Colic: Improving your horse’s chances

Call your veterinarian at the first signs of abdominal pain— but as you wait, take steps to keep your horse comfortable and prevent his condition from getting worse.

Colic—a catchall term for any abdominal pain—is not a possibility to take lightly. At best, the source of the discomfort might be a slight accumulation of gas or a mild impaction that passes on its own. More severe blockages might be caused by ingested sand, enteroliths (stone-like mineral concretions that form in the horse’s gut) or other obstructions. These are more likely to require surgery. 

Bay horse getting up from lying down position in stall
Elen11 for GettyImages

The most serious colics tend to involve entrapments and strangulations that “pinch off” sections of intestine. This, in turn, cuts off blood flow and causes the local tissue to die. In cases like these, prompt surgery is the only way to save the horse’s life. 

Fortunately, advances in diagnostics and treatments are making it easier for veterinarians to identify the causes of colic and help more horses recover completely.

But early intervention is crucial. If emergency surgery is required, a horse’s odds for survival are much higher when the procedure is done sooner. Here’s how you can improve your horse’s chances.

Call your veterinarian if you see signs of colic

Specific signs of abdominal pain may vary from horse to horse. Some are more stoic and will appear withdrawn and sullen. Others may become agitated or frantic. Either way, a drastic change in demeanor may signal trouble. 

Other signs of colic in a horse may include sweating, pawing, lying down and rolling, pinned ears and swinging his head to look at his sides. A horse covered in shavings may have been down and rolling. In severe cases, he may have scrapes and swelling on his head and legs. Refusal to eat and a lack of manure are also signs of colic, but you may not be out of the woods if your horse passes gas or manure. 

If you can do so safely, take your horse’s vital signs before calling the veterinarian. A heart rate of more than 60 beats per minute, for example, may indicate serious pain, which would be an important clue to relay over the phone. Taking your horse’s temperature may reveal a fever, which could indicate an illness or infection. Also look at your horse’s gums: Paleness may be a sign of shock, while dark, brick-red gums may indicate dehydration or a toxic condition. 

As you wait for the veterinarian

Remove all food and water from the stall. Most colicking horses won’t eat or drink anyway, but any intake might worsen an impaction or blockage. 

Decide whether to walk him. It’s a myth that all horses with colic need to be walked. If the horse is lying or standing quietly, just let him be. 

If the horse is restless and repeatedly getting up, lying down and attempting to roll, then walking may help to distract and settle him. However, if the horse is so violently agitated that he’s thrashing dangerously, do not risk injury to yourself. Leave him alone until help arrives. If you aren’t walking him, be sure to keep a close eye on on him. 

Monitor your horse’s vital signs. Take note of any changes, along with the times that you record them. These may offer valuable clues to your veterinarian. 

Collect and save any manure the horse passes. Your veterinarian may want to examine it and perhaps take samples for testing. 

Prepare for a trip to the hospital. When she arrives to examine your horse, your veterinarian’s first priority will be to decide whether he needs to be referred for potential surgery. If he does, timing will be critical; a horse’s chances of survival will be much higher if the procedure is not delayed. As you’re waiting for the veterinarian, hook up your trailer—or if you don’t have one, start making calls to friends who may have one you can borrow. 

Also gather your cell phone and charger, Coggins papers, insurance information and any other records, such as recent dewormings or veterinary procedures, that may be relevant to your horse’s case.

What NOT to do

Do not administer any medications, unless your veterinarian specifically asks you to do so before he arrives. The drugs may mask the pain and fever, making diagnosis more difficult. 


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