Potentially one of the horse owner’s biggest fear is colic. It is one of our most common emergencies day or night, as equine veterinarians. First of all, colic is a generic name for abdominal pain. Equine colic can be caused by a multitude of factors. These factors include everything from diet to internal parasites to weather change. This article will describe my experience with common causes, types, and treatments as well as outcomes of a colic episode.


What causes abdominal pain in the horse? Abdominal pain is caused by stretching of the intestinal wall with gas or impaction of food material. A decrease in blood flow to an area of the intestine will also cause abdominal pain. This may occur from parasite damage or from an actual twist or torsion of the gut. The majority of colics in our practice are probably simple gas colics caused by diet change, green grass, or other factors. This type of colic responds very well to medications and mineral oil placed in the horse’s stomach.


Impaction colics are also very common. Impaction is a condition where food material (ingesta) becomes packed in the intestine and does not move in a normal manner. A number of factors may cause this. For example, in the summer increased temperature causes sweating. Mild dehydration of the horse results, which in turn leads to a decreased amount of fluid in the intestinal tract. In winter, decreased exercise leads to decreased consumption of cold water resulting in decreased amount of fluid in the intestinal tract. Treatment of impaction colic usually consists of medications. These medications include placing mineral oil in the stomach via a tube, and occasionally intravenous fluid therapy. Colic may also be caused by twisting of the intestine, displacement of a segment of the intestine, and a multitude of other factors. This type of colic needs to be diagnosed as quickly as possible to determine if it is a medical or surgical condition.


In the process of evaluating a colic episode, occasionally it is possible to know immediately if the horse requires a surgery to address the condition. More often than not we must re-evaluate the horse’s condition either through follow up physical exams, rectal exams, or other testing to determine if the horse requires surgery. One of the most telling observations in a colicky horse is the inability to control pain with medication alone. This observation is usually good evidence that the condition will require surgery to correct. It is important that a decision be made early in the course of the colic if it is a surgical case. The outcome of the disease may hinge on a timely referral to a surgical facility and prompt treatment.


There are several simple things that a horse owner can do to prevent most colics. Top of the list is plenty of exercise, which means minimal time in a stall. This encourages water intake and gut motility (movement). An effective parasite control program starting at birth is very important. During the winter months a water supply that is readily available and moderate in temperature is helpful. An occasional once or twice weekly bran mash will help prevent winter impactions. Avoiding abrupt changes in diet is also encouraged to prevent colic episodes. Colics just happen sometimes even with the most astute horse owner. Early detection and treatment is the best bet. Being aware of your horse’s behavior is often very helpful in knowing if there is problem.

Todd Welsh, DVM