Keeping an eye on colic

The Complete Guide to Colic for Horse Owners

Author: Emma Stenhouse
Expert checked by: Gil Riley

Colic can be a horse owner's worst nightmare, but it’s also one of the most common health problems that our horses can suffer from. Knowing the most common signs can help you recognise this condition and act quickly to help your horse recover.

Colic is a common problem in horses. But the good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of colic for your horse. Knowing what these are, and how best to avoid risk factors, is an important part of horse ownership.

What is horse colic?

By the simplest definition, colic refers to any type of abdominal pain. This can range from mild indigestion that may get better itself in a few hours to a twisted gut (torsion), which requires emergency surgery.

Signs and symptoms

A horse with colic will often show some tell-tale signs, depending on the severity of their case.

Mild:

  • Flank watching – turning to look at the abdomen
  • Pawing or scraping the ground
  • Lip curling
  • General restlessness
  • Disinterest in food

Moderate:

  • More frequent attempts to urinate
  • Lying down and getting back up frequently
  • Lying down and staying on their side
  • Increased pulse rate

Severe:

  • Increased sweating
  • Rolling violently
  • Rapid breathing
  • Injuries from rolling

Emergency protocol for a horse with colic

Colic should be treated as an emergency, so if you suspect your horse has colic, call your vet immediately. Describe any signs in as much detail as you can. Your vet will advise you what to do while you wait for them to arrive, but Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley recommends the following protocol as a starting point:

  1. Walk your horse. This movement can stimulate their digestive system or, at the very least, distract them from the pain. If possible, walk your horse using a lunge line and wear your hard hat and gloves. Ideally, walk to a soft surface (paddock or school) so they can be allowed to roll if they want to without hurting themselves. N.B. Rolling does NOT risk the gut twisting!
  2. Remove any food. This includes hard food and hay. If you’re walking your horse on grass, don’t allow them to graze.
  3. Allow them to drink. Offer your horse fresh, clean water.
  4. Do not give any medication. Even if you have a painkiller such as Bute to hand, don’t administer anything until your vet arrives. The medication or treatment they choose will depend on their assessment of your horse’s condition.

Safety note: If your horse starts rolling or thrashing around, you must keep yourself safe – the vet needs to be able to concentrate on your horse when he/she arrives, not arrange an Air Ambulance for you!

What not to do for a horse with colic

When your horse is in pain, it can be easy to panic. Some common mistakes when dealing with colic include:

  • Not allowing your horse to roll
  • Allowing them to eat, but not drink
  • Forcing your horse to walk if they’re tired
  • Giving medication before your vet arrives
  • Putting yourself in harm’s way and getting injured

2022 Veterinary Awards: don’t miss your chance to nominate!

It’s never been so important to show vets our appreciation for all their hard work, so tell us about your own inspiring animal hero...

Nominate your vet

Treatment for equine colic

Once your vet arrives, they will carry out an examination. This usually includes reading your horse’s temperature, pulse and respiration rate, as well as listening to any sounds from their intestines (borborygmi).

The treatment your vet prescribes will depend on their assessment, but can include:

  • Pain relief
  • Fluids or electrolytes
  • Laxatives
  • Drugs to relieve gut spasms
  • Mild exercise

Colic surgery

If the medical treatments don’t solve your horse’s colic, surgery may be required. Performing this as soon as possible increases the chances of survival, so being able to make this decision quickly is vital. Colic surgery can cost thousands, but taking out a horse insurance policy that covers the costs of this surgery gives you peace of mind.

After surgery, most horses will need to stay at the hospital for five to 10 days. Once they’re home, follow the care plan provided by your practice. Box rest is usually required for around four months. Most horses can follow a staged recovery plan to return to their former level of work.

Causes of colic

Colic can be triggered by a range of causes, including:

Certain factors can increase the risk of colic. During the winter, impaction colic is more common as horses may drink less, increasing the risk of dehydration. Broodmares can suffer from intestinal displacements or torsion shortly after giving birth, due to the increased space in their abdominal cavity.

How to prevent it

It’s not possible to completely prevent colic, but you can follow some simple management tips to reduce the risk. Download our Focus on Colic guide and make sure your feed and healthcare routines are designed to reduce the risks of colic as much as possible.

Equine colic FAQ

Find the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions on colic here:

Should you walk a horse with colic?

Yes, but only as long as it is safe to do so! Walking can encourage the normal movement of their digestive system.

Can horses with colic twist a gut from rolling?

Absolutely not! A horse with colic can be allowed to roll if they want to.

How long does it take a horse to recover from colic?

That depends on the severity of the colic and the treatment from your vet. Mild cases can resolve within hours, but if your horse needs surgery, then the recovery can take months.

Can I prevent my horse from getting colic again?

Make sure your horse’s routine is designed to reduce the risk of colic as much as possible, but be extra vigilant because once a horse has had colic, they’re more likely to suffer from it again.

Has your horse ever had colic? Share their symptoms and treatment on our Facebook page to help other owners recognise this condition.