The term “colic” refers to abdominal pain being experienced by the horse.

Most owners are aware of colic and some have, unfortunately, experienced bouts of colic with their horses. Colic is the most common digestive disturbance for horses. Furthermore, it is estimated that approximately 5% of all horses will experience a bout of colic every year in the United States. Sadly, it is also one of the leading causes of death. Of horses under the age of 20, colic was the leading cause of death at 30%. Of aged horses (> 20 years of age), this dropped to 14%. Thus, it is critical that every horse owner understands and also recognizes the signs of distress and colic in their animals.

Horses can experience many different types of colic. These include gas colic, impaction colic, spasmodic colic, twisted gut colic, displacement colic, among a few others. Generally speaking, colic causes a disruption in the intestinal tract where digestion is either slowed or even stopped. While there are many causes of colic, one major contributing factor is due to confinement and how horses are fed.  We have outlined this in our Feeding Your Horse Often article that addresses how horses have evolved to eat small meals all day. With confinement, most horses are only fed two to three times a day, which goes against their natural digestive anatomy. However, with a sound feeding strategy, most horses do well and may never experience colic.

For anything health-related to horses, a good management tip is to always lay your eyes on your horse each and every day. This way, you get to know your horse’s behavior better. This is also important so you can identify when your horse is feeling good, and then, even more importantly, easily identify when they do not. It is also important to remember that horses are particularly proficient in hiding their pain. This makes sense, as horses have evolved in the wild to evade predation and predators mainly look to prey on those weak or ill.

There are many signs that you should be aware of in identifying if your horse is experiencing colic. These can range from subtle indications that your horse is in pain up to a horse that is in obvious distress. The most obvious sign that a horse is experiencing colic, or any other distress, is their general appearance. The horse just appears lethargic and unwell. They are sullen, slow to respond to stimuli and walk slowly. They also appear depressed with their heads down and have little interest in eating or drinking.  

Other signs of colic include:

  • Biting or nipping at their side. Tufts of hair can be seen raised on each side. The horse is responding to the pain in its abdomen and biting at it.
  • Excessive sweat, especially during periods of cool weather.
  • Pawing at the ground, general restlessness.
  • May be consistently rolling on the ground.
  • Straining to defecate or absence of feces in a stall or paddock.
  • Isolates themselves from other horses or animals.  
  • Elevated heart rate. Normal resting heart rate is 32 to 36 beats per minute.
  • Elevated respiration rate. Normal resting rate is 8 to 12 breathes per minute.
  • Elevated body temperature. Normal resting body temperature is 99 to 101.5°F (37.5 to 38.6°C).
  • Lack of gut sounds. As the horse digests its food and with aid of a stethoscope, you should hear gurgling and other gut sounds. During colic, these typically are absent.

While these signs are often associated with colic, they could indicate other health-related issues, as well. The most important thing to remember is that if you are observing any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately. While most cases of colic can be alleviated with minor intervention, if left untreated, a mild case can turn into a severe case rather quickly. It is also helpful to have checked and recorded your horse’s vital signs prior to speaking to your veterinarian.

Another important tip to remember is once you recognize any of these signs, do not leave your horse alone for more than 15 or 20 minutes. If your horse is experiencing colic, a mild case of colic can quickly escalate into a severe case within a few short hours. Other tips when responding to cases of colic include:

  • Remove all feed and hay. Keep them off pasture.
  • Walk your horse after checking with your veterinarian. This helps prevent the horse from rolling and helps stimulate gut motility.
  • Do not administer pain medication unless directed by your veterinarian. This can often mask more severe symptoms.
  • Ensure your horse is in a safe area to prevent injury in case they roll.

The final tip to remember is never panic. It is distressing, as an owner, to see your horse suffering. Yet, most cases of colic (~ 90%) are resolved due to quick recognition and medical care. If your horse seems to be colic-prone, contact us for advice on an appropriate feeding plan or to answer any of your questions!

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.