The Horse Owner's Guide to Colic


Colic. It's a word that strikes fear into the heart of every horse owner. If you've been around these animals long enough, you'll either run into an issue of colic with your own horse, or know a fellow barn-mate who has.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) estimates more than 900,000 horses in the United States will experience an episode of colic this year. Despite this large incidence, there is a lot you can do to help minimize your horse's risk. Learning more about this condition and recognizing the signs early can help save the life of your horse.

Colic isn't a disease. Rather, it's a combination of symptoms that can help us determine when a horse has abdominal distress or pain. Just like a stomach ache in humans, colic can range from a mild case of upset stomach, to a severe impaction in the gut that requires medical intervention—possibly surgery. There are two main types of colic: Idiopathic, when the cause is unknown, or Non-Idiopathic, when the cause of colic is known. More than 80% of colic cases are idiopathic: a mild case where your vet doesn't make a specific diagnosis. However, if left untreated, these mild cases can often turn more serious—early detection and intervention is one of the most important factors for the well-being of your horse.

So how do we detect colic in our horses—and how do we know when it's serious enough to call the veterinarian? According to the AAEP, here is a list of common symptoms horses show when experiencing abdominal pain:

  • Turning the head toward the flank
  • Pawing
  • Kicking or biting at the belly
  • Stretching out as if to urinate, without doing so
  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up, or attempting to do so
  • Repeated rolling, often with grunting sounds
  • Sitting in a dog-like position, or lying on the back
  • Holding the head in an unusual position (e.g. with the neck stretched out and the head rotated to one side)
  • Leaving food or being completely disinterested in food
  • Putting the head down to water without drinking
  • Lack of bowel movements or fewer bowel movements than normal
  • Reduced or absent digestive sounds
  • Inappropriate sweating (e.g. unrelated to hot weather or exercise)
  • Rapid breathing and/or flared nostrils
  • Elevated pulse rate (i.e., greater than 50 beats per minute)
  • Depression

If your horse shows any or a combination of these signs, it's a good idea to call your veterinarian to come out and take a look at your horse. While many colic events are resolved without major medical intervention, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

The main ways of preventing colic in your horse is through care and management. A daily routine of a high quality diet + exercise is the best way to keep your horse happy and healthy. Dividing feedings into two smaller portions instead of one large one is easier on your horse's digestive tract. A regular deworming program is also important to maintaining abdominal health. If you live in an area where the soil is extremely sandy, avoid putting feed on the ground, as this can lead to an upset stomach. In addition, a variety of environmental changes such as a new environment, change in feed, transportation, or other stressful events can increase the risk for colic. It's important to pay special attention to your horse if you're creating a changing in their surroundings, especially for the competition horse.

Colic isn't selective: it can strike at any time, anywhere, regardless of breed, age, size, or location. The earlier you can recognize the signs of colic in your horse, the better chance they have at returning to full health. Learn more about how NIGHTWATCH® can help detect the early signs of distress in your horse on our FAQ page.