Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Colic in Horses

December 1, 2021

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Colic is one of every horse owner’s nightmares, but it’s something that every horse owner will experience at some point. That’s why horse owners need to know the basics of dealing with colic in horses.

I first learned about colic when I was about 8 years old, and my beloved Shetland pony mistook a trailer full of grass clippings as a dessert buffet. He immediately colicked, and after a long stay and surgery at an equine hospital, pulled through. Thankfully my parents had the foresight to get equine insurance.

More recently, this winter, my quarter horse gelding, Weddo, had a close call with colic himself. Colic is extremely common in cold conditions, but there are other common causes of colic that every horse owner needs to know about. 

In this article, we’ll break down everything a horse owner needs to know about colic, including:

What is colic?

Colic is more accurately described as “abdominal pain”, rather than a specific disorder, location, or cause. Colic can happen to any horse, regardless of age, gender, breed, or environment. The AAEP estimates that 900,000 horses colic a year. 

In layman’s terms, colic is a severe stomach ache in horses that can lead to impacted (blocked) and even twisted intestines in horses.

Horses are anatomically unable to throw up. Meaning that when they eat too much, eat something unsuitable for them, or experience other causes that we’ll get into below, they aren’t able to clear it from their systems. Symptoms can range from mild, to transient, to life-threatening episodes (like what my pony experienced) and can require surgery to fix.

This is why recognizing colic is such a critical skill for every horse owner to master. So, what are the causes and symptoms to look out for?

Causes of colic in horses

Colic can be caused by a multitude of things. As I mentioned earlier, my gelding, Weddo, had a close call with colic this past winter when we suddenly experienced a historic cold snap in Oklahoma that lasted for days. 

The horses were not accustomed to the bitter cold, and even though they had salt blocks in their stalls and heated water troughs (more on this below), it was a very harsh winter for them. To make matters worse, when it gets extremely cold, horses often forget to drink water as much as they need to. Of course, this can also occur when water troughs freeze over and horses are unable to access water. 

When horses don’t drink the amount of water they should, their digestive systems can’t process the food and nutrients they’re consuming, which can lead from something as simple as bloating, to impaction, or even twisted intestines. 

Because colic is so common in cold conditions, many horse owners are accustomed to keeping an eye out when the weather turns cold. However, some other common causes of colic include:

  • Moldy or tainted feed (grain or hay)
  • Abrupt changes in feed, such as going from a dry lot to a pasture 
  • Parasite infection
  • High grain/low forage diets
  • Lack of water consumption (typically this leads to impaction)
  • Dental problems that disrupt the ability to eat properly
  • Stress (such as sudden stall rest or suddenly being separated from a herd) 
  • Sand ingestion (more prone to occur on dry lots, ask your vet for supplements to counterbalance this risk)
  • Long term use of drugs, such NSAIDS

Of course, this isn’t a conclusive list, but this goes to show just how important it is to have a vet that you can call if you suspect any sign of colic in your horse. If any of the above occur, keep an eye out for symptoms of colic. 

Symptoms of colic to look for in horses

When I suspected Weddo was colicking, the symptoms were so minimal that I almost second-guessed calling my vet. However, my vet has told me about another critical skill that a horse owner must have: following their gut when they suspect something is off with their horse. 

Weddo didn’t display many symptoms at first. When I first found him, he and my other gelding were laying down, napping in the sunshine. Not that unusual.

However, Weddo was reluctant to get up, which is one of the first signs of colic. He eventually stood up after some cajoling, but as time went on, he seemed bloated (which can be difficult to tell under a winter coat.) He also seemed to be standing funny, as if he was trying to take weight off of his stomach. 

By the time I called the vet, he was obviously distressed, and had a full-on case of impaction. 

