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  • Colic in horses

    The word colic is used to describe abdominal pain. It is a genuine equine emergency but most colic cases (over 90%) respond well to medical therapy. However, a small number (5%) will need surgery to effect a cure. If your horse is showing signs of colic then please call either of our clinics as soon as possible. We are available 24 hours a day and can offer immediate advice over the phone whilst our team organises a vet to visit your horse.

    Signs of colic

    Mild signs of colic, suggesting low grade/mild pain, include the following:

    • Lip curling
    • Flank watching
    • Pawing the ground
    • Lying down

    Violent uncontrollable signs, suggesting a more severe case of colic, include the following:

    • Suddenly dropping to the floor
    • Violent rolling
    • Abrasions to the head and body
    • Profuse sweating
    • Rapid breathing

    Colic is one of the most common causes of death in the adult horse. If you suspect your horse has colic and signs are severe or persist for more than 30 minutes, call the vet immediately.

    Often, symptoms of colic are brought on by sudden changes in you’re horse’s diet, management, exercise regime, dental disorders, lack of parasitic control and even the weather. Internal causes include strangulating lipomas, twists of the gut, uterus or scrotum, intussusceptions and adhesions. To help your horse avoid colic we recommend that you introduce any changes to diet, management and routine slowly. Also ensure you keep up to date with dental and worming programmes.

    What to do whilst waiting for the vet: 

    • Put your horse in a safe area, such as a deep-bedded stable or sand school, and keep them in control with a lunge line.
    • If your horse wants to roll or lie down – let them! This will not make the colic any worse.
    • Restrict food and water.
    • Gently walking your horse can be beneficial but don’t force them to.
    • Monitor faeces and gas production

    DO NOT GET INJURED! Remember a horse in pain can become dangerous to handle so ensure you stay as safe as possible whilst waiting for the vet. 


    If your horse is displaying mild signs of colic, it would be beneficial to the vet to know what their temperature, pulse and respiratory rate is.

    • Typical heart (pulse) rate is 28-44 beats per minute.
    • Typical temperature is 37.5- 38.5 degrees celsius.
    • Typical respiratory (breathing) rate is 8-16 breaths per minute.

    A good tip to monitor your horse’s health is to regularly check their temperature, pulse and respiratory rate. This way you know what’s “normal” and “abnormal” for your horse.

    Toxic mucous membranes (gums are brick red colour)

    When the vet arrives, they will double check the pulse rate, respiratory rate and temperature of your horse; listen for gut sounds on both sides of the abdomen and check gum colour.

    It may be necessary to sedate your horse/pony and perform the following:

    Nasogastric intubation – passing a tube up your horse’s nose and into the stomach to check for any excessive fluid (reflux) build up, which usually occurs with intestinal obstruction.

    Rectal examination – determines whether there is any faeces present in the rectum and whether the intestine is out of position or distended.

    Nasogastric intubation

    Peritoneal tap – using a needle to obtain fluid from the horse’s abdomen which is used to assess the health of the intestines.

    Abdominal ultrasound examination – allows us to assess whether the intestine is distended and whether it is moving or not. Diseased or dead intestine does not move. Any abnormal fluid accumulation will also be detected.

    Peritoneal tap

    Types of colic and treatment options

    There is a peak in colic episodes in the spring and autumn and older horses (over 12) are more susceptible. If your horse has ever had a colic episode it will be at increased risk of further episodes. Reduced grazing time, increased parasite burden and a sudden change in feed all increase the risk of colic. Vices such as crib biting and wind sucking massively increase the risk of colic.

    Fortunately, 90% of horses with colic can be treated medically. Around 65% of all colics are spasmodic or benign which either self resolve or respond well to pain relief and intestinal muscle relaxants administered by a vet. Around 17% of all colics are caused by impactions which usually respond well to the administration of oral fluids and gentle exercise. However some cases may need intravenous fluids and admission to our clinic for close monitoring. In 5% of cases medical intervention is ineffectual and the horse has a lesion which requires surgery to fix it. We refer colic cases to Newmarket Equine Hospital, where they have full surgical and intensive care facilities needed for horses undergoing colic surgery.

    A horse receiving i.v fluids

    Spasmodic colic

    The bowel becomes over-active, contracting abnormally and going into spasm; this is usually well managed with pain relief and anti-spasmodic drugs. The exact cause is unknown, although there is thought to be an association with high tapeworm burdens. If your horse has multiple bouts of spasmodic colic, a blood test to measure tapeworm burden may be recommended.

    Impaction colic

    When the gut contents become dehydrated, they can become stuck in a tight bend in the large colon. This is treated by administering oral fluids and pain relief, whilst withholding hay and hard feed, until the impaction has passed. Sometimes intravenous fluids also need to be administered. Prevention includes feeding soaked hay and encouraging drinking. When on box rest, grazing your horse in hand can also aid in improving gut motility.

    Displacement colic

    Horses’ guts are notoriously badly designed and can sometimes move into abnormal positions. Gas then becomes trapped in the large colon and the horse becomes bloated and painful. Whilst this type of colic can often resolve with pain relief, starving and light lunging exercise, surgery is sometimes needed to manually put the guts back to their normal position. The cause of displacements remains unknown, but they more commonly occur in larger breeds of horse and some can be repeat offenders.

    Exteriorised caecum in horse undergoing surgery
    A pedunculated lipoma

    Surgical colic

    These types of colics are the most serious and life-threatening, with horses needing emergency surgery. The sooner the horse goes to surgery after first displaying symptoms the better the prognosis for a full recovery. Horses are violently painful despite pain relief and become very sick over a short period of time. One of the most common causes of strangulating colic in older horses is a pedunculated lipoma – a fatty lump that dangles from a stalk, which then wraps around the intestine and cuts off its blood supply.

    Towcester & Onley Equine Vets are now REACT colic champions and are working alongside the British Horse Society to raise awareness about colic amongst horse owners. Please click here to visit their website to learn more about the REACT scheme.

    For further information please watch our YouTube videos below on the topic of colic.

    Colic presentation by Mark Hillier BVSc PhD DipECIM MRCVS

    A strange cause of colic!