Horse Colic Signs, Causes & How You Can Prevent Colic In Horses! Must Read Owner’s Guide


Colic is probably the most common fear among horse owners. There are so many different types and so many possible causes that it can be scary to think about, but educating yourself will give you some peace of mind.

Causes Of Colic In Horses

Mild colic cases are most common, respond well to treatment, and pass within a few hours. Some more complicated cases can prove fatal without surgical treatment.

Although sometimes the actual root cause can be unknown, here is a list of causes known to be associated with horses developing colic.

  • Overeating grain
  • Overeating leaves and twigs
  • A change in diet made quickly
  • Working horse hard right after eating grain or vice versa
  • Eating spoiled food
  • Ingesting foreign objects
  • Reduced motility, which makes it difficult for horse to digest
  • Spasms or cramps
  • Gas
  • Gastric rupture- a rupture from impaction reaching the stomach or gas build-up causing the stomach to expand
  • Impaction in the intestines
  • Poor water intake increases the risk of impaction
  • Sand accumulation in the caecum- associated with impaction
  • Strangulation/torsion- twisting in the small intestine or colon which may cut off blood supply and cause dead tissue
  • Intussusception- intestine slides within itself like a telescope and can cause a blockage, causing restricted blood flow
  • Hind Gut Acidosis- increased acidity in cecum or colon
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Parasite damage to intestines and blood vessels
  • Senior horses in response to rapid air pressure changes from the weather (no decisive clinical information backs this claim.)
  • Cribbing or windsucking (no decisive clinical information backs this claim.)
  • Other unknown factors

Keep reading to learn more about colic, the way the horses’ digestive systems work, how to prevent colic, the signs to look out for, how to treat a horse with colic and my experience with colic.

What Is Colic Exactly?

Equine colic is the term used to describe any abdominal pain in horses, whether caused by gastrointestinal conditions (relating to the stomach and intestines) or any other issue in the abdomen. In other words, it’s a tummy ache. Annually, the estimated incidence of colic within the general horse population is between 10 and 11%, making it a serious consideration for all horse-owners.

The more knowledgeable you are about colic, the different types, and their causes, as well as the signs that your horse might be suffering from it, the more capable you will be of preventing it or catching it early if it does occur.

All colic cases should be considered serious, and the vet called immediately. Colic is the leading cause of premature death in horses.

How Does A Horse’s Digestive System Work?

Horses have a unique digestive system. Because of this, they need to be fed in a specific way, considering their particular dietary needs and the process in which they digest their feed. Including what, when, where, and how much they eat. 

Horses are trickle-feeders, meaning they need to eat little and often and spend up to 18 hours a day eating. As food passes through their digestive tract, digestion occurs in portions.

Each nutrient (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water) is broken down and absorbed systematically by acids and enzymes found in specific parts of the gastrointestinal tract. 

How to Prevent Colic

When researching how to prevent colic, a good angle to take would be to examine the possible causes of colic and, using this information, make efforts to reduce the risks for your horse. Gastrointestinal disturbances are among the most common causes of colic in horses and, more specifically, issues relating to the colon.

Here are a few things you can do to keep your horse’s digestive system healthy. The digestive system begins at the mouth and includes chewing and saliva production and ends when the food is passed as waste on the other end.

Feed Sufficient Roughage

Horses need to eat roughage almost constantly for their digestive system to work correctly. Adult horses consume up to 2% of their body weight in feed daily, most of which should be roughage (either hay or pasture grass).

  • Chewing stimulates saliva production necessary for lubricating food to swallow and neutralize stomach acids (thereby preventing gastric ulcers, a common cause of colic). Horses can produce between 20-80 liters of saliva per day. 
  • The stomach is relatively small, filling about 3 gallons, and some feed types can pass through in as little as 15 minutes. If the stomach or any portion of the digestive tract remains empty for a length of time, it cannot function correctly, leading to a risk of colic.

Supply Sufficient Clean Water

Water is an essential part of all functions of the body, including digestion. 

