What Is Colic?

Colic is a true emergency, and getting a veterinarian on the scene as quickly as possible can be the key to saving the horse.

How to recognize the symptoms and what to do about them.

What is colic?
What should you do if your horse is showing signs of colic? Journal photo.

By Dr. Thomas R. Lenz in The American Quarter Horse Journal

Colic remains a major cause of sickness and death in horses.

Approximately 10 percent of all horses suffer at least one bout of colic during their lifetimes. And a little more than 6 percent of those die, nearly twice as many horses as are affected by other diseases or injuries. Here, we’ll focus on what to do while you’re waiting for the veterinarian to arrive.

What Is Colic?

The word “colic” simply refers to abdominal pain. It covers a multitude of abdominal and intestinal problems, ranging from simple excess gas in the intestines to severe torsion or twisting of the intestines. It can also include stomach ulcers, uterine pain in pregnant or post-foaling mares and pain associated with disease in organs of the abdomen.

It is critical for horse owners to recognize the early signs of colic, because the sooner the horse is seen and treated, the greater his chances of recovery. All colics begin with mild pain and subtle symptoms. If the horse is lucky, it will be a mild colic and resolve on its own or with moderate treatment from a veterinarian.

However, the first clinical signs might be an early stage of a life-threatening colic that will eventually require extensive treatment or surgery. Unfortunately, no one can tell at the beginning.


Signs of colic in the horse vary, but include not eating, yawning, restlessness, groaning, repeatedly curling the upper lip, looking at the flank, continuous or intermittent pawing, circling, backing into a corner or post, standing in a stretched position, lying down repeatedly, rolling and sweating excessively.

Remember that these signs are not specific for any particular type of colic and no colicky horse is likely to show all of them. Know how your horse acts normally to recognize anything unusual.

What Do You Do?

Remember that all colics are emergencies and a veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible. Once you’ve determined that your horse is colicking, call a veterinarian immediately. Provide the veterinarian with as much information over the phone as possible. This should include the clinical signs (pawing, sweating, rolling, etc.), the horse’s rectal temperature (normal between 98 to 101.2 degrees Fahrenheit), the horse’s heart rate (normal is 30 to 40 beats per minute), and the horse’s gum color (normally pink, but might be blue if the horse is in shock or dark red if the horse is toxic).

Get a three-year AQHA membership, Horseback Riding Program enrollment and a one-year subscription to The Trail Rider magazine for $119.95. Plus, get a saddle bag on us.

Now that you’ve made the call, and the veterinarian is on his way, what should you do while waiting?

Here are a few simple guidelines. First of all, do not allow the horse to eat. In severe colic, the horse will not want to eat, but in a mild colic or during periods of low pain, the horse might attempt to eat. Although interest in feed is a good sign, it could make the colic more severe or interfere with oral treatments. If nibbling a little green grass seems to help, that is OK, but do not allow access to hay or grain. If possible, move the horse to a grassy area with good footing and few obstacles. This will make it easier to handle the horse if he wants to lie down.

To Walk or Not to Walk?

The big question is whether or not to walk the horse. It is commonly believed that if a colicky horse rolls, he will twist an intestine. That can be true in horses with severe colic where intestines are filled with fluid and devitalized. However, in the vast majority of horses, rolling is not going to twist the intestine. Most twists and displacements occur while the horse is standing, and rolling is an attempt to get comfortable. The real problem with horses rolling, especially uncomfortably, is that they are very likely to injure themselves or their handlers, and they expend huge amounts of energy.

Here are my guidelines for when and when not to walk a colicky horse.

Remember that a horse lies down and attempts to roll to relieve pain and find a more comfortable position. If the horse lies down and stays down quietly, even in an unusual position, leave him alone. If he wants to get up and change positions periodically and then lie down again, leave him alone. If he constantly gets up and down and tries to roll frequently, walk him around.

If you have been trying to decide whether to become an AQHA member, join now before this great deal ends! If you are currently a member, but would like to take advantage of this great offer, go ahead! We’ll tack your three-year membership on to the end of your current membership.

Long-term walking can actually tire a horse, so do it only when absolutely necessary to take the horse’s mind off his pain. There is some debate as to whether or not walking stimulates intestinal motility. Occasionally, a horse suffering from gas colic will benefit from trotting or a trail ride, which seem to move the gas along. But there is no evidence that walking either stimulates intestinal movement or corrects a twist. Unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian on the phone, do not medicate the horse before the veterinarian arrives. Many common sedatives and painkillers decrease intestinal movement and might actually make the colic worse. Others affect heart rate or lower blood pressure and can put the horse at risk of shock.

Note any unusual character, color or composition of the horse’s manure and the frequency of defecation or urination. Also, note if the abdominal girth has changed during the colic episode, especially if it is enlarged. Note the frequency and intensity of the painful episodes and whether they are continuous or increasing in severity. All of this information will help the veterinarian determine the cause of the colic.

Colic is a true emergency, and getting a veterinarian on the scene as quickly as possible is the key to saving the horse.

