horse colic symptoms treatment prevention

Health Guide: Colic In Horses

Last Updated on September 1, 2020

Knowing the right actions to take when your horse has colic can be the deciding factor whether your horse survives or not.

After reading this article you will know what colic in horses is, the seven types of horse colic, dietary do’s and don’ts, and treatment and prevention tips.

What is Colic?

Colic is a condition that negatively affects the abdominal region of horses. 

You may be familiar with colic in human infants.

The condition of colic in horses may have some similarities to the human form of colic, but it is also quite different.

Generally speaking, colic in horses causes incredible abdominal pain.

This pain can be so severe that it will cause horses to start pawing and rolling around in an effort to alleviate the pain.

Colic can prevent horses from being able to defecate properly, and this will worsen the problem.

Colic is a very common problem for horses. 

Many horses are diagnosed with colic each year, and it is a condition that can be properly treated in several ways.

Why Do Horses Colic?

The reason that horses are so susceptible to these abdominal problems has to do with the way that their digestive system is designed.

Horses have a digestive system that hangs loosely in their abdominal cavity.

This can make a horse prone to intestinal movement and other problems that can cause severe pain.

The digestive system of a horse is very complex overall, and you are going to need to monitor your horse closely to ensure that their digestive health stays on the right track.

It should also be noted that there are a few different types of colic that you will need to be aware of.

There are distinct differences between the types of colic that will be important to understand when treating the condition.

Your equine veterinarian should be able to make the proper diagnosis to ensure that the treatment plan for your horse will be appropriate.

For more essential equine health topics, check out these articles

7 Types of Colic in Horses

There are seven different types of colic that you need know about.

  • Spasmodic Colic
  • Gas Colic
  • Sand Colic
  • Impaction Colic
  • Displacement Colic
  • Strangulation Colic
  • Twisted Gut Colic

The causes of these types of colic will differ.

The largest difference between the various types of colic in horses is what is causing the abdominal pain to occur.

Spasmodic Colic

Spasmodic colic is characterized as colic that is caused by cramping.

There may be severe intestinal cramping, and this can cause spasms to occur. 

The spasms are severely painful and can be difficult for a horse to cope with.

Gas Colic

Gas colic is one of the most common forms of colic that horses are diagnosed with.

This type of horse colic is caused by gas forming in the intestines.

Excessive gas can lead to severe discomfort, and the horse may wind up having issues with flatulence.

Sand Colic

Sand colic occurs when a horse winds up getting sand particles in their large intestine.

These sand particles can cause a lot of discomfort for your horse.

If your horse is eating off of the sandy ground, then it is possible that they might have problems with sand colic.

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic occurs when food has become stuck in the large intestine.

The impaction of this food in the large intestine prevents the horse from defecating properly.

They will need to receive help from your vet in order to be able to defecate again and alleviate the pain.

Displacement Colic

Displacement colic is a severe form of colic where an intestine is moved to a different location.

When the intestine is not capable of moving back to its initial position, it becomes known as entrapment colic.

This is a very uncommon form of colic that can be dangerous for any horse that is suffering from it.

Strangulation Colic

Strangulation colic is another uncommon type of colic that is quite dangerous.

In this form of colic, the blood supply to a horse’s intestines is cut off.

This can be a life-threatening condition because the intestinal wall will die if nothing is done to fix the problem.

Twisted Gut Colic

When your horse develops twisted gut colic, it will have its intestines twist or become inverted in some way.

This leads to severe discomfort and can even threaten the life of the horse.

This is a rare form of colic for a horse to be diagnosed with, but it will need to be taken very seriously in order to prevent loss of life.

How Can Diet Impact Colic?

Diet is very important when it comes to preventing colic.

If you want your horse to remain pain-free then you will need to make sure that you are feeding them properly.

There are certain things you will want to do, as well as things you will need to avoid.

Helpful Dietary Tips

You can positively impact your horse’s chances of preventing colic issues through managing their diet.

  • Feed an appropriate amount of food
  • Set up a diet plan based on the weight of your horse
  • Measure out all grain and hay
  • Keep what you feed your horse consistent
  • Any diet changes should be made gradually

It is very important that you feed your horse the proper amount of food.

Set up a diet plan that is based on the weight of your horse.

If you need help developing a diet plan for your horse, then you should speak with your equine veterinarian about the issue.

They will be able to give you information and tell you what you should be feeding your horse on a daily basis if you have any questions.

But as a general rule, you want to ensure that you are feeding them enough to maintain their ideal weight.

Meaning that you have to specifically measure out the amount of feed that you are giving your horse.

