Colic in Horses

Author: Simran Mudaliar   Date Posted:24 January 2018 

Is your horse prone to colic? Has he had colic many times? Not sure what exactly colic is and why it happens?

Abdominal pain in horses can often be severely stressful for the animal and owner alike. In this article, we'll cover:

  • What Is Colic In Horses?
  • The Types Of Colic Your Horse May Get
  • How Can You Tell If Your Horse Has Colic?
  • Can Horses Die From Colic?
  • Preventing Colic Through Diet
  • Preventing Colic Through Management & Environmental Changes.

What Is Colic in Horses?

The generalized term for abdominal pain in horses is referred to as colic. Colic defines a serious condition in which a horse may experience tremendous abdominal pain as a result of either gastrointestinal or non-gastrointestinal discomfort. Colic in horses is often idiopathic, this means that there is no definitive cause. Regardless, colic can be caused by several factors, thus it is fundamental to understand the basics to your horse's anatomy so you can take the extra measures to prevent colic.

The Different Types Of Colic Your Horse May Get

Colic can be caused by a range of factors, however, the following causes listed below account for 80% of colic cases in horses.

Spasmodic & Gas Colic

Spasmodic and gas colic often occurs as a result of an accumulation of gas. These gases tend to build within a horse’s colon and intestines, thus creating painful spasms. As the pressure in the intestines increase, your horse may develop a severely inflamed gastrointestinal lining. It's frequently believed that spasmodic colic is caused by sudden behavioral changes, such as fear or anxiety. This means that spasmodic colic may occur when a horse is traveling long distances, undergoing intensive exercise, or has consumed cold water. In addition, if you feed your horse unhealthy diets such as moldy grains and hay. Then you'll increase their risk of gas colic. Why? This is because moldy grains and hay are highly fermentable in the gastrointestinal tract. Once bacteria in the midgut begin the process of fermentation, there will be a significant increase in gas production.

Impaction Colic In Horses

Impaction colic refers to the blockage that might occur in a horse’s gastrointestinal tract as a result of food not properly passing through. Horses have a very complex gastrointestinal tract, and so when food transitions from the stomach through to the intestines and colon it has to pass through various passages. Look at the picture below! You see, food has to pass through the small intestine, left dorsal colon, transverse colon and so on. Now as it passes through, the diameter may change abruptly and become smaller in certain areas- this includes the pelvic flexure, ileo-caecal junction and ascending transverse colon. These are common sites at which impaction may occur!

Colic in Horses

(Picture credit:

Impactions colic in horses may be caused by various factors, the most common causes include:

  1. Poor dental care: Can result in the inability for a horse to chew their food properly, this creates a food bolus that can be very raw and dry.
  2. Lack of warm water will prevent adequate flow through the digestive tract.
  3. Sometimes, horse tend to consume large amounts of sand. Over time the build up of sand granules can cause inflammation in a horses colon.

Internal parasites such as tapeworm infestation can cause impaction due to build up.

Displacement & Torsion Colic In Horses

If you've ever heard of a horse having a "twisted gut" then you probably already know what displacement colic is.

So, how does it happen? The intestines of a horse are connected to these large ligamentous tissue called mesentery. The mesentery is attached to the dorsal (upper) body wall of the horse's' abdomen.

The mesentery actually suspends the intestines of the horse. As such the mesentery contains a network of arteries, blood vessels and lymphatics. Now some parts of the intestinal tract can be quite mobile. For example, horses may often get displacement in their left dorsal colon or right dorsal colon. When the intestine is displaced, blood circulation through the mesentery will come to a halt. The result, dying tissue and severe abdominal pain for your horse!

How Can You Tell If Your Horse Has Colic?

With a trained eye, even you can spot colic in horses. But, you’ll not be able to tell what kind of colic your horse may have. So, here we have listed some common signs horse owners may notice if their horse has colic.

  • Inappetence
  • Excessive sweating
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Horses will often look towards their abdomen if in pain
  • Horses may often paw the ground, this is a sign of discomfort

Look at the video below to see symptoms of colic in horses

Can Horses Die From Colic?

Horses cannot necessarily die from colic itself. This is because colic is simply generalized as “abdominal pain”. As such, colic can be caused by various problems so often a horse can indeed die from the different causes of colic.

