Originally, the term colic was used to describe pain in the abdomen. It is, essentially, a symptom of various conditions. However, colic is now more commonly used to refer to a range of conditions leading to this symptom.  Serious bouts of colic can require emergency surgery and, in some cases, may be fatal.

Different types of colic may be caused by a variety of factors. These can include a sudden change in diet, stress and anxiety, grazing near sand, irregular exercise and feeding, un-soaked sugar beet, abdominal surgery or even too much exercise. Horse should not be allowed too much food or water after exercise or eat grass cuttings as these may also lead to colic. A horse may experience colic straight after foaling.

It is vital for veterinarians to understand the cause and the type of colic in order to know how best to treat it. The different types of colic include Spasmodic Colic, Pelvic Flexure Impaction, Sand Colic, Ileal Impaction, Enterolith, Torsion, Epiploic foramen entrapment, Intussusception, Impaction, blockage or stoppage, Tympanic (Flatulent) colic, Spasmodic colic, Artery blockage, and Enteritis (also known as Colitis).

Why do Horses and Ponies Get Colic?

Other than the causes mentioned above, there is one main reason horses are prone to colic. This is due to the fact that their intestines are very long and therefore very easy to become tangled. If the intestines get tangled, and because a horse’s digestive system involves fermentation and so the production of gas, the build up of gas will lead to a blockage. 

Horses can also get colic if there is a blockage of foreign material in the gastro-intestinal tract. The anatomy of a horse means that it cannot vomit. As a result, if there is a blockage, then the horse cannot get rid of and foreign material, thus leading to abdominal pain.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Equine Colic?

Most horse owners are aware of the signs and symptoms of colic. The typical behaviour of a horse suffering from colic includes kicking or biting its belly, staring at its flanks and rolling. Other signs and symptoms are groaning, sweating, lying down, frequently getting down then up again, losing appetite, lethargy, shallow breathing and pawing the ground.

Owners may notice that the horse is producing fewer or no droppings, or stands in a position for a long period of time as though it wishes to pass urine but is unable to do so. The affected horse may curl its lips, have cold extremities and a higher pulse. Severe cases may experience a high temperature or fever.

Different Forms of Colic


When the alimentary canal is blocked, usually by food, this is called an impaction. Other descriptions of this form of colic can be known as a blockage or stoppage. In some cases, worming a horse can lead to the worms being expelled and blocking the gut. A pelvic flexure impaction is caused by the pelvic flexure of the left colon being impacted with food material. An ileal impaction is an impaction of the last part of the small intestine. Ingested material may cause this but also by internal parasites, such as the tapeworm.

Sand Colic or Sand Impaction

If horses ingest a high quantity of sand then they can get sand colic. This can occur if the horses graze near or on sandy ground. Horses kept and fed in sand schools are at a high risk of sand colic. Additionally, heavily grazed pastures can lead to a horse suffering from sand impaction.

Artery Blockage

A thrombosis of the gut can cut of a section off of its blood supply, thus leading to some of the gut dying. Such a thrombosis can be caused by red worms.


Around an ingested foreign material, an Enterolith may form. This can obstruct the intestine and, in most cases, requires surgery.

Enteritis and Colitis

This is the inflammation of the intestines and can be very painful.

Spasmodic Colic

As can be inferred from the name, this is a type of colic where the gut wall becomes irritated and spasms. It is when there is an increase in the peristaltic contractions in the gastrointestinal tract. This is generally a mild condition. 

Tympanic Colic

During digestion, gas is produced via fermentation. In some horses, the gas builds up since it is being produced quicker than it is absorbed or passed out. Once this occurs, the intestinal tract distends which can be very painful.

Twisted Gut or Torsion

Also known as an intestinal catastrophe, this form of colic can lead to extremely intense abdominal pain. The horse’s intestine can twist around themselves or the attaching tissues to the abdominal cavity. There may be an obstruction of the intestine’s blood flow. Emergency surgery is required is there is this occlusion of the blood supply.

Emergency Treatment of Colic in Horses

What can I do if my horse has colic?

Without consultation from a vet do not administer any colic drugs. If owners suspect their horse to have colic then it should be stabled and not offered any food. The vet should be called immediately for advice as to whether they are required to come out or not. The horse must be kept warm and a very small amount of water may be offered.

The horse should be prevented from rolling and should not be allowed to walk for too long a period of time. The reason for this is that tiring a horse out can lead to increased pain and a more difficult recovery. This is especially true if surgery is required. If a horse is violently rolling be careful for your own safety as this can be very dangerous. A horse may be walked a little, with rests, if this is the only way to prevent rolling.

What will the vet do if they find my horse does have colic?

If the horse shows no sign of improvement within the first half hour a vet must definitely be called in. Medicinal drugs may be given by a vet which will given to a horse suffering from colic in order to relieve the pain and relax the horse. This should also ease spasms. A saline solution is also sometimes administered. In more serious but also in many cases, the horse may even need immediate surgery.

Prevention of Equine Colic

Most colic suffering can be prevented although in some cases it is simply bad luck which can result in it, despite the owner doing nothing wrong. However, it is still vital for horse and pony owners to know how to prevent this possibly fatal condition.

Horses should be kept in stress free, or close to stress free, environments. Additionally, horses should be regularly worms as intestinal parasites can lead to colic in horses and ponies.

The horse must always have access to fresh, clean water. In the winter, if the trough does not have a special heater, any ice must be regularly broken. After exercise, or if the horse becomes overheated, only a little warm water may be offered. Water should not be stagnant or contaminated.

The horse should be fed and exercised regularly. A horse’s feed should consist of mainly roughage and should ideally be fed in two or more divisions. Any feed should not be left on the ground to be eaten as material such as sand may lead to an impaction. It must be ensured that no twine, plastic or other such materials are ingested by the horse. The feed should not be spoiled or mouldy.

Horses should never have access to food stores to avoid excessive and dangerous overeating. A large amount of carbohydrates can result in colic. Sudden diet changes should also be avoided.


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