What is colic?

Colic is a general term that refers to abdominal pain in horses. Severity of colic can range from mild to fatal. The symptoms tend to vary from horse to horse but can worsen depending on the cause and degree of colic. Regardless, a veterinarian should be consulted at the first signs of colic, as this condition worsens with time.  

What causes colic?

Abdominal pain in horses can have many causes, similarly to humans. However, most cases of colic are caused by disruptions in the gastrointestinal tract. These disruptions can include: impaction, gas, spasms, displacement or “twisted gut,” enteritis/colitis, or distention/rupture. Additionally, colic can be caused by other body systems such as complications with the reproductive system, urinary system, respiratory system, musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system, or nervous system. Any sign of colic is cause for concern and a vet should be contacted immediately to run diagnostic tests and determine the cause of discomfort in the horse.

What are the signs and symptoms of colic?

The signs and symptoms of colic can include a few or all of the following:

  • Depression
  • No appetite
  • Pawing
  • Turning the head toward the flank
  • Curling the upper lip repeatedly
  • Playing in the water bucket
  • Restlessness (getting up and laying down repeatedly)
  • Standing frequently as if to urinate
  • Kicking at the abdomen
  • Rolling
  • Dog-sitting
  • Standing stretched out
  • Groaning
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal distention
  • Cold extremities
  • Little or no manure
  • Diarrhea
  • Foals may roll on their back or grind their teeth and salivate excessively

What should I do if I suspect my horse has colic?

Because colic becomes worse and more life-threatening over time, it is extremely important to contact your vet as soon as possible. This is especially true if your horse is behaving violently, which can be an indication of a severe problem.

While waiting for your vet to arrive, there are some simple observations that you can make in order to help your vet assess the situation. First, take note of the horse’s respiratory rate as well as their temperature and pulse. Under normal circumstances, a horse’s respiratory rate should be around 12-16 breaths per minute, temperature around 99-100º F (37-38º C), and pulse 28-40 beats per minute. Due the stress of colic, it is common for these vital signs to be abnormal. Second, try to recall how your horse’s appetite and water intake have been for the past few days as well as the frequency and consistency of defecation. It is also important to recollect any medications that your horse is taking, if they have had any dietary changes, or if they had access to any foreign materials/food. Finally, be sure to hold all food until otherwise stated by your vet.

Additionally, walking the horse can be a good distraction from the pain, but they should not be walked to exhaustion. Avoid administering any pain medications because they can mask the symptoms from your vet. Once your vet arrives give them a detailed description of all your observations.

How do I prevent colic?

Some horses are more genetically predisposed to developing colic than others. Additionally, certain circumstances can increase the likelihood of colic and those horses at greater risk should be carefully monitored. Some of these include active horses that are recently stabled and stabled horses in intense training. General guidelines to follow to prevent colic include:

  • Allowing as much turnout as possible
  • Maintaining a regular feeding schedule
  • Allowing constant access to clean water
  • Forage should provide at least 60% of digestible energy
  • Never feed moldy hay or grain
  • Feed grain after hay and water
  • Do not allow over-grazing of pastures
  • Do not feed or water horses before they have cooled out
  • Exercise consistently and regularly
  • Any changes in diet, exercise, and overall management should be made slowly
  • Control intestinal parasites and re-check periodically


Boulton, DVM, Elizabeth. "Colic." American College of Veterinary Surgeons. ACVS, 30May2008. Web. 10 Jan 2012. <>. 

Douglas, Dr. Janet. "The Colic Fact Sheet." Cheryl McNamee-Sutor, 06Nov2000. Web. 10 Jan 2012.<>.