This includes measuring both grain and hay.

With a little care you will be able to come up with the perfect ratio that will promote a healthy weight in your horse and keep equine colic at bay.

You also want to maintain a consistent diet for your horse.

Changes to your horse’s diet can actually lead to colic problems.

Sudden changes can throw off the microbial balance inside of your horse, and this will lead to severe abdominal discomfort.

Check out our article on the  best probiotics for horses for the best supplements for promoting a healthy gut

If you are trying to switch your horse to a healthier diet, then you should do so gradually.

This will help you to avoid any potential problems with diet induced colic. If you need to decrease the amount of food that your horse is consuming, then gradually feeding the horse less until finally reaching the ideal amount is the best bet.

Lastly, you need to ensure that your horse is eating enough roughage.

Your horse needs roughage to promote good digestive health. Ensuring that they have what they need will keep them from having problems with colic.

More Dietary Tips

  • Never overfeed your horse
  • Don’t feed your horse near manure piles
  • Don’t feed your horse on sand

Overfeeding your horse can drastically increase their chances of experiencing equine colic.

Increased food intake can lead to impaction colic, gas colic, and spasmodic colic.

Other types of colic can be impacted by feeding your horse too much as well.

Feeding your horse too many carbohydrates in particular, can be problematic.

When there are too many simple starches for the horse’s body to break down, there will be too many starches present in the large intestine.

This can cause certain microbes to thrive that can inflame the wall of a horse’s gut.

Eating near manure can cause a horse to ingest harmful bacteria.

This bacteria can wind up negatively impacting their digestive system and may even lead to colic.

For this reason, it is important that you clean up the area that your horse is in as often as possible.

Even when a horse is grazing, you won’t want them to eat too close to manure. Be proactive about cleaning up manure so that you can avoid this issue.

How To Prevent Horse Colic

It is possible to reduce the risk of your horse experiencing colic.

As stated earlier, a huge part of preventing colic will depend on with how well you manage the diet of your horse.

There are several other steps you can take to ensure that your horse remains happy, healthy, and colic free.

Teeth and Colic

Maintaining your horse’s teeth can positively help you avoid colic.

Poor teeth health can lead to your horse not being able to chew their food properly.

If food is consumed without being chewed completely, it can cause impaction colic to occur.

Water’s Impact on Colic

It is important to ensure that your horse has access to clean water at all times.

In general, a horse will not like to drink water that is too cold or water that isn’t fresh.

You will need to check on your horse consistently and give them fresh water.

Drinking fresh water will help your horse as they flush out their system.

This aids in the digestive process and can reduce the risk of impaction colic.

It is one of the easiest things you can do to safeguard your horse from colic problems.

What About Grazing?

You will need to monitor your horses grazing. 

Horses love to graze but they may try to eat too much at once after a long winter if you don’t watch them.

This can be particularly problematic with rich forage like alfalfa. 

It is up to you to keep your horse from eating too much and creating potential colic problems.

Exercise and Colic

Keeping your horse active can also help to prevent colic.

If your horse spends too much time just standing around in a stall, then they will be at greater risk for colic issues.

Ample amounts of exercise can help the horse to digest food better, and it will improve their overall condition and health. 

Take your horse for a ride or some round pen work, not only will it help their performance but it just may help prevent colic from popping up.

Colic Symptoms Diagnosis and Treatment Steps

It is important to contact your vet as soon as you see these warning signs of colic.

  • Excessive pawing
  • Rolling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inability to defacate
  • Irritability

Colic should be diagnosed by your veterinarian.

They will examine the horse and determine which type of colic they are suffering from.

There are certain signs that will help the vet to figure out what type of colic they are having issues with.

Sometimes the veterinarian will need to perform a rectal examination in order to make a conclusion.

They will also perform more non-invasive examinations such as checking the pulse and listening for gut sounds.

Once they have figured everything out, they can start providing treatment.

The treatments will differ depending on the type of colic that the horse has.

Analgesic medications can help alleviate the pain your horse is experiencing.

If the horse is suffering from an impaction, then surgery may be required.

Surgery may also be required in the case of twisted gut colic.

Other treatments include using a tube to relieve gas pressure from the gut and putting the horse on an IV to address any dehydration.

The treatments are quite varied but your horse will be in good hands so long as you call in a qualified equine veterinarian. 

For more horse health guides and tips read these articles:


Colic is serious and it is important to understand the signs that your horse may be suffering from horse colic.

Follow the prevention tips outlined above and your horse may never have to deal with colic.

If your horse does show symptoms, call your vet asap and follow the treatment plan they advise.

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