  • Too little water can lead to impaction colic, which is a blockage in the intestines. 
  • When drinking from natural water sources, there may be pollutants or parasites in the water, so be sure to have these sources tested regularly.
  • In freezing climates, it may be necessary to supply the horse with heated water, as many horses will not drink as much cold water as they will warm water.
  • One myth you may have heard is, to not give a hot horse cold water or any water at all, right after exercise to prevent colic. However this has been shown to not be true and the horses are more likely developing colic from being overworked and not properly cooled down.
  • Make sure you offer water to your hot thirsty horse in moderation and cool down properly with walking and hosing if needed. Horse’s have small stomachs that can fill around 3 gallons. A typically water bucket is 5 gallons and the horse’s stomachs may have food filling up part of the space. So let the horse drink up to about half a gallon at a time with about 15-20 minutes in between to let the water pass through the stomach.

Changing Feed Gradually

As previously mentioned, enzymes play an essential part in the horse’s digestion.  The enzymes in the digestive tract adapt to the horse’s diet. 

  • Any sudden changes in or additions to feed can throw the digestive system out of balance, causing certain enzymes to either overreact or die, leading to all sorts of problems, including gas colic (caused by an overproduction of gas) or spasmodic colic (an overreaction or spasms in the intestines).

For every one-pound increase in whole grain or corn fed, the colic risk increases 70 percent. 

(extension.umn.edu)
  • Feeding a horse a large amount of any food they aren’t used to, including treats such as carrots or apples rich in sugar and carbohydrates, can cause an imbalance in the enzymes.

Avoid Old or Poor-Quality Feed

Poor quality, old or spoiled feed, and poisonous plants (sometimes found in poorly produced hay rolls), are a serious hazard for the horse. 

  • Another note of importance is grass clippings. Do not feed lawn and grass clippings or frozen grass for that matter to horses as these will ferment and cause gas to form.
  • Once something has been ingested (swallowed) by the horse, there is no going back.
  • Horses cannot vomit, which means if they have eaten something harmful, it will need to pass through their entire digestive system and can cause all sorts of havoc on the way.   

Don’t Feed Too Soon Before or After Work

It would be best if you allowed a window of around one to one and a half hours on either side of a strenuous workout for feeding grain.

When a horse is working, blood diverts away from the gastrointestinal system and into the muscles, slowing down the digestive process, leading to the risk of impaction colic. 

Monitor Stress Levels

Like in people, stress causes all sorts of physical manifestations in the horse’s body, including stomach ulcers which are extremely painful and, if left untreated, can lead to colic.

Make sure you know your horse’s normal vital signs while at rest and during exercise because these can be signs that your horse is stressed. Elevated heart rate and respiratory rate while your horse is at rest can be a response to pain.

Control Sand Consumption

If horses ingest too much sand while they eat, it can collect in the intestines over time, causing a severe blockage, known as sand colic.

Avoid feeding your horse off a sandy patch of land, and be cautious when allowing them to drink from natural water sources.

Dental Issues 

If a horse’s teeth are in bad shape and are causing pain in its mouth while chewing, the horse will try to avoid the pain either by eating less or by swallow chunks of partially chewed food (which is not only an impaction risk but also a choking hazard). 

Internal Parasites

An infestation of internal parasites such as roundworms or tapeworms in a horse’s stomach can cause impaction colic by way of obstructing the intestines. Horses need to be dewormed regularly to keep these parasites under control. 

  • However deworming a horse with a severe infestation can lead to colic. Always consult your vet before administering any medications, dewormers included.
  • You should also known there are equine fecal tests (Amazon) that can be done to determine the worms your horse has in order to help you decide which dewormer your horse needs and if your horse needs to be dewormed at the time.  
  • There are other environmental measures you can take, such as pasture control and correct manure management. Speaking to an experienced person, or even a google search, will provide you with invaluable information.

Signs Of Colic

When a horse is suffering from colic, the typical signs will be the same no matter the form of colic. The signs a horse will show during colic will vary depending on the severity of the pain. Horses will show more severe signs with more severe pain. Listed below are a few of the most common visual colic symptoms, as shown by a horse.

