What You Should Know About Colic in Horses

7 things to know before a horse colics, so you can maximize the chances of a successful outcome.

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Horse rolling
Keeping an eye out for colic signs, like rolling repetitively, can help you quickly identify a potential problem. | iStock

Colic is a frightening word for horse owners, and rightly so. One of the most common causes of death in horses, colic can strike without warning and progress so rapidly that treatment—even surgery—may not be effective.

The good news, said Jennifer G. Barrett, MS, PhD, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, of Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, is owners can take steps to be prepared should their horses ever colic. Barrett—the Theodora Ayer Randolph Professor of Equine Surgery at the school’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, in Leesburg—said that while some colic types always have a poor prognosis, how owners confront colic can impact the outcomes significantly.

During a Tuesday Talk online lecture, she reviewed what owners should know about colic and how they can help horses in digestive distress.

Know That Colic is a Clinical Sign, Not a Disease

“Colic is abdominal pain from an unknown cause,” Barrett said.

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Those causes are numerous and include impactions, gas distension, gastric ulcers, peritonitis, colitis, and even problems with other organs—such as the liver or urogenital tract. For this reason, once you’ve identified colic, it’s important to work with your veterinarian to determine its cause, because treatments and prognoses vary, and even bellyaches that present in a similar way can be incredibly different internally.

Know Where Your Phone Numbers Are

You likely store most important numbers in your cellphone. But what is your game plan if you’re taking care of a horse with colic and the phone battery dies?

Barrett says to always keep contact information for your veterinarian, a barn manager or other emergency contacts, and a shipper (if you don’t have your own trailer) written down on paper, whiteboard, or other place in case technology fails at the worst possible moment.

Know What’s Normal for Your Horse

While a three-quarters-full bucket might be normal for your friend’s horse, it could mean your horse is not drinking, is dehydrated, and, thus, at risk for an impaction. Conversely, if your horse is covered in shavings each morning, it might mean he enjoyed his nightly slumber; the same sight for your friend’s horse could mean he’s been rolling in pain.

“Know what’s normal for your horse,” Barrett said. “Is he normally restless or quiet? How often does he lie down? Is your horse stoic (in the face of pain) or a big baby? How is your horse’s appetite, and how much water does he normally drink? What’s his normal manure output?”

It’s also important to know your horse’s normal vital signs, she said. Normal averages include:

  • Pulse: 28 to 42 beats per minute.
  • Respiration Rate: 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
  • Temperature: 99.5 to 101.5 degrees F.
  • Capillary refill time: Less than two seconds.
  • The presence of gut sounds, especially on the right side.

Barrett noted that some horses can fall outside these ranges, so it’s important to know what’s normal for your individual horse.

Deviations from normal might result from environmental stimuli but could also mean a horse is developing digestive or other issues. Relay any variations from normal to your veterinarian, as they could provide valuable information to aid in a diagnosis.

Know Your Horse’s Recent Past

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When you call your veterinarian, be ready to answer questions and report information, such as:

  • The last time you observed the horse acting normally and free of colic signs.
  • The severity of his pain.
  • Whether the clinical signs are improving or worsening.
  • The horse’s appetite and how much feed and water he’s consumed.
  • How much manure he’s producing.
  • His vital signs (though, she noted, these can be difficult to collect on an extremely painful horse, so approach with caution).
  • Recent vaccinations, deworming, or other veterinary care.
  • Recent exercise.
  • How much feed and pasture access the horse has had (and whether he might have overindulged, breaking into a feed room, perhaps).
  • Medications the horse receives regularly.
  • What, if any, treatment—medication or otherwise—you’ve given for the colic episode, including dose, administration route, and timing.

Know Which Clinical Signs Are Most Serious

It’s wise to note any abnormal clinical signs or actions your horse might be exhibiting. But some can point to more serious issues than others, Barrett said. Generally speaking, and keeping in mind that all horses behave differently, the least to most severe clinical signs can include:

  • Inappetence.
  • Reduced manure output.
  • Flank-watching.
  • Pawing.
  • Lying down and getting up repeatedly.
  • Kicking at the abdomen.
  • Rolling without shaking after getting up (horses that do shake after rolling typically aren’t suffering a colic episode, Barrett said).
  • Thrashing.

Know That Some Episodes of Colic Won’t Resolve With Medical Treatment Alone

While many colic causes can resolve without surgery, others cannot, Barrett said.

What Type of Colic Is It?
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Medical cases generally include:

  • Gas colic.
  • Spasmodic colic.
  • Impactions.
  • Infection and inflammation (caused by issues like enteritis or colitis).
  • Gastric ulcers.

Cases that won’t resolve medically involve:

  • Nonresolving impactions.
  • Small intestine strangulations.
  • Some large colon (large intestine) displacements.
  • Large colon volvulus (when a piece of intestine twists around itself).
  • Intussusceptions (when a piece of bowel telescopes inside the adjacent bowel).
  • Strangulating lipomas (fatty lumps that form along the mesentery—the blood-supplying membrane that connects the small intestine to the body wall, and wrap around intestines tightly and block blood supply).
  • Enteroliths (mineral stones that develop in the GI tract).
  • Foreign bodies in the GI tract.

These types of colic will require surgical correction, she said.

Unrelenting pain is the No. 1 reason horses go to surgery, Barrett noted. “Horses that have pain that can’t be controlled with the meds we have are telling us they don’t need medical management,” she said. “They don’t need stronger drugs. They’re telling us what they have in their abdomens require surgery.”

Know How Far You’re Willing and Able to Go

Not every horse is a candidate for surgery. Not every owner can afford surgery. And that’s okay. Be honest with your veterinarian about your limits.

“We understand that as veterinarians,” Barrett said. “Our job isn’t to judge or push you into a decision you don’t want to make or aren’t able to make. We give you the information you need to make the right decision for you, your horse, and your family.”

Take-Home Message

Colic is something no owner wants to deal with, but it’s a reality many will face. Being prepared ahead of time can help streamline getting information to the veterinarian and improve the chances of a positive outcome.


Written by:

Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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