Everything There Is To Know About Colic

Horse Pawing At The Ground

February 5, 2022

Whilst colic can be fatal to any horse, pony, or donkey, it does not mean the end of the road for them. Throughout the years, medicine has evolved and so have available treatments. There are many different treatments out there which can address different levels and types of colic.  

It is important to know each type of colic, the symptoms, and what to do, alongside all of the myths or facts you may already know.

In This Blog We Cover: 

What is Colic?

To put it simply, colic can be described as abdominal pain. Whilst this may sound straightforward and easy to treat, it is every horse owner’s worst nightmare. It can strike at any time, sometimes with no warning and when you could really do without it.  

You know…those nights when you need to just run in, feed, and run back out again as you are all glammed up!  

You could be about to go out with some friend for the first time in months where you have not been in horse clothes, and then a bout of colic hits one of your beloved equines. Always be prepared and have extra layers in your car because chances are, you are going to be at the yard for a few hours.

Types Of Colic

Colic is an overall term for abdominal pain, but there are different types of colic within this term. Each of these colic’s can affect the horse differently and at different times of the year.  

  • Impaction Colic: This type of colic will be expected to occur more frequently during the winter periods. Food will start to become lodged within their intestine which prevents food moving through. In turn, this will stop them from producing droppings and will create a blockage.  
  • Strangulation Colic: Whilst this is one of the most uncommon types of colic, it is probably considered to be one of the most dangerous and lethal.  

This can be created by a lipoma (fatty tissue) hanging off the small intestinal wall which manages to wrap itself around the intestine, cutting off blood circulation to part of the intestine causing the section to die. Strangulation Colic can also cause the intestine to lose blood circulation and cause part of it to die.  

If your horse survives this colic, which may be unlikely, there will be a lengthy road ahead to recovery as often this will require surgery.  

  • Displacement of the Colon: This one is not as common luckily as it is highly lethal.  

A part of the intestine will become lodged in an unnatural position and will be unable to freely move back to its natural position. This will stretch the blood supply to the affected part of the intestine due to it being compressed. Surgery is normally needed to fix this type of colic.  

  • Gas Colic: You can expect to see this colic coming in spring due to the high sugar content in the lush spring grass. Whether your horse has been stabled over the winter or was outside, their digestive system will not be able to handle the high sugar content in the grass.  

This will cause a lot of gas to be produced and as they cannot burp, they may have a large amount of trapped gas in their intestine which isn’t life threatening but this can be uncomfortable for them.  

It is important not to overlook this as thinking that your horse is just producing a lot of wind. This will still need to be treated with medication.  

  • Sand Colic: Another quite serious type of colic is sand colic. This can be regularly seen in equines which live on quite sandy soil or those of which are kept on restricted grazing and fed hay on the ground.  

Due to the lack of grazing, they will pick the grass quite close to the soil which overtime will build up in the bottom of the large bowel and in time create a blockage and become very painful. This type of colic will appear by showing intermittent signs of colic as the sand moves around inside their bowel.  

  • Spasmodic Colic: Easily treatable by a vet, this is often described as painful contractions in the intestines from the smooth muscles. Usually, anti-spasmodic medication can help resolve this. Horses which become over-excitable can often present with spasmodic colic.  
  • Twisted Gut: Finally we have a twisted gut. This is where a portion of the equines intestine simply twists around itself and cuts off blood supply. This is uncommon but life threatening to your equine – if you suspect your equine may have this, immediately contact your local vet!

Causes Of Colic

There are different types of colic which can affect your horse differently. They all affect the abdominal area, but some are more lethal than others, as well as being more common in certain breeds than perhaps other breeds. Underlying health condition can also trigger the start of colic as can change of weather.  

When winter approaches, colic cases will rise. However, not all types of colic will present themselves over winter. The one to look out for the most is impaction colic! This is due to the water being particularly cold during winter – whilst horses are known to not consume as much liquid as they perhaps should, it is still something which should be monitored. 

Alongside this, when equines are foraging food such as hay and hard feed, parts can become lodged in their intestine and form a tightly packed ball. A lack of water will then prevent this ball from moving through their bodies properly.  

Another reason for colic to be started is rapid change in their lifestyle. Horses thrive off a consistent routine, so when winter comes upon us, their routines will more than likely see a difference. Sensitive horses can react to this through colicing. In winter, they may be stood idle for longer periods of time, not moving as much as they would in summer. This alone can be another way blockages are formed.  

As aforementioned when discussing decreased movement, if your equine is on box-rest, this can heighten the risk of colic occurring for prone and sensitive horses. Wherever possible try not to change a horse’s diet drastically and if a change is necessary, make it a gradual one. Even when they are on box rest.  

Excessive or long-time usage of NSAIDS, such as bute, can cause colic. This can upset the intestine and cause colitis by inflaming the walls. Much like humans, if we take too many anti-inflammatories and painkillers, we can upset the stomach lining. Using medication such as danilon is a good alternative for our equines who need to be on something long term.  

Parasites and underlying health issues also play a big role in colic. If your horse has a heavy infestation of roundworms, this can cause an intestinal blockage and they can then end up with colic.  

When you come to worm a heavily infested equine, consult with your vet prior to doing this as this can also cause colic.

Symptoms To Look Out For

Being able to recognise the symptoms for colic early on and react quickly can substantially lower the consequences for your equine. Things to be on the look out for include: 

  • Pawing at the ground 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Looking at their flanks, kicking or biting also  
  • Heave line  
  • Lip curling  
  • Teeth grinding  
  • Yawning excessively 
  • High TPR (respiration rate 8-12, heart rate 28-44 temp 37.2 38C)  
  • Throwing themselves on the floor  
  • Rolling  
  • No gut sounds 
  • Slow capillary refill (2 seconds) gums should normally be moist and salmon pink.


Despite whatever colic symptoms your equine is showing, it is vital that you contact your vet immediately. The quicker you and your vet intervene, the better the chance they have in pulling through.  

Whilst you are on the phone to the vet, you want to give them as much information as possible. How long have they been like this / if anything has recently changed / whether they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t have / what symptoms they are displaying / and if possible, their TPR, worming history, and if you know the last time, they passed droppings.  

Move your horse into a stable or smaller closed off area to monitor. Remove all feed and water. If they are profusely sweating, remove their rug but don’t allow them to get a chill – instead keeping them warm by walking in hand if it is safe to do so.  

The vet will arrive and check their vitals. TPR, gut sounds, mucous membranes, and capillary refill. If the vet believes they are colicing, they may sedate them and perform a rectal examination.  

From this, depending on which colic they believe it is, they can tube them with a mixture of electrolytes, Epsom salt or water. They can administer pain relief such as finadyne or flunixin depending on the levels. Or they may even refer them to an equine hospital.


Colic can be fatal and is an owner’s worst nightmare. It can be costly as well as very time-consuming. So here are a few things to consider in preventing colic:  

  • Fresh water  
  • Feed little and often  
  • Change their diet gradually, not quickly 
  • Avoid restricted grazing on sandy land  
  • Keep your worming programme up to date  
  • Get their teeth regularly done to avoid quidding 
  • Do not feed mouldy hay, feed or haylage and clean buckets  

Colic is never nice to deal with, no matter how many times you have witnessed it. Things can escalate very quickly, and your equine may turn toxic in front of your very quickly.  

To try and prevent colic, follow our tips on how to prevent it and learn the symptoms, so you can pick it up as quickly as you can to give them the best chance in recovery.

We always hope it will never happen to our equine best friend, but it is approximated that 920,000 horse’s get colic nationwide each year. Colic is also the number 1 killer in horses. So, prevention is better than cure.

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