Colic in horses

If you have horses, then I’m sure you’ve either had an issue with colic or heard of the distress and panic colic can cause. This article will cover some basics, including the signs of colic, predisposing factors and safety.

If your horse is colicking call a vet immediately. Colic is often an emergency, and the sooner veterinary advice is sought, the greater the chance of survival with full recovery. Colic is said to be the biggest single killer of horses.

What is colic?

The term ‘colic’ simply refers to abdominal pain. Therefore, it is better referred to as a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. There is a multitude of gastrointestinal issues or other pain issues which may present as colic signs.

Colic cases are determined by a vet to be either medical or surgical. On average, 93-95% of colic cases are considered medical, while only 5-7% are considered surgical. Vets have a number of tools and diagnostics to aid them in determining whether colic is medical or surgical and the best course of treatment for the colic.

What are the clinical signs of colic?

Clinical signs may range in severity depending on the level of pain but may include:

  • Rolling
  • Flank watching
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Kicking at flank
  • Wide-stretched stance
  • Lip curl
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased respiration rate
  • Decreased gut sounds
  • Sunken eyes
  • Not eating
  • Dry and tacky gums
  • Flaring nostrils
  • Abnormal colouring of the gums (may appear dark red or even slightly blue)


Predisposing factors

  • Foaling (please tell the vet if your horse had foaled within the last couple of weeks and is now colicking)
  • Worming (if the horse has a large parasite burden – please seek veterinary advice in this case)
  • Age – horses less than 6 months old or more than 15-20 years old
  • Prolonged transport (more than a few hours, or away from home for a couple of days)
  • Exercise (only in some cases)
  • Unusual behaviors (such as crib biting)
  • Sudden changes in feed
  • High grain diets
  • Dental problems

While there are factors that may predispose a horse to colicking, often colic will occur sporadically.

What causes colic?

Colic can be caused by a range of factors including:

  • An obstruction or impaction of feed or faeces in the gastrointestinal tract
  • Sand
  • Parasite burden
  • Tumors or masses
  • Distension (due to fluid or gas)
  • Spasmodic colic
  • Ulcers
  • Torsion (twisting of the gut)
  • Strangulation of the intestines
  • Displacement of an organ within the abdomen
  • Peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen)
  • Gastroenteritis and colitis (scouring)

Often colic arises without any known cause.

Minimising your horse’s risk

It is difficult to prevent all the causes of colic, although there are a few steps you can take to minimise the risk:

  • Routine faecal egg counts performed by your vet clinic (ideally every 3 months) can help to monitor parasite burden and they can advise you when to drench based on this information.
  • Regular dental checks can also help to prevent colic. We recommend bi-annual dental checks for horses aged 1-5, and annual checks for horses over 5 years old.
  • Avoid sudden changes in feed – this will have a negative impact on the gut, causing either hypermotility (increased movement) or impactions. If you are changing the diet it needs to be done slowly.
  • Do not feed mowed grass to horses.



Your safety is paramount. When in pain, the horse’s behaviour will be different to normal.

  • Walking your horse – If your horse is standing in the paddock and appears fidgety, then walking your horse may be a good idea until the vet arrives – check with the vet first.
  • If your horse is rolling – you should not go near them as you may get struck. If they are rolling in the middle of the paddock, they are not going to harm themself; be patient and wait for the vet to arrive.