Colic in horses – all you need to know
‘Colic’ is a word no horse owner wants to hear, and for good reason. According to recent studies, colic has been recognised as the most common cause of death in horses around the world. So, it’s important we know how to prevent it, as well as recognising the signs of colic, to improve our horses’ odds of recovering from it.
If you’re concerned your horse may have colic, whether mild or serious, please contact your vet as quickly as possible.
What is colic?
Although many horse owners assume colic is a disease, the term ‘colic’ actually refers to general symptoms of digestive discomfort and abdominal pain.
There are six types of colic:
There are many causes of impaction colic, though an awkward bend in your horse’s digestive system, called the ‘pelvic flexure’, is a common place for impaction colic to happen. Impaction colic is caused by a blockage in your horse’s digestive system.
Some horses graze in fields that contain a lot of sand. Since sand isn’t easily digested by horses, it builds up in their large colon and causes a blockage.
As its name suggests, spasmodic colic involves a horse’s bowel going into spasm. Vets can treat this type of colic with anti-spasmodic medicine, along with pain relief.
Also known as ‘gas colic’ or ‘tympanic colic’, this type of colic can be caused by a build-up of gas in the large intestine due to eating highly fermentable food (e.g. horse feed that contains a lot of starch, which some horses find difficult to digest).
When blood supply to their intestines is cut off, horses suffer strangulating colic – this is the most severe form of colic in horses. Strangulating colic is an emergency and will require urgent surgery.
Usually seen in bigger horses and mares who have recently foaled, displacement colic happens when gas gets trapped in the large colon and causes it to move out of place. The treatment for this type of colic tends to be pain relief and gentle exercise. Displacement colic can reoccur.
Causes of colic
While research is still ongoing into the countless causes of colic, vets are aware of several significant sources:
Your horse’s digestive system takes time to adapt to new food because they need to develop specific bacteria to digest it. As such, sudden changes in your horse’s diet can prevent them from digesting food properly, which can lead to colic.
Dental pain, or teeth that are excessively worn, can prevent horses from eating or chewing their food correctly, which can damage the digestive process and create blockages. Is your horse dropping clumps of food (also known as ‘quidding’) while eating hay or hard feed?
Horses cannot vomit. So, if your horse eats something poisonous, they’re unable to remove it straight away. If toxins are not destroyed by the bacteria in your horse’s digestive system, they can cause inflammation, pain, and colic.
Gastric ulcers can form if acid in your horse’s stomach gets through its protective layer and damages the stomach lining. Colic can be a symptom of gastric ulcers in some horses.
Being stressed can cause your horse to stop eating, though they need plenty of fibre in their diet to keep their digestive system moving. If your horse doesn’t get enough fibre, their digestive system could slow down, which might lead to colic.
If your horse has a large worm burden (there are a lot of worms in their system), they’re at greater risk of colic. Different worms can cause distinct types of damage to your horse’s digestive system, for example, tapeworm is likely to cause a blockage whereas redworm is known to cause spasmodic colic.
Symptoms of colic
All horse owners, handlers, and riders need to know the signs of colic.
If you see any symptoms of colic in your horse, contact your vet immediately.
- Kicking their own stomach.
- Repeatedly lying down and getting up.
- Urgent rolling.
- Box walking.
- Excessive or unexplained sweating.
- Sudden loss of appetite.
- Tense stomach muscles (or they look ‘tucked up’).
- Passing few droppings or no droppings.
- Consistency of droppings changes.
- Head position is lowered.
- Depressed demeanour.
- Rapid breathing.
- Minimal gut sounds or no gut sounds at all.
Please note: This list is not exhaustive, and some symptoms listed above could also indicate issues other than colic – all concerns about your horse’s health should be shared with your vet.
Call a vet as soon as you think your horse may be suffering from colic.
Your vet will likely give instructions as to how best to care for your horse before their arrival. However, while you wait for the vet, there are steps you can take to make your horse more comfortable if they’re experiencing colic:
- Remove all hay/feed/edibles from their stable – in case they eat and cause more of a blockage.
- Remove any hazards from their stable (e.g. buckets, hanging rugs, etc.) – to prevent your horse from getting injured in case they roll.
- Provide a clean, deep bed in their stable – to keep your horse comfortable. Alternatively, take them to an arena with a soft surface.
- Wear safety equipment and monitor from a safe distance – wear a riding hat, and if your horse is safe in their stable, monitor them from outside the stable. If they’re in a lot of pain, your horse may not be aware of where you are and what they’re doing so could hurt you by accident.
Thankfully, there are many ways you can try to prevent colic:
- Follow a vet-approved worming programme.
- Book dental check-ups every six months.
- Provide your horse with clean, fresh water at all times.
- Allow access to plenty of forage and high-fibre feeds.
- Make changes to your horse’s diet gradually.
- Manage your horse’s exercise routine and diet carefully.
- Avoid turning your horse out onto sandy pastures.
Remember: You can always ask your vet for advice about preventing colic.