Equine colic acts as an umbrella term to cover a host of abdominal issues in horses. Broadly speaking, it refers to any abdominal pain, but could refer to a number of problems with the digestive system. Due to the wideness of its definition, colic in horses could warrant treatment as simple as a single dose of medication, or require far more serious treatment. Treat any sign of colic as urgent; better safe than sorry. If you spot the signs of colic in your horse, seek veterinary assistance as soon as possible. Read on for our guide on what to look for and how to deal with it.

How to spot it

The signs and symptoms of horse colic can be wide ranging. The best way to prepare yourself is to know your horse; any general change in behaviour or mood can indicate colic, so stay attuned to your animal’s activity. Different horses exhibit different behaviours, even when dealing with the same problems. A foal suffering from colic, for instance, will often roll on its back with its feet in the air; an older horse might deal with the same pain in a more stoic fashion; another animal could become irritable and aggressive. Things you might notice are a change in their appetite; more inclination to lie down; reduced or increased activity; an unusual stance; reduced or increased defecation, and a difference within the stools they are passing. The best way to prevent any equine colic related issues is to stay well acquainted with your horses’ usual behaviours and mood.

Despite the personal variations, there are some specific horse colic symptoms that you can look out for, including:

  • An elevated pulse rate.
  • An increased breathing rate.
  • Sweating.
  • Restlessness, including repetitive pawing at the ground.
  • Attention paid to the stomach, including kicking at the area and looking down at the flank.
  • Rolling; trying to roll; attempting to lie down.
  • Stretching, as if about to urinate.
  • Playing in water bucket without drinking.
  • Infrequency of movement; leaning against walls.
  • Continual shifting of weight.

Types of colic & how to spot them

Equine colic is a broad term that covers a range of more specific illnesses that can affect your horse in different ways. Here’s the low down on a few of the more precise types of horse colic you can keep an eye out for:

  • Spasmodicone of the most common kinds of colic, normally associated with high levels of tapeworm. Signs to look out for in a horse suffering from spasmodic colic are loud gut noises and spasms.
  • Parasitic: look out for a weight loss.
  • Impaction: signs can include a reluctant appetite, low temperature and no faecal production.
  • Grass sickness: Look out for this kind of colic in horses between 2—7 years old, during the spring months. Some of distinctive signs of this type of colic include drooling, muscle tremors and sweating.

The risks factors and causes

Colic generally manifests itself as a digestional issue, and as such is often caused by diet. Horses have evolved on a different diet than that which they are now expected to eat, and their intestines haven’t managed to keep up. Horses are also incapable of vomiting, due to the cardiac sphincter muscle at the top of the stomach acting as a valve; meaning they’re physically incapable of nature’s natural response to getting rid of toxins and indigestible food. The best way to prevent colic in your horse is to maintain a good diet. Be aware of the risk factors below:

  • Poor diet and feeding regime, including a high grain diet, or low-forage diet.
  • Mouldy feed. 
  • Feed tainted with sand, or soiled, most commonly caused by grazing on poor pasture.
  • Not enough fibre.
  • Insufficient water.
  • Too much or too little food.
  • Abrupt change in diet.
  • Stress—initiated by travelling, hard exercise, or sudden change.
  • Dental problems.

How to avoid them

They say the best defence is a good offence, and although illness is often unavoidable, there are precautions you can take to reduce the risk of your horse contracting colic.

Keeping a regular and good diet is essential in the prevention of colic: only use hard feeds as a supplement to grazing on a good quality pasture and high fibre feeds. Check and double check your horse’s feed and buckets: don’t allow for twine or other hidden dangers to become mixed in their feed. An ideal diet consists of high fibre feeds and a ratio of 60% hay. Ensure a constant supply of fresh water. This kind of constant, good quality care is the best type of horse colic prevention.

Keep up regular dental checks and worming treatments. Don’t overexert your horse with extreme exercise, and keep a steady routine to avoid stress. Introduce any changes gradually, and allow for as much turn out in a paddock as possible.

The most important thing is to remain constantly aware. Get to know the usual habits of your horse, and the signs of colic will be easy to spot.

How to treat it

If the worst has happened and your horse has colic, don’t panic. The best thing to do is to contact a vet as soon as possible, and there are many horse colic treatments available. Most often, colic is curable and not fatal. Vets may administer painkillers or antibiotics to make the gut start working properly again. Treatment can remain as simple as pasture management and routine monitoring. In more serious cases of certain types of colic, surgery may be required to remove sections of strangulated intestine or the clearing of intestinal blockages. Prognosis remains good for most kinds of equine colic, especially if you spot it early on.

There are things you can do for a horse with colic while waiting for the vet. Do not give your colicky horse any further food or water, and update yourself of when the horse was last wormed. It is important to remain calm yourself, and in turn to keep the horse as calm and as quiet as possible.

Don’t choke!

Yes, we mean stay calm—but it’s also a final tip. Horses with ‘choke’ can often present with similar signs and symptoms to those with colic: an object become lodged in their oesophagus, leading to drooling, neck spasms, and significant distress. A choke will most often solve itself, but if there is any doubt in your mind that it could be colic, or it continues for over half an hour, call on a veterinarian for advice.