11 thoughts on “What Is Colic?”

  1. A great first defense to colic is a product called Equine Colic Relief. You can administer this product to your horse when you first find a colic situation. It is all natural ingredients, so it will not interfere with anything your vet would administer. If you are WAITING for your vet to arrive, maybe more than an hour,this product might have stopped the colic before the vet arrives. 13 year shelf life. I personally have used this product three different times with great sucess. you can order at http://www.equinecolicreliefusa.com

  2. My horse colicked several times this summer and my vet recommended Chaffhaye (instead of soaking hay). It’s been a lifesaver and my horse loves it.

  3. I lost my beloved mare to colic last December. We tried to keep walking her until our vet arrived, but all she wanted to do was gallop, I guess to try to aleviate the pain. Losing her to colic was for me, the most devestating thing I have ever experienced.

  4. It would be helpful to know more about possible causes of colic and what actions might help prevent it. Once after a summer trail ride when I neglected to water my horse and put on a cooler for the ride home, he showed mild symptoms of colic. What other potential triggers for colic should a horse owner be aware of?

  5. I lost my fabulous show horse oct 11,’11 — I am devistated I called the vet out he said it was a simple gas colic — 6 hours later after an emergency trip to the emergent vet hospital my horse had perforated and was put down — moral of story no colic is simple– PS this was a horse who never coliced in past always drank water and had no change in diet

  6. Different feed can make a horse colic. If a horse is malnourished you slowly build up its nutrients with feeds that don’t contain a lot. When changing feeds do it very gradually mixing a little bit of the new feed into old than gradually raise the amount of new feed and lessen the amount of old feed. I had a horse colic and was rolling. It’s dangerous to get a horse up while they’re rolling. I sprayed my horse off with a water hose to try to bring his body temperature down to normal and this seemed to help a lot and he stopped rolling and let me put a halter on him and get him up. After you get them up walk them until they have a bowel movement. Stop and if they try to lay down again start walking them again at a slow pace. Also, keep spraying the horse down every so often to keep its body temperature close to normal. Once the horse seems to get it’s strength back and starts to graze that is a good sign the colic is gone. Always check on the horse afterward in case it begins to colic again. If you do not know the cause of your horse colic than consult a veterinarian.

  7. I went to a completehorsesense.com clinic last summer, on this very subject a attendee’s horse colic. Doug Serjeant showed us by simply stimulating the pituitary gland and cauda equina nerve colic ceases in minutes depending on the horse of course,(this horse was sweating profusly to the point of foaming). This was done without calling a vet and no use of anything. He said the biggest problems in colic today was that our horses become dehydrated because of our feeds and suppliments. Also because of our work we do with our horses they are not recieving enough of the right type of salt.Doug said and backed it up with medical history that the body is 75% water and salt and the rest is solids. Everyone should visit is website,www.completehorsesense.com His clinic covered training and farrier work too. I can’t believe how easy training has become for kenny and i. The best 150 bucks kenny and i spent

  8. I have been in horses for 21 years (owned, shown, breed), have owned 42 horses at one time. Have worked as a vet tech. Have seen a lot. One thing I truely believe in to prevent colic is…..
    EquiPride. Have tried very thing in the book! Words can not begin to tell you how great this product really is!
    check out: equilix.com

  9. We just experienced my first colic in my mare, made me cry to see her go through this. This is the first time I have experienced this myself. I would do anything to help her. We heard her fall over and then get up run like she was in horrible pain and fall again.
    This is our story: We tried placing a halter on her as best as we could. We then brought her, the best we could, to the water hoes and tried getting her to drink water. I rushed in to call a vet. She then, went into an episode of alling down and rolling and moaning, that we experience the rest of the evening into the early morning. This one episode she did hurt her self. But we got her up and moving and gave her some Olive Oil, (quite abit.) We finally got ahold of the, on call vet and he meant one of us too pick up pain meds to give her. In this processes as her and I waited for meds to arrive, 30 – 45 mins I walked her and walked her. Several episodes of her falling over. Pain meds finally got here and we gave her it. We had to also clean her with the water hoes on her wounds. We walked her and walked her more, none stop for her. We gave her more olive oil, and more olive oil. We gave her water and walked her. We did this the rest of the time for a total of 5 hours, tell she pooped. She did and peed. I was so, so excited to see this sign.
    I walked with her because she would follow me and get up for me and listen to me. I was exgusted, as she was too, but I would stay tell the end if I had to. I love her so! I prayed and prayed as we walked and God above has help my girl.
    Woke up today to have learned she is doing good. And she showed us another normal amount of pooping! Gave her a cleaning job, she was so muddy and dirty from rolling and more pain meds, and had to medicate her wounds. Walked her abit more to help with her wound, let her eat a very small amount and green gas and drink. We are gonna have to give her some meds for wanting to drink water, want her to get more water down her. She has her personality back and I pray she continues to survive! We feel 90% sure she will be okay now.
    This is what we did, and my story. Maybe this could help you someday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *