Livestock production: What you should know about colic in horses

Question: What is colic? How does it develop and what can I do to prevent my horse from getting it?

Colic refers to pain in the abdomen, usually caused by digestive tract problems.

Colic from gastro-intestinal causes may be classified into 3 groups:

  • Intestinal dysfunctions.
  • Intestinal accidents.
  • Enteritis/colitis or ulcerations.

Symptoms from other sources are less common and include kidney stones, uterine twists and so on.

Intestinal dysfunctions are the most common cause of colic and include gas distension, impaction, spasm or paralysis. A typical example is a sand colic, where the large intestine becomes obstructed with sand ingested while eating.

Intestinal accidents occur less often and include displacements, torsions and hernias. (Basically, movement of a portion of the gut into the incorrect position, causing the blood supply to be cut off.) These often require emergency surgery for correction.

Enteritis/colitis or ulcerations cause colic related infection or damage to the gut wall. Stress, worms, poor diet, bad teeth and constant stabling are all risk factors for colic developing.

Typical clinical signs include pawing, rolling, kicking at the abdomen, sweating, abdominal swelling, increased heart and breathing rate and dark red (even purple) gums. The degree of pain can vary from mild discomfort to violent, uncontrollable rolling.

Also read: Dealing with worms in your horses

While most colics resolve without any treatment, a significant percentage do require immediate medical care and, in some cases, emergency surgery. In such cases, time is of the essence. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if your horse shows signs of colic.


  • Walk and trot the horse outside on a soft surface if it is showing signs of abdominal pain.
  • But don’t walk the horse, and yourself, to the point of fatigue.
  • Allow the horse to lie down if it appears to be resting quietly and isn’t rolling.
  • Remove feed, but allow the horse to have small quantities of water.
  • Never inject pain killers without first consulting your vet, because they could mask the symptoms and severity of the colic.

Remember: your vet needs to decide whether this is a major colic attack, requiring referral for surgery, or a minor one requiring medical treatment only.

  • Check vital signs and communicate these to your vet.
  • Have other relevant information available for the vet, such as recent medical history, deworming status, the value of the horse, insurance status and breeding history.


  • Deworm your horse regularly.
  • Have your horse’s teeth checked every year.
  • Always feed large quantities of good-quality hay.
  • Be careful of feeding your horse on sandy surfaces. Sand colics are very common!
  • Stomach ulcers are a common cause of colic.
  • Ulcers can be prevented by minimising stress, feeding the minimum quantity of concentrates and always having hay available.

Also read: How to feed your horse

  • This article was written by Dr. Marc Walton and first appeared in Farming SA.

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