condition and propose the most beneficial course of treatment.

As a heads up, here are some questions from the DVEP colic fact sheet of the University of Edinburgh that are usually asked by veterinarians when dealing with colics. Answering these questions helps the veterinarian have a medical history and allows for categorizing your horse’s colic. 

Keep them in my mind, and in case of any episode occurring, you will be ready with helpful information at hand.

  • Have any previous episodes of colic been noted? And how did they resolve?
  • How old is the horse?
  • For how long has the horse shown colic symptoms?
  • What colic has signs your horse been showing?
  • Has your horse passed any feces?
  • Last time the horse ate or drank 
  • Any recent changes in diet?
  • Is your horse pregnant?
  • If the mare has recently foaled, how long ago was this?
  • History of horses worming routine 

The colic examination is not a simple one-step procedure. It is a physical exam consisting of the steps described below: 

Heart Rate: Any fluctuation in heart rate is seen as a good indicator of pain and can often be an indicator of the severity of the condition. A horse’s normal resting heart rate is known to be between 34 to 40 beats per minute.

Mucous membranes and examination: The veterinarian will look at the color and moistness of your horse’s gums and assess the capillary refill time. The veterinarian estimates the capillary refill time by applying pressure with a finger or thumb on the gingiva, which causes blanching of the tissue and then counting the time it takes for perfusion to return. 

Mucous membrane color and capillary refill time help to assess the horse’s hydration status and are indicators of blood perfusion. Horses with adequate cardiovascular function have salmon pink and moist gingiva with a capillary refill time of one to two seconds.

Skin tent: Skin elasticity is closely related to hydration. Skin tenting is a method used to determine if the animal is dehydrated or not. Pinching a section of the skin upwards and then observing how fast it returns to normal. The speed at which the skin returns to normal helps ascertain if the horse is dehydrated. 

Auscultation: The veterinarian will auscultate the abdomen and listen to the gut sounds through a stethoscope. Auscultation is a good indicator of how much activity occurs in the adnominal area. Gut sounds generally fall into four categories:

  1. Increased
  2. normal 
  3. decreased 
  4. absent

Rectal exam: The rectal exam allows the veterinarian to interpret what is happening inside the abdomen. Horses might require sedation if stocks are unavailable to perform this examination. 

The vet will be able to assess if any major abnormalities are present, such as impaction or if a distended bowel loop occurs due to a twist. Still, as you can imagine, your vet’s arm only reaches so far forward and can only feel so much.

Passing a stomach (nasogastric) tube: Passing a tube up through the horse’s nose and down into the stomach is of diagnostic and therapeutic importance. The veterinarian is looking for what is known as “gastric reflux.” 

This reflux occurs when there is a blockage in the bowel (usually the small intestine) that causes the build-up of fluid in front of it. The stomach can rupture due to fluid build-up. Gastric reflux is often a significant indicator of surgery. If gastric reflux is not present, the vet may decide to administer some fluids.

Abdominal paracentesis: This procedure involves guiding a needle into the abdomen to see if there is any free fluid present. The sample of free fluid then undergoes a check for bacteria and bowel health.

Percussion: This test identifies gas-filled portions of the intestine—a high-pitched sound over the affected part of the intestine by tapping and listening with a stethoscope.

Pain management is one of the cornerstones of colic therapy, and your vet will decide what drug is needed and its dose. Once pain-relieving drugs are given, all colic signs should disappear. 

If colic signs recur, and despite pain relief, it is still painful, you should contact a veterinarian as soon as possible. In this case, the horse may need a referral to a hospital, and surgery may be required.

In regards to colic surgery, your veterinarian will assess all indications from the physical exam and will decide if surgery is needed or not.

Most frequently, colics do not require surgery and respond well to treatment. Your veterinarian will be able to guide you through your options and help you to make the best decision for you and your horse.

The good news is that colic can be treated with medication if caught early enough. However, if left untreated for too long, some serious complications can occur, such as gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) or even death from intestinal obstruction syndrome (when there’s an obstruction in the intestines).

The first step in treating a colic horse is doing what you can to make them feel more comfortable during this time: removing any objects from the area where they’re lying down and giving them something soft like a blanket or towel on which to lie down. 

You might also want to try giving them lots of water so they don’t become dehydrated from lying around too much (which could lead to heart problems).

The treatment can be medical (such as placing a stomach tube and administering fluids, pain medication, etc.) or surgical. About half of the cases are fatal. 

What Does it Mean When a Horse Colics? 

So what does it mean when a horse colics? Colicing in horses, or “colic” for short, is a painful digestive disorder that affects horses. When a horse colics, it means it is experiencing and showing pain in the abdomen.

During an episode of colic, horses will roll on the ground repeatedly. This behavior also puts them at risk of injury. They can injure themselves or even their handlers.

Colic is a common problem in horses. It can cause pain and discomfort, making it hard for your horse to eat or drink and exercise. Do not underestimate colic. Contact your veterinarian immediately if discomfort occurs, such as the horse hooving its abdomen. Time is of utmost importance when dealing with this condition in horses.

What Happens When a Horse Colics?

Monitoring horses presented for colic by their handlers or veterinarian in a box stall is imperative to appreciate their true level of discomfort. Many normal horses roll when first placed in a new stall and then stand up and shake the bedding off their hair coat, but horses with colic roll and then stand up without shaking off the bedding. 

The horse should undergo an evaluation for signs of abdominal distention by watching the flank regions. 

Sweating, muscle fasciculations, and areas of self-inflicted trauma are all exhibitions of pain. 

Evaluation of facial expression is very important, but this is subjective and not easily described. Flaring of the nostrils, grimacing, and a dull look in the eyes are all indicators of significant pain. 