Laying down and refusing to stand up are some of the most recognizable symptoms. However, other common signs include: 

  • Depression; lack of movement
  • Rapid breathing or flared nostrils
  • Unexplainable sweating 
  • Lack of digestive sounds (any time you put your ear to your horse’s stomach, you should hear at least some sounds)
  • Turning the head to the flank; kicking or biting at the belly 
  • Stretching as if to urinate 
  • Pawing; agitation 
  • Repeatedly laying down and getting up or rolling
  • Holding the head in an unusual position
  • Having a high heart rate
  • Putting head in water
  • Sitting in a god-like position, or lying on the back
  • Leaving food, disinterested in food
  • Lack of or fewer bowel movements than normal

The symptoms in bold are some of the most common/earliest symptoms you’ll see.

What to do if your horse is colicking 

If you suspect any of the above symptoms or causes, the first thing you need to do is call your vet. I’ll use Weddo’s case again as an example: the only symptoms I recognized in him were those bolded above. Those symptoms can feel a bit subjective, but it’s better safe than sorry when it comes to calling the vet.

Your vet will likely tell you to take all food away immediately. They’ll also tell you to take your horse to a safe place (such as a clean stall), so that you can monitor if they have any bowel movements and take what vital signs you can get (such as heart rate, beats/minute).

 Your vet may also ask for rectal temperature, the color of the gums and refill time for gum color, and digestive sounds (if any). Finally, be prepared to share any relevant information regarding changes to the horse’s feed, exercise, etc. 

Your vet will start by taking your horse’s temperature. Then they will perform a rectal palpation, insert a stomach tube (to flush liquid through the GI tract), and may perform a belly tab. These procedures may not be the most pleasant to watch, but they’ll help the vet know if the horse will need surgery or if fluids and pain medicines alone will help. 

So, what steps can you take to prevent your horse from being in this position in the first place? 

Prevention tips for equine colic

It’s heart-wrenching to see an animal in pain. The best thing we can do as horse owners is to help prevent the pain from ever occurring. 

I’m a lifelong learner, particularly when it comes to keeping my horses as healthy as possible! Here are tips I’ve gathered over the years of being a horse owner, and I’d love to hear yours, too!

Tips for preventing colic in horses:

  • Make sure that your horses always have access to salt. A very common mistake horse owners make is buying the large brown salt blocks sold in most feed stores, but these are actually more suitable for cattle. Pink himalyan sea salt blocks (which hang from the wall of the stall) work better for horses. But the best solution of all? As my vet recommends, pour a tablespoon of iodized salt in your horse’s feed. This guarantees that your horse is actually ingesting the salt they need. 
  • Heated water troughs. We always want to encourage our horses to drink enough water, but it’s especially important in colder months. When water is too cold, horses won’t want to drink it.
  • Encourage your horse to walk. Horses, by nature, are designed to walk and graze miles a day. In the wild, it’s estimated they’ll walk 10-20 miles in a day. Most of us probably don’t have that much space, of course, but there are small adjustments you can make to your paddock that result in a big difference! For example, put water troughs at different areas in the paddock, away from where they feed and go to the bathroom (they will create their own “repository.”)
  • Ensure opportunities for turnout if your horse is in a stall. As mentioned above, horses aren’t meant to be stall-bound. If you’re in a situation where your horse does have to be in a stall for some or most of the day, give them the opportunity for turnout. If your horse is on stall rest, watch them closely for the above symptoms and hand walk them as much as your vet will allow. 
  • Create scenarios to mimic natural grazing positions. This can be achieved by spreading hay along the ground during the day, which requires the horse to mimic grazing behavior. In a stall, make sure your hay feeder is high enough from the ground so your horse won’t hang a leg in the feeder and the feed won’t mix with manure in the stall. (Find more tips for setting up your horse stalls in this post.) Some horse owners have strong opinions about putting hay on the ground, and as always, I’d encourage you to speak with your vet. 
  • Of course, you should never put hay in an area with manure. However, if you watch your horse, you’ll notice that they go to the bathroom in the same few areas every day (called “repositories.”) As long as you are careful to keep hay clear of repository areas, this is a great way to mimic natural grazing positions if your vet gives you the OK.

Ask your vet about best practices with grain and feedings. Some horse owners find success with adding a cup of warm water to each ration. Additionally, there are several supplements and types of grain.

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