Veterinary student examining a brown, stabled horse with a stethoscope.

Colic is a general term referring to abdominal pain, which could have a variety of causes. It is a common problem that can affect horses of all ages.

Most cases turn out to be gastrointestinal in origin but it can originate in other organs, such as the kidneys, liver or spleen. Pain can also be from the reproductive organs or be the result of problems like bleeding into the abdomen, rupture of urinary bladder or infection.

Most incidences of colic pass quickly, with little intervention, while others become life-threatening and require hospitalisation and surgery. This emphasises the importance of speaking to your equine vet as soon as possible to ensure the best action is taken for your horse.

Signs and symptoms of colic

There are numerous ways in which horses respond to the discomfort of colic and, therefore, potential symptoms. These include:

  • Restlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pawing at the ground or rolling on the ground
  • Looking at or kicking the abdomen
  • Lying flat out or stretching
  • Grinding the teeth
  • Sweating
  • Posturing to urinate
  • Elevated heart rate (in some cases)


 Assessment is likely to involve rectal examination, ultrasound scan and blood work, as well as palpation of areas of concern. Vets may pass a tube into the stomach or take a sample of fluid from the abdomen to help make in effective diagnosis. This will enable them to quickly decide if your horse needs surgical intervention or is likely to recover without surgery.


Depending on the cause of the pain and how persistent it is, the horse may be treated medically or surgically. In many cases treatment will just involve  giving fluids and pain relief.

Cases of spasmodic colic, which may be caused by gas accumulation, feeding issues, parasitical worms, stress or dehydration, resolve with minimal medical intervention. Medical treatment is also the preferred option for an impacted large intestine (constipation).

In cases of displacement, where part of intestine has shifted out of its normal position but blood is still flowing to the intestine, either medical or surgical treatment might be appropriate. Strangulating lesions, where part of the intestine is displaced or twisted so blood flow to the intestine is compromised, would be a surgical emergency.


Colic can be the result of changes to feeding regime, therefore the maintenance of a consistent regime can help prevent it.

A diet that includes adequate fibre-rich foods, such as hay and grass helps prevent colic.

An appropriate worming programme is an essential part of your horse’s management as these internal parasites can cause a wide range of problems, including colic.

Key points

  • Colic is a general term for abdominal pain, which could be caused from anything from stress or diet to the intestine becoming twisted
  • Most cases of colic are not life-threatening but it is important they are assessed quickly by a vet to establish the best course of action
  • Equine vets will be looking for distinctive characteristics to help them decide if the horse requires surgical intervention or is likely to respond to medical treatment
  • Owners can help prevent many cases of colic by paying attention to food regimes and parasite control (worming)

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