A Basic Understanding of Colic and How You Can Prevent It

The American Horse Council estimates that of the 9.2 million horses in the United States, 920,000 colic each year, and 64,000 horses may die due to colic-related problems. Those numbers speak for themselves. I believe it is important that horse owners and riders have a basic understanding of colic in a horse.

In this post, we are going to go over the basics of what colic is, the signs, and what you can do to prevent it. Please note, I am not a vet, this is simply an explanation for those wishing to get a clear, concise understanding of a common health issue in horses. I recommend calling your vet for professional advice based on your particular horse, especially in case of an emergency.

The most general definition of colic is “abdominal pain.” The pain is caused by obstruction, resulting in increased gas production that stretches the intestines. The causes of colic include nutritional changes, climate fluctuations, improper chewing, systemic diseases, and much more. Understanding the signs of colic is extremely important. Additionally, knowing the particular horse and his or her usual tendencies is just as important.

The most common signs of colic are:

  • lack of appetite
  • kicking at the stomach
  • lying down
  • rolling
  • restlessness
  • anxious expression
  • pawing
  • raised temperature
  • sweating
  • elevated respiration 


Each horse is different in terms of what signs they will show when they are exhibiting colic, and the severity of these signs is different for each horse. When any of the above signs are detected, the vet should be contacted immediately, as it is impossible to differentiate a mild case from a serious case, at first.

Typically, the vet will listen with a stethoscope for gut activity and administer pain medication, such as bute or bannamine. The reaction to the pain drugs will help the vet understand what type of colic the horse is experiencing. It is important to keep the horse walking despite how badly they may want to roll. This could cause serious damage and only make the situation worse. The vet may also (this is all case specific), go through the rectum to pull out any stool and examine its consistency, and/or feel for an impaction, which means a complete clog. They may insert a tube through the nose with mineral oil and water to facilitate elimination, or administer a fecal softener (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate) for the same effect, depending on the case.
The horse should be carefully watched for 24 hours after colic signs are relived, as they could recur. Grain should also be reduced, and bran may be added as a laxative. They could give the horse IV fluids as well to make sure they remain hydrated. A vet will then advise if the horse seems likely to pass the obstruction or if they will need to go to the clinic for a possible surgery. 


There are several cases where surgery is the vet’s recommendation if the vet is unable to relieve the obstruction. Prompt surgery can possibly save horses with obstructive colic, depending on how soon the condition is diagnosed and acted on. 


There are several steps horse owners can take to prevent colic. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Regular deworming
  • Regular dental care
  • Feeding on a precise schedule
  • Feeding small amounts more often (instead of one large feeding)
  • Making gradual diet changes
  • Keeping clean and fresh water available

A colic is scary, but if caught early and acted on quickly, the horse has a high chance of surviving.

Listen to your horse. If you feel that he or she is trying to tell you something, is acting strange, or does not seem like themselves, do not wait. I recommended keeping a tube of bannamine in your first aid kit for emergencies.

I hope this basic review of colic will help you in the future. Remember to call the vet if you are ever unsure of what to do. Your horse will thank you!

From one horse crazed human to another – Maria Holman

References: American Horse Council: http://www.horsecouncil.org/ Adams and Chalkley. Veterinary Treatments and Medications for Horsemen. Equine Research Inc., Tyler, Texas, 2003

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