The word colic is often uttered in hushed tones around stables. It’s an emotionally charged issue for horse owners – many of whom have lost a beloved companion to colic or experienced a close call. If you haven’t been there yourself, chances are you know someone who has, since colic is the number one killer of horses.

Colic is a broad term used to describe a wide array of disturbances in the equine digestive tract, which cause mild to severe abdominal pain, and in some cases can be fatal. The most common types of colic are:

Impaction colic – when a mass of food, parasites, sand or other foreign material gets lodged in the gastrointestinal tract, causing a blockage.

Gas colic – a build-up of excess gas, usually the result of inflammation in the digestive tract due to over-fermentation of feed.

Spasmodic colic – contractions or spasms of the intestines that prevent material from moving through the digestive tract, similar to indigestion in people.

Displacement/torsion colic – when a portion of the intestines moves from it’s normal position (displacement) or twists 180 to 360 degrees (torsion).

Signs of colic include:

  • Excessive pawing
  • Repeated rolling
  • Looking at their sides
  • Kicking at their stomach
  • Sweating
  • Lack of or dry manure
  • Change in appetite (not eating, drinking)
  • Change in attitude (agitated, restless, lethargic)

If your horse’s behaviour makes you suspect colic, you should take his vital signs and monitor him closely. Depending on the severity, a horse in colic distress may have the following symptoms: increased temperature; increased heart and respiratory rate; pale or blueish/purple gums; slow capillary refill time; and decreased gut sounds.

Armed with as much information as possible, call your veterinarian. It does not pay to wait when it comes to colic. The sooner your vet is able to assess your horse’s situation, offer instruction, perform an exam and initiate treatment, the better.

Your vet will be able to confirm your suspicions by conducting a physical examination of your horse. This can include: taking your horse’s vitals; performing rectal palpation looking for any dry, compacted feed matter; inserting a nasogastric tube through the nose to the stomach to remove excess fluid; and using ultrasound to get a closer look at certain areas of the abdomen. At this point, your vet can typically determine the type of colic you’re dealing with, and initiate a treatment plan.

Often, colic cases can resolve on their own or with minimal medical treatment. However, when it comes to displacement or torsion, and some more severe impactions, surgery is often the only remedy. Depending on the type of colic your horse has, he may need to be shipped to a clinic for further treatment.

The first step in any colic is to control the pain. Your vet will administer a combination of anti-inflammatories, pain-killers and, sometimes, sedatives. Next, it’s important to ensure your horse is well hydrated. Since horses experiencing colic easily become dehydrated, and often refuse to drink, the quickest way to rehydrate is orally, with a nasogastric tube that gives your horse fluids or water with electrolytes. In very severe cases, fluids can be given intravenously.

If surgery is required, the clinic surgeons will perform an exploratory laparotomy while your horse is under general anesthesia. They will carefully search the gastrointestinal tract for the source of your horse’s pain, then, depending on the problem, they will remove a blockage, return displaced bowel to its correct anatomical location or remove damaged sections of bowel. Sometimes, when too much bowel is trapped or damaged, the horse must be euthanized.

Recovery from colic surgery is a long process. While the first 72 hours are most critical, healing takes months. It starts with a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, pain medication and a careful feeding program. Reduced gut motility is a potential complication post-surgery, and it can be fatal, so it’s very important to monitor your horse closely for any changes.

1. Know Your Horse

Having a record of your horse’s baseline vital signs is important when any kind of illness is suspected. Being able to compare his current readings to his ‘normal,’ can help identify signs of distress or illness early on. Equally important is being familiar with your horse’s typical behaviour, routines and appetite. Horses are creatures of habit, so when something is amiss, pay close attention. Take special note of his feed and water intake as well as frequency/absence of, or changes to, his manure and urination output.

2. Feed Plentiful Forage

Horses were designed to eat constantly, and forage – pasture and/or hay – is the ideal meal. Eating at least 2% of his body weight each day in dry matter will help keep your horse’s gastrointestinal tract in good working order. Ideally, this means offering pasture or hay free-choice, or feeding several meals a day. This not only keeps the microbial population that’s busy fermenting feed in the hind gut happy, but it satisfies your horse’s hard-wired need to continually forage for food. Make sure it’s good quality though, as some “stemmy” hay can be difficult to digest, and dusty or moldy hay can pose other health risks, and cause digestion problems.

3. Be Careful with Concentrates

Those microbes that help digest your horse’s feed are not meant to take on large amounts of concentrates (grain). While most horses do just fine on a diet of forage alone, others do have higher nutrient/energy requirements and can benefit from the addition of various grain-based meals. However, it’s important not to give too much at a time and overload the microbes. This often leads to an excess build-up of gas. Instead, feed smaller meals throughout the day. Consult your vet or equine nutritionist about how much grain your horse actually needs, and devise a feeding plan.

4. Make Changes Slowly

It is very important to make any changes to your horse’s feeding program slowly, in order to give the microbes time to adjust. Be as consistent as possible to maintain a happy ecosystem for them, and avoid digestive upset for your horse. Switching over to new hay or introducing any new feed can disrupt the status quo.

5. Keep Them Hydrated

Horses should always have access to clean, fresh water. On average, your horse should drink 18-37 litres (5-10 gallons) of water per day. Doing so ensures the feed moving through his digestive tract will be well lubricated, and less likely to compact, causing an obstruction. Adding a tablespoon (about 14 grams) of salt to his grain or in a warm mash of pellets or hay cubes will encourage your horse to drink more. This is an especially useful trick in the colder months, as is providing a heated water source, when the temperature drops below 0°C.

6. Get Them Moving

Horses were also designed to be on the move constantly. In the wild, horses travel between 10 and 40 kilometres a day, grazing for 16-20 hours. This helps ensure good gut movement (motility) and, therefore, healthy digestion. Studies have shown that horses that spend a lot of time in a stall have decreased motility in the large intestine. Regular turn out and a consistent exercise regimen are imperative. Note that any changes to your horse’s activity level should also be made slowly. Increasing or decreasing his workload, adjusting the intensity or duration, can affect his digestion.

7. Manage Internal Parasites

Internal parasites in your horse’s gut can lead to inflammation, impaction, blood clots and lesions in his gastrointestinal tract – all of which can be painful. Many vets are now recommending a targeted deworming strategy, which starts with a fecal egg count test. This test can tell you which worms your horse has and how high the population is, which will help you and your vet determine when to deworm and what type of anthelmintic drug (dewormer) to use. To help reduce parasites in the environment, you can harrow or remove manure from the paddocks/pastures and use a rotational grazing strategy.

8. Schedule Regular Dental Checks

Horses need a good grinding surface on their teeth in order to properly chew their food. Uneven wear can cause a variety of oral health problems, and make digestion difficult. This can lead to impaction and excess gas. Your horse should have his teeth checked at least once a year, and floated as needed. Some older horses, or those with recurring dental problems, should be seen more regularly.

Click here to learn how to separate colic fact from fiction.