Is It Colic?

The word colic is enough to send chills through any rider. Know when to call the vet, and what to do for your horse while waiting for him to arrive.

If you’re like most riders, the thought of colic strikes fear into your heart. Unfortunately, the majority of horses will experience at least one episode in their lifetime. The disorder is indiscriminate of age, sex, breed, occupation and environment and can occur any time of the year. In other words, every horseperson should be prepared for a bout of colic.

Defining colic

Colic is a broad term used to describe acute abdominal pain rather than a specific disorder. The horse’s abdomen is a complicated place filled with a variety of sensitive organs, any of which may be causing him pain. The majority of colic episodes, however, result from gastrointestinal pain. There are therefore several different types of colic, ranging from mild gas to displacement of the intestines.

Many gas type colics are self-limiting and often clear up without medication. But certain types of colic, such as impaction or displacement colic, can be serious and life threatening. For this reason, contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect colic, especially if your horse stops eating (refuses hay and/or grain), has reduced or very dry manure, or seems at all distressed or bloated. Your vet should be happy to discuss your horse’s symptoms with you and help you decide whether or not he needs to be seen right away.

Other signs of colic may include depression, agitation, sweating, pawing, kicking at the belly, looking or biting at the sides, excessive lip curling (Flehmen response), repeatedly lying down and getting right back up again, rolling and/or thrashing violently, diarrhea, stretching out as if to urinate, frequent urination and abdominal distention.

Do you know what to do?

Should you suspect your horse might be colicking, call your veterinarian first and foremost. Even if you are not sure, your vet can help you differentiate between vague signs that may indicate colic, and subtle changes in behavior that are not so worrisome.

Gather information for your veterinarian. She will first ask you about the degree of your horse’s pain. Is the horse down and violently thrashing, or does he look at his flank occasionally? This is the most helpful piece of information in determining the urgency with which the vet needs to arrive.

The vet may also ask for your horse’s vital signs, so it is helpful to know how to take them: rectal temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate. Knowing your horse’s normal vital signs gives you a basis for comparison when he is acting sick, so practice taking them. Normal vital signs include a temperature of 99º to 101º Fahrenheit, a heart rate of 30 to 42 beats per minute, and a respiratory rate of eight to 16 breaths per minute. The horse should have active gut sounds on both sides of the abdomen and should also have pink, moist gums. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to take your horse’s vital signs at his next wellness exam.

Look for the presence of manure in the stall or paddock. Diarrhea or lack of manure can be helpful clues for your veterinarian in determining the source of the abdominal pain.

While you wait

1. Stay calm

Your horse can recognize when you are not at ease. He needs you to be cool and collected in his time of need. Colic is serious, but many horses pull through with prompt and proper treatment.

2. Record your horse’s vital signs and pain level

Do this every 15 to 20 minutes and relay the data to your vet when he arrives. It is important to check on your horse at least every 20 minutes while you are waiting, because his condition can worsen very quickly.

3. Remove grain and hay from the area around your horse

Do not allow him to eat, even if he seems to be feeling better. Some horses will want to eat, even when colicking, as a response to pain.

4. Protect your horse from injury

Keep him contained in a safe area, such as a large box stall or paddock. Remove all unnecessary items and debris in case he drops suddenly to roll, and try to keep him away from fence lines to prevent him from getting cast.

5. Walk your horse

This is especially important if he is endangering himself by rolling or thrashing. Walking helps stimulate gastrointestinal motility and may help move gas and relieve pain. Do allow the horse to stop and rest if needed; walking too much can exhaust him. It is okay to let him lie down if he is quiet and not rolling.

6. Avoid aggressive exercise

Don’t lunge or engage him in other activities unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Vigorous exercise actually slows gut motility and can lead to exhaustion and further dehydration.

7. Ease your horse’s discomfort

You can use acupressure on vital digestive points to make him more comfortable. Use the ball of your thumb to apply light pressure to each point. This can even help him overcome a mild colic by restoring proper energy flow. Important acupressure points include San Jiang (ST2), Hou San Li (ST36), Da Chang Shu (UB25), and Hou Hai (GV1).

8. Don’t administer pain medications without talking to your vet

Pain medications such as Banamine and Bute can mask clinical signs, making it difficult to get a timely and accurate diagnosis, so do not administer them without talking with your veterinarian first.

9. Wait to administer probiotics or electrolytes

Again, hold off until you’ve talked to your vet. Most often, probiotics are helpful in colicky horses because they restore the necessary bacterial flora in the GI tract. And administration of salt or electrolytes by mouth helps increase your horse’s thirst drive in the case of impaction colic. However, some types of serious colic can cause fluids and ingesta to back up into the stomach; because horses cannot vomit, the extra fluid added to the mix can put them at risk of stomach rupture.

10. Prepare for a trip to the clinic

Start thinking about transportation to a surgical facility, if necessary. Do you have a trailer that is road ready? Is there a trailer you can borrow from a friend? Ideally you should have an emergency trailer plan in place prior to needing it, so start thinking ahead now and set something up with your barn manager or neighbors!

Many times, colic episodes are mild and can be easily resolved, but don’t be misled by mild signs. Some horses are very stoic and often do not show you how much pain they are in. So if your horse is not quite himself, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call your veterinarian. That way you can ensure he gets the medical attention he needs in a timely matter. It could save his life.

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Dr. Kelli Taylor is a 2008 summa cum laude graduate of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She was born with a love of horses and has striven to be near them her entire life, even when it was impossible for her to have her own. Just after graduation, she completed an internship in Equine Medicine and Surgery at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, Washington and obtained certification in animal chiropractic through the IVCA. She will be completing her certification in veterinary acupuncture this year. Dr. Kelli is very excited to be announcing the opening of her own mobile veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture practice in Washington State this winter. When not working, you can find Dr.Taylor trail riding or hiking with her husband in the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached via e-mail at