The Magazine Spring 2016

Colic – complete vet’s guide

Posted 18th September 2017

Colic can affect any horse at any time and it can be life-threatening. Vet Imogen Burrows, from Cliffe Equine Clinic, explains what signs to look for and what to do when it strikes


Colic is one of those things all horse owners dread and most horses will suffer from at some point in their lives. It’s certainly common for vets to be called out for this problem, with around 7% of horses coming down with it each year.

Many people think of colic as a condition in itself, but it’s actually just a term that describes abdominal pain or tummy ache and can have several causes. Horses have a limited number of ways they can express pain or discomfort and colic is a catch-all term for the behaviours generally associated with this type of pain. 

Signs of colic

Common signs associated with colic include…

  • pawing the ground
  • curling or lifting the upper lift (Flehmen response)
  • trying to lie down
  • rolling
  • sweating
  • flank watching
  • loss of appetite
  • standing as if to urinate (lordosis)
  • unsettled behaviour such as constantly switching from resting one hindleg to the other
  • kicking at abdomen with hindlegs
  • absence of droppings

The signs vary between individuals, depending on how stoic they are and the degree of bowel distention, inflammation of the intestinal wall and compromise to the intestinal blood supply.

Horses with an impaction usually appear dull, lose their appetite and won’t have passed droppings for several hours. Cases with a twisted bowel and an inflamed, bloated section of intestine that has a restricted blood supply are often in a huge amount of pain, responding very poorly to pain relief.

If your horse has colic

It’s always sensible to take feed or hay away from your horse, although you can offer him water. Your vet will offer some advice on the phone while they’re travelling to you. Depending on the signs your horse is showing, they may advise you to take him into a paddock or arena and walk him steadily or, for safety’s sake, to put him in a stable and leave him
until they arrive.

When your vet arrives, it’s very useful for them to know…

  • when your horse was last seen behaving normally
  • what his appetite was like until this episode
  • whether he’s passed droppings in normal quantity and form, and when
  • if there have been any changes in the colic signs
  • whether he has any vices such as crib-biting or windsucking
  • if there have been any recent changes to his management, such as box rest, new feed or increased exercise
  • if your horse has a history of colic
  • if he’s travelled in the last 24 hours
  • his worming history
  • when his last dental examination was
  • any recent or current medication

Life after colic

The vast majority of colic cases are mild and respond to treatment very quickly and successfully. However, sometimes surgical intervention is necessary. Surgery is often successful, although the risk of colic occurring in the future is higher due to adhesions forming within the abdomen as a result of the operation.

Many horses have one bout of colic and never suffer again, however some are more prone to it. If your horse has three or more episodes of colic in a matter of months, it definitely warrants further investigation to find the cause.

There’s lots more information about colic, including the different types, which types of horse are most at risk and how your vet will treat an episode of colic, in the November issue of Horse&Rider. Get your copy from 21 September.

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