It should not be certain that a horse has no pain after simply observing that it is quiet in standing stocks because this same horse may roll and exhibit other signs of discomfort once let loose in a box stall.

Alleviation of pain in the horse with colic is important. Administering pain relief treatment must be done cautiously because if excessive pain relief disguises colic that needs surgery, visceral rupture may occur. Flunixin meglumine 0.00002 to 0.00004oz/lb (0.5 to 1.1 mg/kg) may be administered as a presurgical anti-inflammatory drug to help protect against the effects of endotoxemia. 

Repetitive dosing can mask signs that would otherwise dictate surgical intervention.

How to Prevent Colic in Horses

A few suggestions on how to prevent colic in horses:

  • Ensure your horse has an appropriate, balanced diet and free access to fresh water. 
  • Be consistent with your horses’ diet. Abrupt dietary changes can cause upset and lead to colic. Due to their anatomy, horses, digestive systems are sensitive to changes.
  • Don’t overfeed your horse. If you think your horse lacks energy or is hungry, discuss these issues with your veterinarian and agree on a feeding strategy.
  • Please don’t feed your horse too many treats or grain, especially in the winter when stressed out, because it can inevitably lead to poor gut health and colics. Instead, try a treat-based training program that includes physical exercise like obstacle courses or romping around on pasture with friends.
  • Grooming your horse before and after riding is also essential to avoid colic. You can do this with a brush or curry, knocking down loose hairs that may irritate the horse’s gut.

The best way to prevent colic is through good nutrition. Horses fed well and have access to clean water and shelter will be less likely to develop colic than those malnourished or stressed out in their daily routine.

It’s important to feed your horse a healthy diet with plenty of fresh grass, hay, and pasture (if available). As they age, horses require adequate amounts of protein and fat in their diets and vitamins A & E to keep up with their ever-growing bodies, which may lead them into dangerous situations like this!

How Long Does Colic Last in Horses?

As mentioned previously, there are various reasons for colic, and often we are never really sure why a horse has shown colic signs. The majority of these colic signs are due to some gastrointestinal problem.

Treatment time is according to the colic type and how severe or not it is for your horse. Colics can range from mild passing with diet and hydration to ones requiring emergency surgery. 

Below is a broad classification of some of the more common types of colics: 


This type of colic is also known as idiopathic and is the most common type. It occurs when the bowel is contracting abnormally, creating painful spasms.  

Spasmodic colic treatment consists of anti-spasmodic drugs and other medical treatments. 


Impactions occur when a firm mass of food blocks the bowel. This is a relatively common type of colic and is often quickly resolved on the farm by administering fluids and/or liquid paraffin via a stomach tube. 

Larger and more severe impactions may need surgery to correct them. Impaction colics often occur when a horse eats its straw bed.

The treatment, in this case, can include the administration of fluids/electrolytes through a stomach tube. An added laxative helps if impaction is suspected. 

Displacements, Strangulations, and Torsions

Displacements occur when one section of the bowel moves to another location in the abdomen. 

Strangulations happen when the blood supply to a piece of the stomach gets cut off. Torsions occur when the bowel twists around itself, thus cutting off the blood supply. 

Large sections of the bowel are either suspended in place by loose lengths of tissue, an example being the small intestine, or they are unattached to the body wall, as is the case for the large intestine. Both of these predispose the horse to displacements and torsions. 

Strangulations, displacements, and torsions are intestinal accidents that do not occur commonly but are very serious. 

Some displacements are treated by withholding food and medical therapy, but in severe cases, displacements, strangulations, and torsions require emergency surgery to correct the problem. 

Some horses may recover within 12 to 24 hours, and others, for example, obstruction or impaction colic, can take days to resolve.

Horse head portrait

Expected Issues After Equine Colic

 Some complications and common issues post-colic are: 

Liver failure: The most common complication of colic is liver failure, which occurs when your horse’s liver cannot handle all the toxins in his body. This can lead to death if not treated quickly.

Kidney failure: Another common cause of death after colic is kidney failure; one or both kidneys become damaged from being overworked during an episode of colic and cannot function properly. It’s essential for veterinarians treating the colic horse to combine antibiotics with fluids so that any secondary infections like peritonitis or septicemia do not occur.  

Horses are predisposed to colic because they have unusual gastrointestinal anatomy and gut workings. Avoiding rapid diet and management changes and practicing good preventative health programs are sensible, but even the best and most well-managed horse can get colic.

Horses with colic usually cannot stand or walk on their own and typically have difficulty breathing. This can cause them to collapse and lie down for long periods without moving.

The first step in treating a colic horse is doing what you can to make them feel more comfortable during this time: 

Removing any objects from the area where they’re lying down and giving them something soft like a blanket or towel on which to lie down on. You might also want to try giving them lots of water so they don’t become dehydrated from lying around too much (which could lead to unwanted cardiovascular problems).


Colic is a very uncomfortable and painful experience for your beloved horse. But don’t fret; fortunately, even though a commonly encountered condition, you can take some steps to prevent your horse from ever experiencing colic. With proper care and maintenance, these unfortunate situations can be avoided.

Following simple precautions and techniques mentioned throughout the article, you can quickly bring your horse back to having a happy, healthy life. 

On our side, we try to provide you with the information you need to keep your horses healthy and do our best to steer you clear of horse colics and all of the unpleasant complications of this condition.

We hope you found this article helpful and helped answer your questions about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of colic in horses. The most important thing is to watch for any signs of distress in your horse, such as changes in behavior or digestive issues. If you notice any changes in these areas, visit a veterinarian immediately.