January 3, 2024

Colic Chronicles: What Every Horse Owner Should Know


Colic is a dreaded word in the equestrian world, synonymous with discomfort and worry for horse owners. It's a condition that every horse owner should be well-acquainted with, as it's one of the most common equine health issues. With approximately 920,000 reported cases each year, colic remains the leading cause of premature death in horses, with around 64,000 of these cases being life-threatening. In this blog post, we'll delve into what colic is, its prevalence, ways to prevent it, and what to do if you suspect your horse is suffering from it.

What is Colic?

Colic refers to severe abdominal pain in horses, and it can have various underlying causes. The pain can range from mild to excruciating, and its intensity often prompts concern among horse owners. Colic can manifest suddenly or develop gradually, making it crucial for horse owners to recognize the signs early.

How Common is Colic?

Colic is alarmingly common among horses, with statistics indicating that approximately 10% of all horses will experience colic at some point in their lives. It is the leading cause of premature death in horses, accounting for nearly 30% of all equine deaths. These numbers underscore the importance of understanding colic and taking proactive measures to prevent it.

Types and Causes of Colic:

Colic can have numerous causes, ranging from dietary issues to intestinal blockages. Some of the primary factors contributing to colic include:

  1. Dietary Factors: Sudden changes in diet, feeding schedules, or poor-quality forage can disrupt the digestive system.
  2. Dehydration: Insufficient water intake can lead to impaction colic, where the digestive tract becomes blocked.
  3. Parasites: Internal parasites, like worms, can irritate the intestinal lining and lead to colic.
  4. Stress and Anxiety: Horses are sensitive creatures, and stress or anxiety can trigger colic episodes.
  5. Intestinal Displacement or Twisting: This is a severe form of colic where a portion of the intestine twists or becomes displaced, cutting off blood flow.
  6. Obstruction/Impaction: Blockage in the digestive tract.
  7. Gastrointestinal Distension: Due to the buildup of gas.
  8. Inflammation of Bowel Wall: A painful inflammatory response.
  9. Lack of Dental Care/Improper Chewing: Can result in difficulty digesting food.
  10. Confinement/Restricted Mobility: Limited movement can impact digestion.
  11. Poor Management Practices: Suboptimal care can increase the risk.

Recognizing Colic Symptoms and Taking Vital Signs in Horses

Early detection of colic symptoms is vital. Look out for the following signs:

  1. Lack of interest in eating or drinking.
  2. Pawing, lying down, or rolling.
  3. Biting at the side or swinging the head around.
  4. A bloated belly.
  5. Separation from other horses.
  6. Decreased or absent gut sounds.
  7. Abnormal temperature.
  8. Increased heart rate and respiration rate.
  9. Changes in gum color.


Heart Rate: A horse's heart rate is an essential indicator of distress. You can easily measure it with a stethoscope, which can be purchased inexpensively. A normal heart rate for a horse is approximately 30 beats per minute. If the heart rate exceeds 60, it can be a concerning sign. It's essential to differentiate this increase from the elevated heart rate due to exercise.

Gut Sounds: While using the stethoscope, listen for gut sounds in the horse's upper and lower flank area on both sides. In a healthy, normally digesting horse, the gut is typically noisy, with gurgles, rumblings, and pings audible regularly, often occurring multiple times per minute. The absence of gut sounds is a worrisome sign.

Respiration Rate: The horse's breathing rate can provide valuable insights. A normal respiration rate is about ten breaths per minute when the horse is not exercising. If the horse is experiencing colic, a respiration rate exceeding 20 breaths per minute may indicate distress.

Temperature: Use a digital rectal thermometer to measure the horse's temperature. The normal temperature, which may vary based on weather and activity level, is approximately 101ΒΊF.

Gum Color: Examine the color of the horse's gums. Under normal conditions, they should appear pink. Pale gums may indicate cardiovascular compromise, while dark or purple gums can suggest toxicity.

Capillary Refill Time: Check the capillary refill time by pressing your thumb firmly against the horse's upper gum above the left incisor. Hold for a few seconds and then release. In a healthy horse, it should take one to two seconds for the gum to "pink up" where your thumb was. If this process takes longer than three seconds, it may indicate cardiovascular compromise.

Observing the Horse:

‍In addition to monitoring vital signs, take note of the horse's overall appearance and behavior. Pay attention to the following:

  • Posture: Observe how the horse is standing or if it is lying down. Note whether it is lying flat on its side or propped up on its sternum/chest. Rolling behavior can also be significant.
  • Eye Expression: Examine the horse's eyes for signs of fear, distress, or detachment. Changes in eye expression can provide valuable clues.
  • Self-Trauma: If the horse is engaging in self-trauma, such as biting at itself, particularly in the hip or flank area, or pushing its head against a solid object like a stall wall, it indicates significant distress.
  • Consider Age: Colic in foals, although rare, should be treated as an emergency due to potentially life-threatening causes.


Make the Call:

‍If you suspect colic, call your veterinarian immediately and provide details of your horse's condition. Follow their instructions until they arrive. Remember, safety is paramount, as a colicky horse may not act rationally.


Medical vs. Surgical Colic:

‍Your veterinarian will determine if it's a medical or surgical colic. Medical cases can often be treated with medications, while surgical cases require more serious intervention. Advanced diagnostic tools like blood tests and ultrasounds help make this distinction.


Recovery After Colic:

‍Recovery time varies, but with medical colic, it typically takes about four times the colic's duration. Surgical colic cases may recover in 72 hours but require careful feeding and exercise planning.


Preventive Measures:

‍Engage your veterinarian regularly to assess your horse's health. Learn to monitor vital signs and recognize what's normal for your horse. A strong owner-veterinarian partnership enhances your horse's well-being.


In conclusion, colic is a complex condition that demands careful observation, swift action, and a close relationship with your veterinarian. By understanding its causes, recognizing symptoms, and practicing preventive measures, you can help protect your horse from this painful and potentially life-threatening condition.