Colic is a serious and potentially fatal condition that should be treated as an emergency. The good news is that most cases of colic resolve with on-farm medical management. It is important for horse owners to understand what colic is, what signs to watch for and what to do during a colic episode.

Hawkins tony
Technical Service Veterinarian / Valley Vet Supply

To put it simply, colic is pain within the abdomen. The pain that causes colic can come from any abdominal organ, but most commonly the gastrointestinal tract is the source of pain. The signs depend on the severity of the pain and can range from mild to severe.

It is important to measure your horse’s vital signs whenever you are suspicious of an illness. If your horse is excited or if it is hot/humid, its heart rate and respiratory rate can be slightly elevated. Otherwise, a horse’s vital signs should be within normal parameters:

  • Respiratory rate: 10-24 breaths per minute
  • Heart rate: 28-44 beats per minute (invest in an inexpensive stethoscope to measure heart rate)
  • Temperature: 99ºF-101.5 ̊F
  • Gums should be moist and pink

Common causes of colic

Horses can experience different types of colic. Gas colic is usually mild to moderate and typically responds well to on-farm medical management. This is often caused by excess gas production in response to dietary changes or grain consumption.

Impaction colic is usually mild to moderate and typically responds well to on-farm medical management. It is caused by feedstuffs that are unable to easily pass through a part of the gut, leading to accumulation of more feed and compaction into a firm and large fecal ball. Impaction colic is typically caused by coarse or poorly chewed roughage, ingestion of sand, dehydration or poor water intake, and decreased gut motility.


Colonic shift is a type of colic that can be severe and become dangerous very quickly. A shift in the colon can be a result of displacement out of its normal position, a twist or torsion, or strangulation. This type of movement of the colon can cut off the blood flow and oxygen supply, leading to damage or death of the colon. Surgical correction is necessary for this type of colic.

While not the focus of this article, gastric ulcers are worth mentioning as a cause of colic because of how commonly they occur. Ulcers cause chronic or intermittent colic of varying degrees in addition to decreased appetite, weight loss and attitude changes. The only way to definitively diagnose ulcers is through endoscopic examination of the stomach. The treatment of choice is omeprazole, in addition to lifestyle changes (more frequent meals, continuous access to hay or grazing, environmental enrichment, minimizing stress, preventative doses of omeprazole during intense training or stressful times, regular feeding of alfalfa).

On-farm management

If you notice signs of colic, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian. If symptoms are mild and you catch it early, there are some things you can try at home to resolve a minor colic:

  • If you are able to, walk your horse. Walking can provide pain relief and encourage gut motility. If your horse seems to be getting worse or in more pain, stop walking and call your vet.
  • Try not to let your horse roll. Rolling can injure your horse and actually cause a more serious colic. The best way to prevent your horse from rolling is to walk them. However, if your horse is thrashing or lying down or trying to roll while walking, stay out of the way and call your vet.
  • Discuss with your veterinarian (before an emergency arises) about the advisability of having prescription pain medication on hand and the proper dosage. There are also herbal colic treatment pastes that anecdotally yield positive results.
  • Do not allow your horse to eat until the colic is resolved, but leave water available. Take and record your horse’s vital signs. Do not give more than one dose of pain medication. Do not try to pass a tube, do not force-feed mineral oil and do not perform an enema.

When to call your veterinarian

As critical as colic can be, it’s important to know when it’s time to phone your veterinarian. Do so when:

  • The horse’s vital signs are abnormal
  • You don’t know the length of time the horse has been showing signs of colic
  • Severe colic
  • Persistence of pain after 45-60 minutes of walking

While you are waiting on your veterinarian, be sure to follow his or her instructions. Typically, your veterinarian will have you walk your horse if you are able to and remove the horse’s access to feed. When your veterinarian arrives, he or she will acquire a history and perform a complete physical exam. Your veterinarian will likely administer medications such as a tranquilizer, anti-spasmodic medication or pain medication. Most veterinarians pass a nasogastric tube to make sure fluid isn’t accumulating in the stomach and then use the tube to administer mineral oil or a water/electrolyte solution. Your veterinarian may perform a rectal examination and more advanced diagnostics such as bloodwork, ultrasound or a belly tap. Persistence of pain and the results of the examination will help your veterinarian decide if surgery is indicated.


Unfortunately, you can’t prevent every case of colic. However, you can reduce the risk of colic through sound management and routine health care. Provide fresh, clean water at all times. Horses without access to water for even one to two hours are at an increased risk of colic. Offer horses regular exercise and pasture turnout. Nutrition is key as well – make high-quality forage the base of your horse's diet, and feed grain and pelleted feeds only if necessary. Concentrates increase the risk of colic up to 10 times compared to a 100% hay diet. Feed a supplement formulated for complete gastrointestinal health. In sandy regions, feed psyllium and avoid feeding hay on the ground.

Schedule regular dental care, routine fecal examinations and administer appropriate parasite control.

If you have a horse, chances are you will encounter a colic at some point. It is important to be knowledgeable, prepared and have a good working relationship with your veterinarian.

Signs of colic can include

  • Decreased appetite
  • Lying down more than normal
  • Pacing
  • Pawing
  • Grinding teeth
  • Looking at or scratching/kicking the abdomen
  • Posturing to urinate without normal urine output
  • Rolling
  • Abnormal vital signs (temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, gum color)