Colic simply means abdominal pain. There are many reasons for abdominal pain in the horse including, but not limited to: impaction, enteritis/colitis (infection of the small/large intestine), peritonitis, gas, sand, ulcers, a twist of the GI tract, an intussusception (telescoping) of the GI tract, parasite damage, neoplasia and rupture of the GI tract. Colic ranges from a minor ailment to a life threatening disease, so it is important for all horse owners to recognize the signs of abdominal pain in the horse.


The most common signs of colic are:

    Lack of appetite or decrease in feed intake
    Kicking or biting at the abdomen
    Laying down and rolling excessively
    Increased heart rate or respiratory rate
    Frequent urination
    Lack of fecal production
    Turning and looking at the abdomen

If you find that your horse is exhibiting signs of abdominal pain, here are some steps you should take:

  • You should call your veterinarian as soon as possible. Even if it is a mild case, it is best to get professional instructions.
  • Remove all food from the horse’s corral or stall, do not allow him/her to eat until you have spoken with a vet. You should allow your horse to have access to water.
  • If the horse is lying down and rolling, get the horse up as safely as possible and have someone begin walking the horse while you call the vet immediately.
  • Sometimes your vet will instruct you to give Banamine (an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat abdominal pain). Remember, you should never give more than one dose of Banamine without speaking with a veterinarian. Multiple doses of Banamine can cause liver and kidney damage as well as mask signs of serious colic that may require surgery.
  • If the weather is hot, and you are waiting for the vet, you can hose the horse off and place him/her in front of fans.
  • Regardless of the type of colic, these horses need constant monitoring until they are eating, drinking, and passing feces without showing signs of pain.

When we visit your horse to evaluate him/her for colic, we will do a physical exam, administer banamine if it has not already been done, possibly administer more potent painkillers, do a rectal examination to assess the position of the GI system and feel for impactions or stones, pass a nasogastric tube to check for reflux and possibly administer water, electrolytes or mineral oil. Other treatments may include placement of an intravenous catheter and administration of IV fluids, administration of psyllium, antispasmotics, and others.

Many horses will respond to these treatments and recover. However, some will become transiently better, and then become painful again. At this time, we may elect to pursue further treatment at the farm, or refer the horse for surgical consultation at a veterinary referral center. Unfortunately some colic does not resolve without surgery. Every horse owner should have a plan in place should their horse develop a surgical colic.

There are some important steps a horse owner can take to prevent colic. These steps can be divided into nutrition, exercise, deworming, and dental care.

  • Nutrition

    The most important component of any diet is water. Horses should have unlimited access to clean, fresh water. Ideally, water tanks should be cleaned daily. Herd dynamics may prevent some horses from getting the amount of water they need, and multiple water tanks should be used in these situations.

    All feeds and water should be free of dust, mold, dirt and mildew. Grains should be stored in an air-tight container and hay should not be stored on the ground. Each bale of hay should be checked throughout for mildew and thrown away if dusty or damp.

    Horses are naturally grazing animals. Therefore, a high quality forage should be the basis for every diet. A diet based on concentrates fed in meals, rather than one that allows the horse graze for hours, sets the horse up for changes in stomach pH, overload of the GI tract, and excessive gas production, among other things. If horses must be fed in meals, it is best to feed multiple meals throughout the day. The meals should all consist of the same feeds.

    The average pleasure horse can maintain a good body condition with a high quality grass hay, water and a salt and mineral block. Grains and pellets may be supplemented to add calories to horses that are in work, gestation/lactation, or are aged or hard keepers. For specific feeding guidelines, consult you veterinarian.

  • Exercise
  • Turnout or exercise help keep the horse’s gastrointestinal tract working and moving. Drastic reductions in exercise, such as stalling a normally turned out horse, can predispose them to impactions and colic.

  • Deworming
  • Regular deworming is essential to preventing colic in horses. In addition to directly damaging the GI tract, internal parasites can migrate from the intestines to the blood vessels supplying the intestines, damaging the blood supply and killing parts of the GI tract. There are many adequate deworming programs. Ideally, if a horse is not on a daily dewormer, he/she should be dewormed every 8 weeks. Daily dewormers (such as Strongid C) are also an effective alternative to paste deworming. Please see the Preventicare website (there is a link on our links page) for information on a colic insurance plan offered to customers who purchase Strongid C.

  • Dental work
  • Regular dental work enables your horse to grind his/her food to the appropriate size to be easily digested, preventing gastrointestinal upset and colic. Please see our dental article in our Summer 2005 newsletter for more information on the importance of routine dental care.