Colic in Horses: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

horse with colic

Colic in horses is a potentially serious medical condition that can result in severe discomfort or even death if left untreated. Recognizing the signs and knowing how to treat them is essential for any horse owner or handler.

What is Colic in Horses?

Colic is a term that describes abdominal pain in horses. It can be caused by a number of different things, including impaction, gas distention, and infections. The most common type of colic in horses is impaction, which occurs when food or other substances accumulate in the intestines and cause a blockage. Colic can also be caused by gas distention, which is when the intestines become bloated with air and start to expand, resulting in pain. Infections can cause inflammation in the intestines, leading to abdominal pain as well.

Types of Colic

Colic in horses is classified based on the cause, or type, of colic. The most common types include:

  • Enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine),
  • Spasmodic (gas build-up in the intestines), 
  • Impaction (blockage caused by the accumulation of food particles), 
  • Gas colic (accumulation of gas in the intestines),
  • Strangulating (when a portion of the intestine twists around itself, cutting off blood supply). 

Signs of Colic

Colic can be difficult to diagnose, but there are some tell-tale signs that can help you identify it sooner rather than later. Your horse may show any combination of the following symptoms: 

  • Refusal to eat or drink 
  • Pawing on the ground 
  • Rolling or thrashing around 
  • Sweating, sometimes profusely 
  • Unusual positioning of legs and head 
  • Groaning, grunting, or moaning in pain 
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Bloated abdomen 
  • Tacky or dry gums

If you suspect your horse has colic, contact your veterinarian immediately. Depending on the severity of the colic and other factors, they may advise you to keep an eye on your horse or recommend treatment options such as medications, dietary changes, and surgery.

Causes of Colic

Colic can be caused by a variety of factors including poor quality hay or grain, changes in diet or feed schedule, ingested foreign objects, parasites, gastric ulcers, or physical activity. Stressful events such as transport, farrier visits, environmental changes, and even emotional disturbances can also contribute to the onset of colic.

How Diagnose Colic?

When a horse is showing signs of possible colic, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. To diagnose colic in horses, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, review the horse’s medical history, and ask about any changes in diet or exercise routine. Diagnostic tests may include an abdominal ultrasound, rectal exam, or blood work.

Your veterinarian may also perform a fecal exam or sample of the horse’s cecum contents to rule out parasites as the cause of colic. In some cases, your vet may explore further with an abdominal radiograph (x-ray) or even gastroscopy if needed to get a better look inside the horse’s digestive system.

How to Treat Colic in Horses

One of the most common treatments for colic in horses is nasogastric intubation. This involves placing a tube through the nose, down into the stomach and flushing it with fluids to help reduce gas and bloating. The vet may also use the tube to administer medications or other treatments directly into the stomach. In cases of severe colic, surgery may be necessary.

Another common treatment for colic in horses is pain relief. Pain medications such as bute (phenylbutazone) can be used to reduce discomfort and help relax the horse’s digestive tract. The vet may also recommend a diet change or probiotics to help your horse break down food better and reduce the risk of colic.

Surgery may be needed for more serious cases of colic and can involve removing any blockages in the intestines or other organs, such as performing a gastrotomy to remove an impacted colon. In some instances, surgery is not possible or practical and euthanasia may be recommended if the horse’s condition is too severe or if it does not respond to medical treatment.


Good management is the key to preventing colic in horses. Providing adequate access to water, a balanced diet, and regular exercise are essential for keeping your horse healthy. Additionally, regular deworming as recommended by your vet is important to reduce the risk of parasites causing a blockage in the intestines. You should also make sure that your horse’s teeth and hooves are in good condition, as improper chewing or an unbalanced gait can lead to discomfort or pain that may cause colic. Finally, be sure to watch for any changes in your horse’s behavior and contact your vet if you think he might be ill.


What can you not do when a horse is Colic?

When a horse is colic, the most important thing to do is contact your veterinarian and follow their instructions. You should not try to treat the colic yourself or attempt to administer any medicines or treatments without consulting a veterinarian first. Additionally, you should not perform any invasive procedures such as attempting to pass a stomach tube unless instructed by your vet. It is also important not to attempt to move your horse or make them do any strenuous activity as this could potentially worsen the colic. Lastly, it is never recommended to give a horse food or water when they are colic as this can cause more complications and stress for your horse.

How long should colic last in horses?

The length of time a horse will experience colic depends on the severity of the condition, and can generally range anywhere from just a few hours to several days. In some cases, more severe cases may even last up to weeks or months.

How do you comfort a horse with colic?

Try to walk your horse slowly around the paddock, as exercise can help stimulate digestion and reduce pain. If your horse is displaying signs of severe discomfort, however, it’s important to seek veterinary advice immediately.

Can you give water to a horse with colic?

It is best to avoid giving your horse water if it is exhibiting signs of colic. This is because drinking large amounts of cold water can cause the colon and intestines to swell and potentially make the situation worse. If the horse does not have access to a paddock, try offering small amounts of warm (not hot) electrolyte solution instead. It is important to consult your veterinarian if you are unsure of how much and what kind of liquid should be given. Additionally, it is essential to ensure that water buckets or troughs are kept clean in order to prevent contamination with bacteria that can cause colic.

How much does colic surgery cost?

The cost of colic surgery can vary greatly depending on the severity and type of colic, as well as the location of the procedure. It is important to speak to your veterinarian about what will be involved in the surgical process and whether it is necessary for your horse’s condition. For cases that require surgery, costs can range from $5,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the complexity of the procedure.


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