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.