Equine Colic:
The Most Dreaded Disease

Colic is probably one of the most dreaded words in the horse owner's vocabulary.

Quite simply put, equine colic is a stomach ache in your horse. Many people assume that it is a disease (thus why I put it here...) but actually it is a symptom of another problem. The deeper problem that causes the colic symptoms is how colic is classified.

What do I do for Colic?

The biggest problem when addressing equine colic is that it can be a very minor problem (such as a simple small gas bubble) that resolves on its own, or it can be a big problem (such as a twisted intestine) that can lead to death in a matter of hours if surgery is not performed immediately. Therefore,


After you call your vet, keep the horse quiet and comfortable. It used to be advised to walk the horse until the vet arrived. However, excessive walking can tire the horse and make recovery even harder, so it is not necessarily recommended any longer.

If the horse will stand and/or lie down quietly, allow him to do so.

However, if he is frantically pacing, getting up and down constantly, or attempting to roll excessively, it is better to walk him. Walking him will keep him busy and prevent him from doing further injury to himself while waiting for the vet to arrive.

Types of Colic

There are a number of forms of colic:

  • Feed/Grass Colic
  • Displacement/torsion colic
  • Sand Colic
  • Gas Colic
  • Impaction Colic

Grass/Feed Colic

Grass or feed colic is caused by sudden consumption of excess feed -- usually a high grain feed or fresh spring grass.

Spring grass such as this can cause equine colic.

The large amount of feed overwhelms the digestive tract, and causes the microorganisms in the tract to become out of balance. This leads to the production of endotoxins, which are what cause most of the problems and can also lead to laminitis.

This type of colic is the most preventable -- LOCK THE FEED ROOM. Make it absolutely 110% horse-proof.

Displacement/Torsion Colic

Displacement colic is when the horse's intestine gets moved out of place. In most animals, this would not be a serious problem, but the horse has approximately 100 feet of intestine wrapped up in the abdomen area.

As you can imagine, it doesn't take a very big movement out of place to end up with a big mess.

This is why torsion is so common with displacement. Torsion is when one section of the intestine wraps around another section, blocking the blood supply to one or both sections.

Displacement and/or torsion are VERY serious -- if the horse does not undergo surgery within a matter of hours, he will be dead. In some cases, the horse can go from perfectly fine to dead in less than 12 hours.

My family lost a horse to torsion colic years ago...when he was checked on before my mother left for work around 8 am, he was absolutely fine. She came home that afternoon to a dead horse in the stall.

Sand Colic

Sand colic is caused by an accumulation of sand in the intestine. Usually this accumulation occurs over a longer period of time, weeks and months, as opposed to the acute onset of other colic problems...and is most common in horses housed on sand.

Equine colic can be caused by sand ingestion.

However, the colic symptoms themselves usually show up suddenly -- sometimes after a bout of loose stools. Loose stools usually show up first because the sand irritates the digestive tract lining, which becomes inflamed, decreasing the absorption of feed and liquids, which causes the loose stools.

The most common reason for sand colic is horses being fed directly from the ground in sandy environments. If your horse is being fed outside on the ground in a sandy environment, it is recommended that you somehow get the feed off the ground.

Common ways to accomplish this are using feed pans, or ground level hay feeders, or even something as simple as feeding on top of a rubber mat or something similar if necessary.

It is usually recommended that horses that are housed in a sandy enclosure, even if they are not fed directly on it, are periodically treated with psyllium. It is also essential for these horses to receive enough forage, as forage will help move the sand through the system.

There are products marketed by horse supply companies for this purpose, or you can buy the generic metamucil from a local store for much less cost. If you go the metamucil route, make sure that it contains only psyllium, and no other added ingredients.

Gas Colic

Gas colic is one of the least severe forms of colic. It is simply a build up of excess gas, which usually resolves on its own.

If a colic case is determined to be gas, the vet might give your horse an injection of pain reliever to keep him from doing more damage to himself -- like twisting an intestine from excessive rolling -- while the gas resolves.

However, a major gas build-up can lead to more severe problems, such as displacement and/or torsion, so its always important to keep a colicky horse under supervision.

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic happens when the intestine is partially or fully blocked. Many times this is due to insufficient water intake by the horse.

In the hot summer months, it is hard for horses to keep up with their increased water needs from sweating (especially if they are worked hard), making mild dehydration a problem. When the horse starts to dehydrate, more water is pulled from the digestive system to be used in the body. Decreased water in the intestine leads to the digesta being thicker.

Since the digesta in the intestine has to travel through numerous twists and turns, if it is thicker than normal, it is more likely to get stuck, or impacted. Because the horse eats almost constantly, once something gets stuck, it doesn't take very long for digesta to start backing up along the intestine.

Winter is also a time for increased impaction colics, especially in cold climates. When the water temperature drops near freezing, horses naturally don't drink as much. When the outside temperature is below freezing, water sources can also freeze, making water inaccessible to the horse. Low water intake, coupled with increased dry matter intake -- horse eating more hay to stay warm -- can also lead to thicker digesta and impaction.

Signs and Symptoms of Colic

There are a number of different signs and symptoms of colic. Most of the colic symptoms are also things many horses do in day-to-day life...

A horse rolling can be a sign of equine colic.

...such as rolling. This makes it important to really know your horse so you know if a behavior is normal for him. If he has more than one sign/symptom, its worth looking into. However, if he normally doesn't pace or paw a lot and suddenly starts doing that one day, it could be a mild colic.

Here's a list of the most common signs and symptoms:

  • Being "off" -- just not himself
  • Kicking and/or biting at abdomen
  • Pawing the ground excessively
  • Pacing excessively
  • Rolling more than usual
  • Constantly lying down and getting up
  • Excessive sweatiness
  • Agitation/grouchiness
  • Tenderness in abdomen area
  • Rapid breathing, especially if accompanied by agitation or profuse sweating

Prevention of Colic

Most of the preventative measures for colic are part of smart horse-keeping...

  • Always provide fresh, clean water, and monitor the amount consumed
  • Do not change feeds suddenly, and transition slowly to spring grass
  • Always keep the feed door securely locked
  • Know your horse and observe daily for problems
  • When in doubt, call the vet!

Now that you know the signs and symptoms of equine colic, as well as the various types, you can be more confident in handling a colic situation if it arises. Knowledge is, after all, a great prevention...and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

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