  • Loss of appetite, dullness, fatigue, or extreme agitation such as pawing at the ground
  • Sweating and an increased respiratory rate and heart rate
  • Looking at, biting at, or kicking the flank
  • Belly may seem bloated
  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up, rolling
  • Standing in a stretched-out stance with the hind legs far out behind
  • No passing of droppings or flatulence 

How to Treat a Horse with Colic

When you suspect colic, call the vet immediately, even if the symptoms appear to be mild. You can do a few things to help your horse while you wait for the vet, depending on your horse’s state and, of course, the vet’s advice.

What you can do:

  • If your horse is standing relatively quietly, allow them to have some peace. Remove all food items from reach, and keep a close eye on them.
  • If the horse is rolling and agitated, taking them for a quiet walk will help prevent them from injuring themselves, getting cast in the stall and causing further internal damage. 

What the vet may do:

  • Give horse pain medication such as Banamine or sedation.
  • If horse is not getting better then the vet may administer fluids by stomach tube or intravenously.
  • The vet may add medication to the fluids to help with gut motility.
  • Antibiotics may be given if the horse has a fever and a blood test reveals that there is an infection.
  • Decisions for surgery may have to be made quickly if severe enough. Early intervention means that intestines will less likely be compromised.
  • Also keep in mind, studies suggest that senior horses have just as much chance of recovery after colic surgery than a younger adult horse. Many people don’t know this and end up putting their senior horse to sleep because they think their horse will have a low survival rate.

Do Home Remedies Help Colic in Horses?

Recent studies have shown that the use of some home (non-veterinary or non-medicinal) remedies can have a positive effect on horses suffering from colic.

However, it is ill-advised to use home remedies in an attempt to cure a colic case without first consulting a vet. Only a vet can properly diagnose the type of colic your horse is suffering from and prescribe the proper treatment. 

Beer appears to have an anesthetizing effect in the bowels of horses suffering from spasmodic colic (when the bowels of the horse contract abnormally, causing painful spasms).

Beer has no positive impact on other types of colic and therefore would only be effective in a case where the horse is suffering from spasmodic colic, which needs to be diagnosed by a vet.

Another home remedy until the vet arrives is mineral oil orally by syringe, not by nasogastric tube which can cause aspiration. No recommendations for how much mineral oil to feed a horse has been published.

 Mineral oil is indigestible to horses and just passes through the horses digestive system. It may help flush things through and help horse to pass manure.

My Horse Went To An Equine Hospital For Colic

Having a horse with colic can be really scary. My horse Cajun was in the middle of a lesson when he went down with the rider on his back to roll. The rider was okay and stepped safely to the side. Cajun thrashed around with the saddle on. The onset of colic was very fast and it was obvious he was in pain.

It was thought that he developed colic possibly from eating too much grass when he wasn’t used to eating a lot and was gradually increasing time in the field. But the vet was not sold on that idea. Regardless of what actually caused the colic he was now in severe pain.

The vet tried fluids and Banamine but he was still in pain after hours. I had to come to the decision to either bring him to the hospital for possible surgery or put him to sleep. I cried a lot it was very traumatizing seeing him so helpless.

I made the decision to have him go to the hospital even though I knew it would be way over what I could afford and it wasn’t sure whether he would even survive. But he was only 8 years old and I couldn’t bear the thought of him being put to sleep. The hope of him surviving and making it through this helped me to make the choice.

Staying at the hospital until 3 am. I got the news he was doing good and made it through. He didn’t need surgery and he was going to be okay. I was so happy and relieved. But I was reminded of what happened for quite sometime from the bill I had to continue to pay until it was paid off.

Conclusion

The more educated you are about your horse’s overall care, the better equipped you will be to prevent illnesses or adequately handle the situation if the horse does become ill.

Empowering yourself with knowledge will only benefit you and your horse. Consult your vet if you are unsure about a health issue you are facing with your horse.

And lastly have some money (at least a few thousand) put away because it is not if your horse will colic, get injured or sick, it is when. This is a sobering truth.

I pray health and wellness to you and your horse.

Cheers,

Kacey

Kacey

My name is Kacey. I've been an equestrian most of my life, a professional for about 10 years, and more recently a stay at home mom. Learn more about me here: www.sparklesrainbowsandunicorns.com/about-kacey-cleary/

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