It’s Colic Season: What can you Do?

Equine digestive system
Equine Digestive Tract (ADM Alliance Nutrition)

I jinxed myself last week. A friend and I were discussing a horse that has suffered from a series of gas colics. In a rash moment I said that in the 20 years that I’ve had horses, only twice had one of them shown colic symptoms. Two days later when I went to feed my horses, my Trakehner gelding was obviously in distress. He refused his breakfast (not like him), was stretching his neck in strange ways, and kept raising his upper lip. It was colic.

My horse and I were lucky. I had Banamine in the barn and his symptoms subsided within 10 minutes after he took it. I checked on him every hour or so during the day and he was fine. By late afternoon he was able to eat a gruel of hay stretcher, water and plenty of salt (to make sure he continued to drink). My vet was on alert for the night, but luckily did not need to make a trip out. However, with colic, there’s often no way to tell whether a “mild” case will turn more serious down the road.

So, what is colic?

Colic isn’t a specific disease, but rather a term to describe abdominal pain that can be caused by several sources. Colic can present itself as a mild discomfort, or it can be extremely serious: Major intestinal disruptions, including blockages, twists and ruptures, are usually fatal unless surgery to remove or repair the diseased area of gut succeeds.

Colic symptoms afflict between 4 – 11% of horses annually. Of those afflicted, surgery is performed on about 1% and mortality rates are approximately 11%. Owners in the US spend a whopping $115,000,000 on colic treatments every year. (Sources: and Wikipedia.)

These are both factors that increase the incidence of colic. The chart below was published on, An Overview of Colic. The data is derived from Dietary and Other Management Factors Associated with Equine Colic given by Noah Cohen, VMD, PhD; Pete Gibbs, PhD; and April Woods, BS to the 1999 AAEP meeting. Note: Horse Advice is a subscription site that is well worth the annual fee. It has a wealth of information!

Factors Effecting Incidence of Colic
Risk Factors Increase Risk
Recent diet change 500%
Recent change of hay 980%
History of previous colic 390%
History of previous abdominal surgery for colic 460%
Weather change during 3-day period before examination 320%
Recent change in stabling 230%
Regular deworming program (or not on regular deworming) 40%
Not on a regular deworming program 220%
Anthelmintic received during 7-day period before examination 210%
Arabian breed 210%
Exercised at least once per week (versus pastured only) 160%
Age less than 10 years old 150%

Other factors, not mentioned above, include overeating concentrate (say, a horse gets into your grain room), eating moldy hay or grain, dehydration, parasite overload, ingestion of sand (from eating off of the ground), or ingestion of non-food items that could perforate the intestine.

Weather is often mentioned as a potential trigger for colic, but most studies find that it isn’t the weather per se, but rather the change in management that occurs because of weather changes, or the change in drinking habits which might cause dehydration. Certain seasonal changes, such as the availability of new grass in the spring, or sudden drops in temperature in the fall, certainly contribute to a pattern of weather-related colics.

Thinking about my situation, I identified two things could have caused my horse to colic: first, I’d started integrating some a new hay into their diet (although I hadn’t mixed in that much); and second, it had been unusually cold the night before, which might have caused him to drink less and become dehydrated.

Reading the research, I was surprised that changing hay can have such a profound impact. I’ve always been careful about introducing feed changes slowly, but erroneously thought that the greatest danger lay in concentrate.

How do you know if your horse is colicing?

The indicators of colic are varied and can be subtle. My horse did not show all the “classic” signs: he didn’t paw the ground, try to roll, lie down or look at his flanks. The most obvious sign was curling his lip, which at the time I didn’t associate with colic. I also saw him pass manure without problem.

Still, it was apparent that something was wrong. The first thing I did was take his temperature. When I found he didn’t have a fever, and that he wouldn’t eat, I assumed colic and called my vet. She suggested that I give him some Banamine. His almost instant relief confirmed that he had been in the early stages of colic. As for the rest of his day? No breakfast, no more new hay, hourly check ups and, if all went well, a small amount of hay stretcher mixed with water and salt to encourage him to drink.

Signs of Colic
Rolling 44%
Pawing 43%
Lying down 29%
Getting up and down 21%
Flank watching 14%
Lip curling 13%
Backing into corner 10%
Kicking at belly 7%

What Should You Do?

If you think your horse is showing signs of colic, the first thing to do is call your vet. If your horse is not agitated, you can take your horse’s temperature and check his pulse and respiration. Check his gums to make sure they are a normal color. I know my vet will ask, and it’s a good benchmark on your horse’s health. If you have any questions on how to check your horse’s vital signs, here’s a great article that explain how to do it and what the range of normal readings should be. However, sometimes the pain of a colic episode can make your horse dangerous to be around. If this is the case, stay safe and wait for the professional!

Make a checklist about factors that might have caused an episode of colic, such as changes in diet, weather, how much he’s drunk, etc. Take all food away from your horse, and if he’s able, keep him walking. Often, your vet will recommend giving your horse Banamine, so it’s useful to keep a tube in your first aid box. Tubing with mineral oil can sometimes help a horse that’s got an impaction.

Walking your horse while waiting for the vet can help, but you shouldn’t exhaust him.

There is some debate over whether rolling can cause a horse to twist a gut — current thinking is that it is not possible.

Preventing Colic

Unfortunately, there is no sure way to prevent colic. But you can control some of the variables to help make it less likely.

  • Provide as much turnout as possible.
    Keep your horse hydrated by providing constant access to clean water. Horses who spent as little as one to two hours exercising in a paddock without access to water showed a greatly increased risk of developing colic. At times when you are concerned that your horse might not drink enough, you can add some salt to his feed. I do this on a regular basis.
  • Feed a forage-based diet, that minimizes grains and concentrates. A study conducted by the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine found that horses that consumed less than 5.5 pounds of grain concentrate daily were less likely to develop colic, while those who received most of their caloric intake from grain, rather than fiber, were at higher risk.
  • Provide access to forage as much of the day as possible.
  • Do not feed moldy hay or grain.
  • Feed processed grains such as extruded feeds, rolled/crimped oats, pelleted feeds, etc.
  • If you live in a sandy area, try to keep food off the ground to limit intake of sand.
  • Make all changes in diet slowly, dietary changes likely affect the horse’s intestinal bacteria.
  • Worm your horse regularly.
  • Consider feeding a probiotic to help maintain a healthy gut.

Other Resources:

The Colic Fact Sheet

Horse Colic

Sand Colic Signs and Remedies

Colic? What You can Do While Waiting for the Vet to Arrive

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