For example, if a horse has developed colic as a result of torsion or displacement. Then this is more likely to be life-threatening for the With colic caused by torsion, the intestines and mesentery of the horse may get coiled up! As such blood supply will not adequately reach the coiled portion of the gastrointestinal tract. When blood supply fails to reach this “strangulated” part, necrosis will occur. That is, the tissue slowly begins to die, leading to a horses death.

Preventing Colic Through Diet Management

Colic can have several causes that cannot always be prevented by management. However, horse owners can make a few changes to their horses routine in order to reduce the risk of colic. According to the Kentucky Equine Research the best feeding managements owners can take in order to reduce the risk of colic is as follows:

  1. Feed your horse high quality pasture that's low in soluble carbohydrates. Ideally your horse needs to consume 1 to 2% of their body weight. Avoid feeding excessive amounts of grains to your horse as this can increase the amount of acid in the stomach.
  2. Allow your horse to access to quality pasture daily. If possible, ride, trot or gallop your horse for a few times a day.
  3. Feed quality feedstuff for your horse. For example, try to feed fresh, soft, leafy hay as opposed to old, dry hay. Don’t overfeed grains and pellets especially if your horse is housed in a stable.
  4. Don’t let your horse overgraze the spring flush pasture. Believe it or not, spring pasture tends to be high in sugar and can cause your horse a lot of problem. Ideally, ration your horse’s feed during spring.

Preventing Colic Through Management & Environmental Changes

The best way to prevent colic in horses is to monitor and control their surrounding environment and housing factors.

Avoiding Housing Your Horse In Stalls

A study done by the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine encouraged horse owners to allow and increase turnout time and free range roam on pasture. This is because allowing your horse to consistency move and stay active will increase the level of intestinal fluid, thereby preventing possible blockages. Additionally, turnout time will permit your horse to consume more fiber grass and subsequently more water.

Avoiding Sandy Pasture

When it comes to the environment, it is crucial to keep in mind that colic can be caused by sand granule ingestion. When a horse consumes granules of sand with food, the bolus of food may not be fermented efficiently in the caecum. Additionally, sand granules may settle down in the horse’s colon thus resulting is irritation of the intestinal lining. Ideally, the best way to prevent the sand colic in horses is to avoid sandy pastures.

Maintaining Parasite Control

Tapeworms, roundwords, Strongyles, and pinworms are some of the internal parasites that can relentlessly impact the health of a horse.

  • Roundworms: This type of parasite is very common in foals and is the leading cause of colic for them. Because round tends to be relatively large; an accumulation of them will result in blockage causing impaction.
  • Small Strongyles: In equine with the larvae of strongyles will often show symptoms of diarrhea and discomfort. These larvae enter the system of the animal through pasture and are often resistant to antibiotics prescribed. Dewormers are recommended as a preventative.
  • Simply arranging for regular deworming control will help assist in the prevention of colic. It is highly recommended that owners alternate deworming products a few times a year to prevent resistance.
  • Maintaining and regular cleaning of feces in a paddock is essential to preventing the spread of parasitic worms and larvae.

Dental exams and floating

Dental care is an important factor that can regularly cause colic in horses. Older tend to be more prone to colic caused by dentition as a result of wear down over time. Over time the silica in grass tends to break down the teeth of the horse. Unfortunately, poor dentition and the wear down of teeth can lead to a horses inability to properly chew food which would lead to an increased risk of obstruction. It is often recommended that owners provide tooth floating for their horse every 6-7 months. Floating is a simple process that requires a float to rasp away excess tooth growth an debris thereby evening the level of the teeth.

Avoiding Stress

Stress can be caused by multiple situations. This includes situations like a change in surroundings, excessive exercise, long periods of traveling and the introduction of new herd members. Unfortunately, not all stress can be controlled especially through broodmares and travel. Thus during situations like these, probiotics and prebiotics should be administered daily in order to reduce the likelihood of colic.

Final Thoughts

Colic is a gastrointestinal disorder that may be caused by various factors. With around 9% of a generic population of horses being impacted by colic it is important understand how Diet, environment and stockmanship all play an important part in the welfare of a horses wellbeing and health. Studies showed that the general population of horses most impacted by colic are those that are stabled and restricted to exercise; this causes lower frequency of contractions within the intestines and thus creating abdominal pain.