How To Identify, Treat and Prevent Colic In Your Horse

5 min read

Colic is a common illness in horses that can be mild through to severe, and even life-threatening. So, it’s critical to understand its causes, identify the condition, and what action to take if you suspect your horse has colic. 


What is Colic and why does it occur?

Colic refers to gastrointestinal pain in horses. This pain can be caused by inflammation, excessive gas, obstruction or ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract. If identified quickly and treated early, the odds of a full recovery are excellent, but if left untreated it can pose a significant risk.

Domesticated horses live a life of routine and habit, and even small changes to this routine can lead to stress, which can be a trigger for colic. Travelling, competition, housing environments, changes to feed, and separation from stablemate or introduction of a new horse can all cause stress in horses. Read more about stress in horses here.

Additionally, a horse’s diet and the quality of their pasture can also trigger colic. This is especially the case if there is a sudden change in diet or there’s a chance they could consume sand or dirt while grazing or feeding.


Monitoring your horse for Colic

Knowing what is normal for your horse will help you spot when something changes.

Noticing changes in manure output is one of the earliest signs of gastrointestinal disruption or stress in your horse. Generally, you should expect one pile of manure every 4-6 hours in a healthy horse. Also pay attention to the consistency, colour and distribution of manure. Changes in water intake and urine output can also be early indicators of gastrointestinal disruption and dehydration.

If you’ve noticed a change in your horse’s manure, or they are acting differently from normal, then the first thing is to check your horse’s vital signs. Pay particular attention to profuse sweating, high heart rate (above 50 beats per minute), lack of borborygmi, high temperature (above 38.5 degrees celsius) or diarrhea.

Normal vital sign ranges in a horse:

  • Heart rate: 38 - 44 beats per minute.
  • Respiration rate: 12 - 20 breaths per minute.
  • Temperature: 37 - 38.5 degrees celsius.
  • Capillary refill time: 1 - 2 seconds, gums light pink and moist.
  • Borborygmi (gut sounds, rumbling or gurgling) should be heard in all four quadrants (left upper, left lower, right upper, right lower).

If you’re not sure how to check your horse’s vitals ask your vet to show you how to perform a basic physical exam. Ensure you have a first aid kit that includes a quality stethoscope, penlight and thermometer. Read our blog about the key items to keep in your first aid kit here. It’s also worth learning how to administer an intravenous injection correctly if instructed by your vet. These skills can save critical time if your horse becomes unwell with Colic.

Even if your horse isn’t displaying any signs of external distress, if you’ve noticed a change in their manure or their vitals call your vet immediately for advice.


How to treat Colic

In the early stages of colic, encourage your horse to drink, or eat a small meal soaked with plenty of water, such as a soupy bran mash. Your horse’s gastrointestinal tract is most vulnerable when the horse enters ileus (lack of movement in the gastrointestinal tract), so eating a small moist meal can often start things moving again and prevent the condition from progressing. 

Continuously walking a colicky horse is a bit of an old-wives tale. This can make the problem worse through exhaustion and dehydration. However, a small amount of movement such as a short walk can help get the gastrointestinal tract moving and can prevent horses from trying to roll. Follow your vet’s directions to either walk the horse or keep it confined until they arrive.

While waiting for the vet, continue to monitor and record your horse’s vital signs every 15-30 minutes, as changes can happen quite rapidly. Follow your vet’s instructions which may include applying a basic anti-inflammatory pain reliever or a mild sedative.


How to prevent Colic

As with most things, prevention of colic is better than cure. To avoid your horse colicing, we recommend:

  1. Maintaining a consistent feeding regime and introducing any changes gradually so that their system has time to adjust.
  2. Feed small meals regularly, as larger meals are harder to digest.
  3. Avoid feeding grain and ensure your horse has plenty of fibre and forage.
  4. Avoid putting feed on sand and take steps to reduce the likelihood of your horse eating sand.
  5. Give your horse access to plenty of fresh, clean water.
  6. Provide consistent exercise.

In periods of expected or acute stress, Poseidon Equine’s Stress Paste can be extremely effective at maintaining hydration and appetite in horses. Digestive EQ is another great product to mitigate Colic as it assists in the maintenance of a healthy GI Tract which is much more resilient to dietary changes and unexpected stresses.


At Horseland we’re here to help care for your horse’s wellbeing. We offer all the essentials to help mitigate common Colic factors, including Poseidon’s Digestive EQ and Stress Paste. Head into your local Horseland store or browse our range of horse health products online.

By Poseidon Animal Health in partnership with Horseland.

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