Horse Health Newsletter: Colic

Horse Health Newsletter: Colic

As the weather starts to change and fluctuate, be on the lookout for the number one

risk to horses: colic. Colic is a general term for abdominal pain in horses and can be caused

by a number of different factors, from mild indigestion to severe intestinal torsion. Changes in

feeding behavior, routine, and decreased water intake can cause an indigestion, predispose

them to impaction, and increase the occurrence of gastric ulcers. Impaction can result from

intestinal parasite Strongylus vulgaris, so follow a regular worming schedule or have a fecal

sample checked in the spring and fall. Feeding hay on the ground of a sandy paddock or stall

can result in sand impaction. Overweight and older horses are predisposed to lipoma

formation, a benign fatty tumor that is not a problem on its own, but can become entangled

with the intestines, obstructing and cutting of circulation to those tissues. Intestinal torsion is

an incredibly painful process and can happen spontaneously. These are just a few examples

of the many intestinal accidents that can cause discomfort in our equine friends.

Despite the varied causes, colic presents with similar symptoms of pain. The mildest

signs of discomfort can be a horse off feed or constantly shifting. In an effort to find a

comfortable position they can move the weight between their front and back legs, stretch out,

lay down and get back up, or roll- repetitively or continuously, depending on the severity.

They can signal pain by pawing at the ground or stomach, turning their head to the abdomen,

grunting, or sweating. Some may just lay down and refuse to rise. If you have a horse

displaying a combination of these signs, it is best to contact your veterinarian immediately.

While waiting for the vet to arrive, walk the horse to encourage blood flow and movement, as

this can provide some relief of symptoms and, in some mild cases, help alleviate the initial



Once the vet arrives they will do a full physical exam, including rectal palpation. The

heart rate and the palpation findings are some of the best indicators to the severity and cause

of the pain. Please have a hay bale or two available to protect the veterinarian during

palpation. Unfortunately, identifying the etiology of colic is not always, or often, possible. Your

vet will pass a tube into the horse’s stomach, check for reflux (an indication of upper GI

obstruction), and infuse water, mineral oil, and/or an emulsifier as indicated by the exam.

Over the next 12 hours, you will need to walk the horse often. In 12-24 hours, you should

monitor for fecal output and the passage of the oil.


Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the cause of the colic, or if medical

management is unsuccessful, referral for surgery may need to be considered. Colic is a life

threatening condition that can strike at any time, so please be diligent and monitor your

horses regularly. For more information, contact the clinic for more information.